"False Christs and false prophets will arise ... to lead astray, if possible, the elect," Jesus predicted in Mark's "Little Apocalypse" (Mark 13). According to sect watchers in the Russian Orthodox and West European Protestant churches, you'll meet one of them in the Siberian Taiga, some 2,500 miles East of Moscow.
He is Sergei Anatolevitch Torop, alias Vissarion, a former traffic cop and ex-sergeant in the Red Army. Torop, 42, looks like an icon depicting Jesus Christ and says that this is exactly what he is -- the Nazarene reincarnate.
It's not easy to be his follower. You'd have to live on vegetables and fruit, berries, and juice if you can find any. Water is forbidden because it is believed to be the means by which the earth transmits the code for human self-destruction. Milk is not permitted either, not even to the babies all born in water-filled barrels, as is the ordained custom for the faithful of the "Church of the Last Testament," Torop's cult.
Now who would follow such a regimen in a God-forsaken part of the world, where the temperatures drop to minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter and rise to equally intolerable heat levels in the summer, when mammoth-sized mosquitoes bite you and there's no shower around to freshen you up?
Well, would you believe it? Oodles of former Soviet intellectuals, that's who. They are scientists, even high-ranking officers and Communist party hacks. But before you snigger, don't forget the kind of people who found "meaning" in American or Japanese suicide cults. The monks and nuns in Japan's "neo-Buddhist" Aum Shinrikyo sect, which a decade ago tried to trigger Armageddon -- actually, a Christian concept -- are chiefly graduates of their country's top universities, men and women with Master's degrees or even doctorates in science.
Not surprisingly, the Russian Church -- and its Protestant sisters in Germany and France, whence many Vissorionites hail -- fear a collective suicide along the Sun Temple or Jim Jones pattern, but on an even larger scale. There are now at least 5,000 cultists living in 40 villages on a territory half the size of Switzerland, and perhaps 50,000 Torop followers in 83 places around the world.
They all drop to their knees and pray to their "messiah" thrice a day at precisely the same times, namely, when a 250-pound bell the faithful had carried 35 miles through the birch forest and then up a 4,000-foot mountain commands the locals to do so. Those in other parts of world just have to check their watches to be in sync with their brethren in the holy land.
Now, will they one day all kill themselves, as cult specialists in the Orthodox Church fear? Will the cop-Christ, who luxuriates on that mountain called Heavenly Abode with his wife and six kids -- five of his own, plus an adopted one -- plus a brown setter command them one day to do away with themselves?
Torop does not alleviate such fears when he insists -- contrary to the teaching of Christianity -- that there was nothing morally wrong with suicide; one mustn't be judgmental. Whether this happens or not, cult experts in Western and Eastern churches are keeping a watchful eye on the peripatetic "Messiah's" movements.
He's been on recruiting tours to New York, likes traveling in a camper around Germany, France, Belgium, Italy, and the Netherlands. There are even Australians among his resident followers, all of whom have had to give up their riches before joining, because the wealthy have a hard time getting into heaven, he teaches, sounding like the real Christ, at least where this subjects is concerned.
Of course, that's where the parallel stops, even though Torop insists that God himself had told him at the time the Soviet Union collapsed 13 years ago he, Torop, was the Christ. In reality he's just New Age. Like a Hindu, he believes in reincarnation; unlike Hindus, he teaches that this happens only 10 times in a human being's existence. If you've come back that many times and still haven't developed spiritually, well, then down to Hell you go.
That's why so many bearded ex-intellectuals labor at hellishly high and low temperatures, risk malnutrition scurvy and meningitis -- they want to end up in paradise. And if that means being deprived of their free will and bossed about relentlessly -- so what? As a defector recently interviewed in Germany remarked, "That's just what they are accustomed to -- it's Soviet-style."