Vissarion Christ: Siberian Saviour
Vova the taxi driver wasn’t happy about abandoning me in Petropavlovka, a village separated from the nearest city by over a hundred miles of silent, snow-covered Siberian forest. He said that its inhabitants belonged to a sinister cult which permitted children to starve while a crooked Messiah lived in luxury atop his holy mountain. I wasn’t convinced: I had spoken to Vadim Redkin, the Messiah’s closest disciple on the phone and he hadn’t sounded particularly evil. But I was concerned that after months of planning nobody in the village was expecting me, and Vadim had gone AWOL. Fortunately one of the local elders, a Bjorn Borg look-a-like decreed that I could stay until he received confirmation whether or not the Messiah was willing to grant me an audience. Muttering dark warnings, Vova climbed in his Lada and drove off.
I had just penetrated the community of Vissarion Christ, the Siberian reincarnation of Jesus. Formerly a soviet traffic policeman named Sergei Torop, in his early 30s he had realized he was responsible for the salvation of mankind. So far over 4000 men and women (mostly Russian but also including a few Germans) had accepted his message and moved to Siberia to be close to their Saviour, who they referred to as ‘Teacher’. I hadn’t come for redemption; I just wanted to talk to a man who believed he was the Son of God. I thought it might be interesting. All the same, if he raised the dead while I was in town, I might be willing to give his claims serious consideration.
Bjorn Borg sent me to the village school for girls. The second floor library was full of books on art, plus an old copy of the National Enquirer. As I sat reading about Whitney Houston’s crack habit, little children would quietly enter and sit down to draw under the watchful gaze of the Teacher, whose photograph hung framed on the wall. He had long brown hair and a wispy beard and was smiling: a friendly, warm Saviour, I thought—but there was something in his eyes I had never seen before, something alien…
My meditations were interrupted when Tatiana Denisova, a plump, middle-aged blond woman entered the room. The former editor of a communist newspaper, she had converted to the new faith after a near fatal illness had led her to reconsider her life. She quit her job, sold her flat in Moscow and moved several thousand miles east to be near the Teacher. With the proceeds from her house sale she had built the girl’s school, a dance hall and a small hut for herself. At first Tatiana downplayed Vissarion’s claim to be Christ reborn, instead emphasizing his environmentalism, which was not dissimilar to that of your average Tesco-hating eco-toff wittering away in the Guardian. But when she showed me a copy of Vissarion’s Last Testament, everything changed. Devotion to the Messiah burned in her eyes as she expounded on the astonishing profundity of this holiest of books. She showed me photographs of the Teacher to prove, by his resemblance to Catholic icons, that he really was Jesus. I nodded politely. Then she pounded my brain with talk about reincarnation for several hours. At midnight I made my excuses and went to bed.
The next morning, after a bracing trip to the outhouse in -20°C, Bjorn Borg informed me that I would not be seeing Vissarion that day, although there was hope for tomorrow. He suggested that in the meantime I should meet Sergei, the village priest. I went to the village community centre where a little bearded man was sweeping snow off the path: this was Sergei. He was worried that I was gathering dirt for a scandalous expose. His old career as a Red Army officer had clearly trained him to be paranoid—he was the man who had sat by the phone waiting to press the nuclear button. Nevertheless he agreed to explain the basics of Vissarion’s teachings. I won’t go into detail here, and you probably wouldn’t want me to, but these are four crucial new revelations:
- There are two Gods. The first created the universe and then withdrew, leaving us to mess everything up. The second came into being later and wants to help us.
- Satan is created by our own negative energy. He and his demons manipulate us into committing sinful deeds.
- The earth will soon eradicate us for our wickedness.
- Nefarious aliens trained the Jews in the mastery of money.
I thought I detected traces of Manichaeism, an ancient Gnostic heresy, but Sergei recommended watching The Matrix to get a deeper understanding of their world view. Money, drugs, and all forms of violent entertainment were banned. The community was vegan and everyone had a duty to make crafts and attain moral perfection by internalizing the rules laid down in the seven volumes of Vissarion’s Last Testament. The book was extremely detailed: it contained God’s opinion on whether or not you should always wipe your feet when coming indoors, for example. The community also aimed to return to 18th century levels of technology, in spite of their enthusiastic embrace of the Internet and mobile phones—a contradiction surely, but then what faith is without contradictions?
That evening I was cleared to ascend the Holy Mountain. The next morning I rose at dawn: it was a long, twenty five mile drive through mud and snow, and the trek up the mountain took an eternity. Tsars and dictators didn’t exile their enemies to Siberia for a laugh, after all. However the Vissarionites believed they could transform this frozen hell into a utopia. My guide explained that two hundred of the Teacher’s most devoted followers were building a perfect city of fourteen streets, radiating outwards from a central point like a star on the mountain. Conditions were brutal: some days they even worked in temperatures of -45°C. ‘Without faith it would be impossible,’ he said. ‘But the Teacher inspires us to continue.’ Vissarion lived above it all, communing with God in a wooden house at the highest stage of the mountain, with only his family, secretary and a few servants to attend to his needs. That was where, after such a long wait, I was going now.
The Messiah was standing when I entered the room, dressed in white, nodding and smiling beatifically. I wondered about the etiquette of shaking the Son of God’s hand, but he sat down before I could extend mine, resolving that cosmic mystery forever. Vadim, personal secretary and ex-rock star was also present, to record our meeting. Every public utterance of the Messiah was archived for possible inclusion in the Last Testament: it was crucial that no pearl of divine wisdom be lost while the Saviour was on earth.
‘I’d like to thank you for granting me your valuable time.‘
‘Yes, yes…’ said Vissarion, waving his hand, urging me to get on with it. The Son of God was above such petty formalities: the hour of reckoning was upon us, after all. I had been told that Vissarion rarely talked with outsiders these days and being interviewed by a heathen clearly bored him. I wanted to break him out of his apathy, but I knew that a lazy, Paxman-style mockery of his claims, though entertaining, would only make him defensive. My first question was very open: ‘What is the most important thing for people living in Britain who don’t know about the work you are doing here to understand?’
Vissarion paused, formulating his answer precisely. Then, eyelids half-closed as if hypnotized, he replied in a soft, sing-song voice: ‘They should know that the time is short, and that if they want to survive, they must come here, to the Abode of Dawn and live according to God’s Will.’
‘So they must come to the mountain?’
‘Yes. It’s their only hope.’
‘But it’s difficult,’ I said. ‘You live so far away and hardly anyone knows about your revelation. Why don’t you come to the people as Jesus did, and preach?’
‘I have visited many places,’ he said wearily. ‘I have seen enough. They will find me, those whose souls are ready.’
‘And the others?’
Well that was an interesting approach—a Saviour who couldn’t be bothered to save anybody. I suspected however that this was self-defense: if Vissarion left the mountain he ran the risk of being ridiculed, whereas in his home base he was all powerful, and his ideas were not theories or fantasies but solid reality. Then he started rehearsing the scenarios Sergei had laid out for me. But the priest had provided all the information I needed about Lucifer and the two Gods. I was looking for something different. Was there any trace of Sergei Torop, ex-traffic policeman in his eyes or in the room, or had the mortal man been completely consumed by his Revelation? I had heard that Vissarion loved Harry Potter and that seemed fairly normal, but I couldn’t see the books anywhere. The only clear continuity was the easel by the window: both Torop and Messiah were keen painters. Other than that, there didn’t seem to be much traffic cop left.
Vissarion was clearly exhausted. We were twenty minutes in and I could feel the interview drawing to a close already. Just then a question flashed into my head: ‘Is it a joy or a burden to be the Christ?’ I asked.
Vissarion paused. He seemed surprised by the question. ‘Excuse me?’ he said.
I repeated the question.
Instantly, the atmosphere changed. ‘I can’t imagine any work harder than this,’ he said, laughing.
‘But do you ever cry out?’ I continued, warming to my theme: ‘do you ever ask God to relieve you of your burden?’
Vissarion shook his head. ‘It’s useless. My mission is to be open, not distant from people. If I didn’t have feelings, I wouldn’t be able to understand what was happening inside man. Of course, it makes me tired, but I can’t stop it…’
‘What about the end,’ I said, ‘Christ’s mission on earth lasted three years; yours has already lasted fifteen. Do you know when you will leave us?
‘No,’ he laughed again. ‘But I will know close to the time.’
And now, the hitherto bored witless Son of God just could not be stopped. By recognizing him as Christ he was made powerful, set free. Thirty minutes later he was still talking, totally energized, preaching on the events that would follow the Apocalypse when the survivors would cast off their bodies and colonize new planets as spirit beings, although he reassured me that most of humanity was doomed. It was then that I decided to call a halt to the interview, even though Vissarion wanted to continue. But now I was exhausted. I’d had enough of all that talk about energy and reincarnation. I thanked him for his time and then, in the dark, headed back down the mountain to the village on the lower level.
In all I spent one hour with the Son of God. Apparently that was an achievement: I was told later that even his closest followers rarely got to spend that much time with him face to face. That night, it was difficult to sleep. It wasn’t the Messiah’s words that stayed with me, but his presence. Vissarion was like nobody I had ever met. He had an undeniable charisma, a mesmeric power, and I didn’t doubt that he was absolutely sincere. It was also impossible to deny that he and his devotees had achieved impressive things, whether it be building a town on top of a mountain or growing bananas in Siberia. This was a strange, paradoxical place; and I felt a troubling attraction towards this harsh, austere life.
The next day however my grudging admiration received a jolt when I attended an open air meeting between Vissarion and the villagers. I was simply stunned by the banality of their moral dilemmas: they wanted to know what brands of washing powder were acceptable to God, and whether it was okay to laugh at dirty jokes. There was nothing dangerous or surprising in his answers, but that was the problem. His followers had some bizarre ideas but they were not stupid: there was a multilingual astrophysicist and a former astronomer on the mountain. They should have known the answers already. His divine plan to make his followers morally perfect was failing: the vast list of rules in the Last Testament was actually making them infantile, terrified they weren’t fulfilling God’s commands accurately. And there was another, even more troubling sign: Vissarion had recently added a second, younger, sexier wife to his family. No-one else was granted this privilege, and I wondered if this wasn’t the start of a transition from relatively harmless New Age philosophizing into something darker. David Koresh didn’t begin his messianic career as sexual overlord of all his follower’s wives; that developed later.
But that’s just speculation. Right now the community on and around the mountain is thriving as they await the End Time. The population is growing nine times faster than the Russian average and Vissarionites have infiltrated government at the local and regional level. Meanwhile the Saviour continues to develop his revelation. After accidentally dying the first time he appeared among us 2000 years ago, he plans to stick around, to make certain his teaching isn’t corrupted again. Christ won’t come a third time: this is our last chance.
From ARENA magazine, May 2008.