So I am probably the last person on earth to hear of this guy, Sergei “Vissarion Christ” Torop, who used to be a Siberian traffic cop until he realized he was the Second Coming. Which leads me to wonder if being a Russian cop isn’t as psychologically dangerous for the cops themselves as it is for those they serve and protect. Especially the traffic cops. In Siberia. For whose inhabitants there appear 3 life options: corrupt civil servant, corrupt savior of mankind, or their victims. You can write the guy off, but he has 10,000 of followers. And they haven’t taken the Kool-Aid way out. Yet.
Here is a video produced for Nightline (an evening news program in the States that no one to my knowledge watches):
I was not made aware of Vissarion by Nightline, but by Daniel Kalder’s book, Strange Telescopes, which has a large section devoted to the cult. Unlike the backpacker in the news item, Kalder is a bad ass and goes to stay there during the winter. Like any proper cult, or political party, they have strict talking points (after watching several YouTube videos produced both by and about the cult, they start to sound like robots), so you won’t gain any new revelations from interviews with the members or its leader. But something I found very neat about Vissarion’s cult is how it is allowed to prosper: First off, he acquired a ton of land on lease in the heady days of the collapse of the Soviet Union, when encouraging religious expression and giving away land to crooks was all the rage. This is where he and his followers have settled among the mountains and taiga. He’s been able to stay legit in the more stringent, un-Orthodox friendly Putin era by … well, what does Mr. Putin like? Following the rules. Seriously, the Vissarions follow the law, pay taxes, conduct legal business, allow regular government audits and inspections, home school the kids using the State-approved textbooks, support the local governor, the whole shebang. In the country from which I hail, most cults spout up out of resistance to the government. We have more freedom of religion than Russia. (Which means little more than annoying people with pamphlets can show up at my door and not go away, or pyramid schemes with Hollywood actor acolytes can get tax breaks.) Yet the Messiah is thriving in Siberia. Oh, also the Messiah is also waging a War on Christmas by abolishing it and changing the holiday to his birthday. How nice to be God. Well, technically he’s not God. And technically he’s the 3rd coming.
Listening to and reading about the lifestyle of his followers and his basic teachings, I can initially totally see myself running away to join. At least for a year. They’re all environmentalists who develop useful skills and think positive thoughts. That sounds nice. No money. That sounds lovely. Arts and crafts and the whispering of the wildflowers in the Siberian spring… oohhhh. Then there is the stuff about following him, the global, nay, intergalactic Jewish conspiracy, traditional marriages and gender roles. (Kalder is miffed that Vissarion gets a hot little girlfriend -in addition to the wife- and a Land Rover while his followers must do without, but he is God, after all. It would be weird if he couldn’t have those things.) Yet I can see how people get lured in. It’s not difficult to imagine an educated professional reflecting upon their crap life of materialism and social alienation and thinking, all I have to do is submit to this guy and I get to live in a Utopia? Alright. The people I’m forced to submit to now are 10 times more evil and I’ve little to show for it.
Most if not all of the outside coverage of Vissarion’s cult point to the back-breaking work and harsh climate to illustrate just how brainwashed and desperate his followers are. You’d have to be either a total wreck or operating against your free will to become a Siberian construction worker. After all, that’s what Stalin chose as punishment for those who dared threaten his regime. I don’t buy it. I can totally see how sitting in an office/car/living room/etc. for most of their lives would make people antsy for some hard fucking labor, Office Space-like. Especially the kind of labor that leaves you with something to show for it. As for climate, it’s not like Moscow and St. Peterburg are tropical paradises. Plus, it’s a “dry cold,” making it more tolerable. (I’ve heard this when referring to the heat, but never the cold. Hm.)
Most if not all of the outside coverage of Vissarion’s cult point to the new religious freedoms allowed in the past few decades to illustrate what might have provoked such a cult. Eager to take advantage of their new rights and a bit confused and adrift because of all the social chaos and lack of obvious choices, these poor folk fell into Vissarion’s trap. I don’t buy it. Most Russians who wanted to cash in on their religious freedom had no problem locating the Orthodox Church across the street. But more importantly, Vissarion’s cult seems to me motivated less by the need to worship indiscriminately and more by the need to leave their current socio-economic situation for something better, more promising, more fulfilling. Yes, the origin of Vissarion’s cult coincided with the end of State atheism. But in many ways it is now trying to replicate the economic ideals of that failed State. I wonder if it was an infusion of faith, or a crisis of faith that has lured people to this workers’ paradise? Vissarionites are rejecting their post-Communist country, after all, not embracing it…
You can read more about Kalder’s stay with the Vissarionites here.