Questions about the new Christ asked by Neil Forsyth
Esquire Interview (Full Version)
How did you find Torop—in those opening moments was he massively charismatic, was there a sense of an overpowering personality?
At first he seemed exhausted: he sat slumped in a chair, his eyes were half closed and he spoke in a soft, sing-song voice. But even then he had an extremely powerful presence that filled not just the room but seemed to flow out the windows and down the sides of the mountain (he lives on top of a mountain with just a few assistants and his family for company). Once he got talking he really became energized. I had never experienced anything like it, and for a long time opposed putting a photograph of him in the book because it reduced him to a man in robes. Pictures can’t capture his extraordinary magnetism. I found it difficult to sleep after my meeting because the weird sense of power and the strange half hypnotized look in his eyes just wouldn’t leave me alone. The impression remained vivid for a long time. In fact, it’s still vivid today. Sergei Torop was devoured by a dream and Vissarion Christ was the result.
What was the mood amongst his followers—was it blind worship and a sense of nirvana, or was there internal politics, non-believers, rebels—how tight was his control?
All of the above. Everybody I met (and I met a lot of believers) seemed to have no doubt he was the Son of God, but they didn’t then claim that life was a humongous barrel of laughs. On the contrary—they all stressed how hard it was to live life according to his rules (there were seven fat volumes of them when I visited and more have probably been printed since then). Vissarion himself stressed that life would be hard; that was the idea. I think the idea of cult zombies brainwashed into bliss is bogus, a myth constructed by the media to make a difficult phenomena easier to understand. These people are as human as the rest of us, with the same internal struggles and contradictions, even if they hold ideas we consider eccentric.
There were lots of personal disputes between believers which were resolved by the community in general meetings. Each party would have an opportunity to present his/her case, but whatever the community decided was law. I met one guy who had been thrown out of the village on the holy mountain (where Vissarion’s most devoted followers lived) because he’d become extremely violent. He explained that it was impossible to live according to Vissarion’s laws of no alcohol, no tobacco, no meat and extreme non-aggression. At the same time he had not become a disbeliever, he just thought things had to change, to become more liberal, more accommodating to human nature. When I was there however Vissarion was threatening to clamp down on the believers. They had cellphones, internet access, TVs and so on and were allowed to come and go pretty much as they pleased. He felt things were getting slack and intended to vet every application to leave personally whereas before he had allowed the villagers to apply to a local committee which tended towards the generous side.
Did you believe that he believed 100% what he was telling you?
I had no doubts on that one. Let me tell you how they built his house on the mountain—in the early 90s he and a handful of followers, all of whom were city people, had moved to the taiga and using axes, hacked a path through the forest to the top of the mountain, meanwhile dodging bears and fighting through walls of flesh-eating mosquitoes. Then they constructed an 18th century pulley to transport logs to the top of a mountain. After a while they bent the rules regarding Vissarion’s ban on modern technology and used chainsaws, but that there was their only concession to the extreme difficulty of what they were doing. Vissarion shared the burden of labour equally with his disciples. You don’t put up with that kind of entirely voluntary extreme hardship unless you really believe.
What do you think his motivations are?
He wants to fulfill the mission given him by God to save the planet and humanity from outright destruction.
Certainly there was a personality cult and I’m sure he enjoyed it, but I don’t think that was his primary motivation or negates his absolute self-belief. It mixes in with it.
Was there anything in his childhood/past that you think might have led to his current position, that could have been a motivation?
I dug around for this kind of information but it was hard to come by. Questions to Vissarion about Sergei Torop were met with genuine incomprehension, as though the traffic cop was someone else and what he had done was not relevant. I know that his parents divorced when he was a wee boy and his mother took him to Siberia, while his father stayed behind in Krasnodar in southern Russia. His father had nothing to do with him, whereas his mother lived in one of the Vissarionite villages though she didn’t seem to be a believer. But at least 50% of adults in Russia are the products of broken homes and few become Messiahs. Nor had he had a religious upbringing. I have a feeling that this line of thinking leads to a dead end; it’s all a bit rational and reductive to point to a trauma and say ‘Ah—that’s it, now I don’t have to think about what this means any more!’ More important is that he came of age in the late 70s/early 80s and was a young man during perestroika when all kinds of religious ideas became available after a 60 year drought, and he also grew up in an area of Russia which had been home to many strange sects for centuries. Official soviet ideology was also Messianic and Torop grew up in it. Once it broke down there was a vacuum; Vissarion stepped into it.
His own version of what happened is as follows: in addition to being a traffic cop he was also an artist and he had received a commission to paint an icon for a church. Icons are painted according to strict rules, but as he worked on it he received a vision and painted the saint walking on clouds. This was totally unacceptable to the church. He chose to return the commission fee rather than alter the painting. Following that his head was flooded with information and he spent months digesting the revelation before starting to preach. This is pretty much how prophets have received their messages ever since Ahura Mazda spoke to Zoroaster in 1500BC. In that sense he was a classic prophetic type.
Did he care that most people would think he was insane? Did he ask you if you believed him, and if so how did you and he react?
I don’t think he cared what most people thought as he had built another
world out there where he was unaffected by it. Everyone he encountered accepted he was the Son of God—it was never in question. On the other hand, when he went on tour around Russia he preferred to avoid Moscow, and I think that was not only because the Orthodox Church was extremely hostile and made it difficult for him to rent a space to preach in, but also and more importantly because nobody took him seriously there. People are too busy making money and trying to grab a piece of the billionaire dream to bother with a new Messiah. They hope for rewards in this life. In the provinces on the other hand life is pretty hopeless and people would be more open to his message. He knew that to maintain his power he had to avoid places where he’d be ridiculed.
He never asked if I believed him. He assumed I didn’t and didn’t care. But during our meeting I didn’t ask him to prove it either—I decided to talk to him as though he was who he claimed to be, and as a result his initial defensiveness and reluctance to speak fell away and he warmed to me, and started to beat my brains with his theology. I’d even say we got along very well: when I got up to go, he invited me to stay as long as I wanted, which the villagers told me never happened even with believers.