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Jesus Jehovahvich | By Phil Zabriskie | Photography Kate Brooks
Jesus Jehovahvich | By Phil Zabriskie | Photography Kate Brooks

A former Russian cop says he・s God・s only begotten son reborn, and thousands of people believe him. To come unto Him, however, you have to voyage to Siberia. Don・t expect another crucifixion

The Ascent, Part I:
Shortly after dawn, the believers begin to gather. As the sun struggles to pierce an early morning fog, Siberia・s autumnal chill lingers in the air. The faithful stride with purpose down frost-covered pathways leading from several directions V like rays to the sun, they say V to a circular clearing carved from the forest and anchored by a wooden statue of an angel. Here, at the center of a village known as the Abode of Dawn, the weekly procession up the mountain will commence. And atop the mountain on this early October Sunday morning, the one they call :the teacher,; :the Christ,; or Vissarion, which means :he who gives new life,; awaits his followers.

Perhaps 150 of them, the bulk of the village・s population, enter the circle. Some stand. Others kneel. Most are middle-aged, and they all know each other, as people in small towns do. In this case, though, it・s more than a matter of proximity. At some point in the last decade and a half, each of these people was compelled to put their faith in a seemingly ordinary man V a former traffic cop, in fact V who, in the waning days of the

Soviet empire came to believe he was the Son of God, the second coming of Jesus Christ himself. Several thousand people chose to join his Church of the Last Testament. And they decided to live, farm, worship and endure in one of the planet・s largest and most remote religious communes, hours from the nearest road, miles from the nearest village, closer to Mongolia than Moscow, and far, far away from any creature comforts they once enjoyed.

Sergei Chevalkov, a spry ex-colonel in the Soviet army, is one of the church・s two priests. On this morning he presides from the base of the statue, a tasseled white shawl over his rich purple robe, an encircled gold cross around his neck. Behind him is the chorus, a sober group of thickly bearded men in white wool ponchos. Together, the assembled crowd sings a gentle hymn, floating words of hope and gratitude into the surrounding taiga, as the Siberian forest is called. When they finish, a bell tolls atop the mountain. Father Sergei rings a smaller bell in response. The sequence is repeated several times, a sonorous dialogue the rapt villagers listen to with eyes closed and arms extended. They are undaunted by the cold. (:My belief keeps me warm,; one woman later says). Afterwards, the believers cross themselves in the traditional manner, then circle an arm counterclockwise around their heads, an added movement that makes the gesture their own. It is time to ascend.

Jesus Jehovahvich | By Phil Zabriskie | Photography Kate Brooks

Photographer kate brooks and I began our journey four days and four times zones earlier in Moscow, Russia・s frenetic, monumental capital. We caught an overnight flight to Abakan, a city of 400,000 in south-central Siberia. Emerging into a cold, gray morning, we found Vassily, a sweet-natured, thick-fingered man in his late 40s, awaiting us. Originally from Russia・s Far East, Vassily moved his family to Siberia and started keeping bees after a friend introduced him to Vissarion・s teachings. Life is :a 100 times better; now that he・s living here, he said as he pointed a haggard Toyota north into the countryside.

Three hours later, after we・d crossed into Krasnoyarsk Province, pavement gave way to gravel and the gold and green taiga crept closer. Soon thereafter we reached Petropavloka, a riverside village populated primarily by Vissarion followers. Like its inhabitants, Petropavloka・s architecture has mixed origins. The wooden edifices V homes, a community center, a church V combine sharp angles, rounded domes and painted shutters to create a style you could call Siberian-Dutch-Alpine-Norman. (The pagoda-like :Chinese house; has its own category.) Vassily dropped us at a three-story peasant guesthouse where our equally amiable hosts, Birgitt Schlevogt, a redheaded schoolteacher from Germany, and Galina Fedak, a platinum-haired Ukrainian, fed us, kept us warm and sang the praises of the man who made this place possible. He is an enlightened being, said Birgitt, who still lives in Germany V her husband refuses to move V but travels to Siberia during school holidays.

Before long, we were joined by Vladimir Vedernikov, a pony-tailed Moldovan who is one-third of a council that oversees church matters. By turns amiable and officious, he informed us that roughly 4,000 of Vissarion・s followers live in the surrounding villages. They do not drink, smoke, curse, eat meat or observe daylight savings time (though his watch is set to it). I・d read a book of Vissarion・s teachings, The Last Testament of Vissarion Christ. Vedernikov told me there were eight more. We would discuss all of this later, he said, but we should know that :the Teacher; no longer discusses his :awakening; or his personal life, and that we・d be leaving for the Abode of Dawn, home to the most ardent of the faithful, early the next morning.

When the time came, Vedernikov arrived in a gray SUV with Father Sergei, also a church council member. He steered headlong into the taiga. Grinning, he connected an MP3 player to the car stereo. :One, two, three o・clock, four o・clock rock,; the song began. :Rock and roll!; Vedernikov exclaimed in English, as Sergei pulled out wooden pipes and started playing along. :Don・t Worry, Be Happy,; :Besame Mucho,; and :Hotel California; followed, also with Sergei・s accompaniment.

There was a stop on a riverbank near a sign reading, :Let・s Love This Place.; There was a delay at a checkpoint manned, for reasons that still elude me, by armed Russian soldiers. There were jolts and jerks as the car bounced along a deeply rutted road that eventually became impassable. We then shouldered our bags and proceeded on foot on a periodically steep, often muddy trail. On the way, Vedernikov shared a few convoluted parables and recounted his own journey. He・d been a publisher in Moldova and had sampled several religions, eventually adopting the Bahai faith. When a friend told him the Messiah had returned and was living in Siberia, Vedernikov was intrigued. On the one hand, he reckoned, this man could benefit humanity, particularly those struggling in a post-Soviet world. On the other, he could be insane. When Vissarion visited Moldova, Vedernikov went to hear him speak. Six months later, he moved to Siberia. That was 13 years ago.

After three hours, the trail crested a heavily wooded hill then dipped into a valley. A small wooden booth marked the entrance to the village. Inside it, a round-faced man entered our names in a ledger. Vedernikov led us down one muddy path and up another into what seemed like a post-Soviet agrarian utopia. Smoke rose from chimneys. Men in rubber boots carried buckets and shovels. Women stacked firewood and cleared fields. We were taken to a small home I half expected to smell like gingerbread. Vessilen, a Bulgarian architect, and Yulia, his Russian wife, greeted us with smiles and bowls of meatless borscht. From here, we could venture out to see the village, its residents, and, eventually, the Teacher himself.

The Ascent, Part II
Alexandra Lumiya is an artist with a beard, long hair and a face resembling Harvey Keitel・s. We walk together as a procession snakes its way up the mountain path. Periodically, the whole group pauses to sing another hymn.

In 1991, Vissarion spoke in St. Petersburg. Lumiya was in the audience. He was one of the first to follow Vissarion into the wilderness. Through blistering summers and brutal winters, Lumiya and a small band of pioneers lived in tents and laid foundations for the first structures while battling relentless mosquitoes and the inevitable mistakes city folk make when they first move to the countryside. Everything they needed they carried in V woodworking equipment, plastic tubing, window panes, seeds, even the bell now atop the mountain V until they found a vehicle suitable for the rough terrain: an old Russian tank. :It was the era of perestroika,; Lumiya says, or rather the cash-starved, chaotic era that followed it. The state was selling anything it could to raise cash.
Houses were built, paths forged, fields planted. Solar panels were installed, windmills erected, an irrigation network fashioned. If a tree was cut down, another was planted. The idea, Lumiya says, was to create a truly harmonious, back-to-the-land movement. :This part of the taiga was not touched by civilization for 1,000 years,; he says. :If you want to join us here, you can, because the taiga has room for you.; The crowd stops to sing again. :People dream of a fairy tale life,; Lumiya whispers. :We created it.;

as one can see from the pictures followers hang in their homes, the postcards and books and calendars stocked (for sale) at Petropavloka・s community center, and the dozens of male followers with beards and long hair, everything starts with, revolves around and depends upon Vissarion. The community・s calendar begins the year he was born (1961). The biggest holidays commemorate his birthday (January 14) and his first sermon (August 18). His image and his images V he is an avid painter V are ubiquitous. His name is invoked incessantly. Five times a day a bell rings, signaling to believers to stop what they・re doing, look towards Vissarion・s home, and pray.

But before he was Vissarion, he was Sergei Anatolevich Torop from Krasnodar, in southwestern Russia. After completing his army service, he settled in Minusinsk, north of Abakan, and got married. Lena Plotnikovi, an Abode of Dawn resident who also hails from Minusinsk, remembers Torop as a clean-shaven young man who coached youth sports programs. He worked in a factory before becoming a traffic cop, reportedly winning several commendations in a job many Russians consider synonymous with corruption. There was something different about him, though, Plotnikovi says. He was mysterious, a little strange, :like an artist.;

Of course, not every oddball later claims he・s the central figure in the world・s largest religion. External events transformed Torop. When the Soviet Union fractured, Torop, like many millions of others, lost his job. It was a traumatic time. Everything Russians had known was upended, any faith they・d placed in the Communist Party revealed as fanciful, a misplaced reliance on a false god.

So it came to pass, in 1991, that the ex-cop had an :awakening,; an episode he entered into as Sergei Torop and emerged from as Vissarion, Christ returned to Earth for the good of mankind, especially Soviet-kind. He based himself near Petropavloka, but outreach began immediately. He started work on The Last Testament of Vissarion Christ, which loosely entwines tenets of the New Testament, Buddhism, Taoism, animism and environmentalism in a New Age bow. Roman Lumkin, who researches religion for Moscow・s Slavic Center for Law & Justice, calls it a :folk orthodox; faith. It has 61 commandments. It speaks of a Father Creator and Mother Earth. It includes concepts like karma, interconnectedness and collective responsibility. It counsels pacifism and purity, patience and empathy. And, perhaps anticipating the obvious charges that he・s a nut or a fraud or not enough like the Biblical Jesus to be considered a latter-day incarnation, it contained a tautological justification for the reasons he had arrived in this place at this moment: in essence, because it was supposed to be, because the time was right, because this was the will of his father.

Vissarion toured Russia, then ventured to other Eastern bloc countries, Western Europe, Israel and the United States. As predicted, he was met with doubt and derision. People came to hear him speak, though. And some believed him.

His next task was selecting a place to build a model society. Sometime around 1994, the legend goes, Vissarion spent three days near Lake Tiberkul, praying to the taiga, beseeching it to accept him and those he was sure would follow. When he got his response, he summoned the others.

The ASCENT, PART III:
As the trail continues upwards, it passes terraced gardens, a wind turbine, and the house of Vissarion himself, which is bigger than anything down the hill and has a stunning view of the valley. We・re not stopping, though. Stern-looking men guard the paths that lead to Vissarion・s house.

Lumiya and I walk with Tatiana Alitskaya, an expansive 50-year old with long, blond curls. An opera singer who lived in Moscow, Alitskaya tells me that Vissarion meets his followers after the weekly service to answer questions. However, if he senses there won・t be any interesting questions, he might stay home.

I ask them about something I・d heard in Moscow, that sect members practice polygamy. They say the issue is complicated because marriages and divorces within the community are not recognized by Russian law. Here, divorce proceedings usually involve asking Vissarion what to do. His advice is often followed, but it・s not legally binding. If the :divorce; was mutually agreed upon, either party can remarry, according to community, but not official, practices.

That・s the sanitized version offered by followers, like Vedernikov, the de facto spokesman. For all its claims of enlightenment, the Church of the Last Testament is highly patriarchal. Women are expected to be thoroughly deferential. A wife, Alitskaya says, should recognize that men develop feelings for other women. The couple must work through this. Or, the wife can get to know the other woman, and if they get along, invite her into their home, which has happened, and which, of course, fits the spirit, if not the legal definition, of polygamy.

It・s not surprising that Vissarion would sanction this. His first wife decided more than a decade and three children after marrying a cop that the Abode of Dawn didn・t work for her. She left to study psychology in Krasnoyarsk but not before inviting into her house the woman whom Vissarion eventually :remarried,; Sonia, who is now 22 and just a daughter.

In many ways, these people -V and their leader V exhibit characteristics one finds in many fundamentalists and others who think themselves the chosen ones: the privileged sense that the rules as written by the unenlightened don・t really apply to them. Having accepted the ways of the Teacher, the followers are, like him, able to bridge gaps in logic and reconcile evident paradoxes between what is said and what is done. All they must do is believe. It・s fantastical, and childlike, and apparently just fine with Vissarion.

At the highest point of the mountain V Temple Peak, to the faithful V in front of a narrow structure topped by a hand-carved wooden cupola, Father Sergei leads the crowd through a sermon that features more bells, more hymns and more expression of fealty to the Teacher. At the end, a young couple comes forward, he in a light tunic over long pants, she in a wedding dress. As the wind picks up, Father Sergei performs the vows and talks of their responsibilities. They don・t live in the Abode of Dawn, but they hope to one day. :We are all the children of love,; someone says.

they came from Russia, the Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Bulgaria, Cuba, Lithuania, Germany, Australia and elsewhere. Some walk around with weird grins on their faces. Some seem completely disassociated. Some have served jail time. But many are good company and many are members of the fabled Russian intelligentsia. Vessilen, the Bulgarian architect, works late into the night sketching and reviewing building projects. He counts a doctor, musician, artist and a craftsman among his friends. The village has a dentist, dental lab, school and several teachers. So does the community in Petropavloka, which also includes an ex-deputy minister of railways from Belarus, a devotee with a philosophy doctorate and several lawyers.

When they talk about why they came, two things stand out. Firstly, they were looking for something that would give their lives greater meaning, and many had tried on different faiths along the way. That was Vedernikov・s story. It・s the story told by Vladimir Skomorkhov V :I had been searching for the truth for many years; V a gold-toothed woodsman who tends a vegetable and fruit garden near his six-sided house. Our hosts in Petropavloka sounded the same refrain, as did our hosts in the Abode of Dawn. Alitskaya, the opera singer, walked away from a career and a husband. :You could say a woman who leaves everything behind in Moscow is crazy,; she asserts. :Or you could say she is a strong woman who knows what she is doing.;

Secondly, their initial meetings with Vissarion were ecstatic, revelatory encounters. :I knew right away that it was the most important meeting of my life,; says Alitskaya. :It was like a sun rising,; recalled Lumiya. At times, the stories are tinged with a kind of :chosen one; mentality, a simultaneous assertion of righteousness and plea for recognition. This goes beyond eccentricities like the goofy giggle Vessilen frequently emits or Vladimir the doctor saying he can see the soul leave the body when someone dies. It・s more along the lines of Lumiya sprinting uphill or flexing his biceps to show how fit he is. Or Vedernikov insisting that the water is fresher and the trees grow faster here. Or others saying people rarely get sick because they live the right way.

Some pride is warranted. These people built this place from nothing, grew the fruit and vegetables and designed the ironworks, furniture and fabrics to sell at regional markets. They maintain a communal ethic based on a :pay it forward; approach to helping one・s neighbor and the Church・s 10 percent tax on all income. They publish a newsletter and a website. They run their own schools. And they pore over Vissarion・s every word looking for new lessons or nuances. Father Sergei recalled talking late into the night with Vissarion and thinking something remarkable was being revealed. :It is a feeling that gets stuck inside you,; he says. :When you realize how to grasp it, it fills you with the truth.;

Pursuit of that truth shapes routines and identities in ways that both enrich and infantilize followers. More troubling, though, is that when devotion dovetails with infatuation and entitlement, a sense surfaces that basic responsibilities no longer apply. A Russian woman named Ina, for instance, was living in New York with her American husband and working as a physical therapist when she came across Vissarion. She became obsessed and started seeing visions of him in her apartment. Eventually, she decamped for Siberia. She did not tell her husband, an interfaith minister and avid yoga practitioner who took the name Thaemes Mahhariyam. She did take their two children.

Mahhariyam made several trips to Siberia while exploring his legal options. When he realized he・d never get custody of half-Russian children living in Russia with their Russian mother, he figured his only option was to join them. He now lives down the road from her in a village near Petropavloka, a still-vibrant 65-year-old trying to make the best of an impossible situation. He is not a believer, but he is not dismissive. :If people are looking to be led, they will find a leader,; he says. :If they are looking to be taught, they will find a teacher.;

The Ascent, part IV:
After the service, the crowd descends to a clearing. Vissarion sits atop a rock underneath a red umbrella. He wears white pants, a white tunic and a white vest. His hands rest on his knees. His expression is placid. He seems to be smiling. For several minutes, he and his believers stare at each other. They are, I・m told, :uniting.; The scene seems to be taken straight from, or at least inspired by, imagery of the sermon on the mount. Here is Vissarion at his most Jesus-like. His followers sit, quite literally, at his feet, attuned to him and his energy, awaiting his word and wisdom, just as the Apostles and various followers and miracle seekers did thousands of years ago (or so the Book tells us). Clearly, they will say nothing until he is ready. They sit and they gaze, and they wait, until, finally, the slightest motion of his hand lets them know they are allowed to speak.  

A tearful woman says she no longer feels she can live with her husband. Vissarion leans forward and in a soothing, 1970s-radio DJ voice, says that if she stays strong and seeks understanding, she・ll find her answer. Another woman says she doesn・t want to sleep with her husband because he・s cruel to her daughter from a previous marriage. Vissarion says she may leave the marital bed, but it・s hard to love another・s child as one・s own. She asks if she can tell her husband to stop talking about how tired he is all the time. No, Vissarion says. He works hard. She should support him.

The questions continue for an hour. The majority concern relationships, placing Vissarion in the role of advice columnist, therapist and den mother. When someone asks what to do about a villager who was caught eating meat, Vissarion says she needs help because eating meat stunts spiritual growth. When someone asks if she should keep secrets her neighbor is hiding from her husband, Vissarion says she should not. A man going through a divorce is urged to fill out proper legal documents. Others want to know how to divide money between children from different marriages, what to do if an offer of help is ignored, how to respond when a boy hits a girl, or when a mother speaks badly of a father.

Primarily, he urges the followers to look within themselves. He counsels husbands and wives to treat each other like friends. Some responses are vague. Some leave people confused. There are a few rebukes, too. When Alitskaya asks about dealing with people・s shortcomings, Vissarion says the topic has been discussed and moves on. Alexander :Sasha; Tsiganko, a 24-year-old Lithuanian, says he and his wife Lucy, who was raised in the community, were talking about the roles husbands and wives should play. :You should not discuss such things,; the Teacher responds. :You should be friends. If you discuss these things, you might cause problems.;

A man asks how to be closer to the Teacher. :I am here and I am everywhere,; Vissarion responds. Another asks if he can know God・s will. It is not easily grasped, Vissarion says, but :it is okay that you do not understand.; A moment later, he comes down towards his followers, exchanges a few quiet words, and gives out blessings. Then he steps back, smiles, and walks into the forest.           

The next night, as a hard rain falls, a dozen followers gather in the village・s schoolhouse to review the previous day・s answers. They start with Tsiganko・s question about the roles husbands and wives should play. An MP3 player is plugged into an old cassette deck, and Sasha and Lucy, along with the others, listen intently as the exchange is replayed. Afterwards, Tsiganko says he thinks he understands Vissarion・s response better after hearing it again, but he・s still confused. The eight volume of Vissarion・s teachings says men and women should delineate their roles. Why would Vissarion say not to? They play the tape again. And again. And again. The conversation rolls on for 20 minutes until Yulia says the Teacher didn・t mention any of this when she married Vessilen, and a woman named Lena says if couples talked about who was supposed to serve whom, no one would ever get married.

In our time in the community, relationships were easily the most discussed topic. Given the close quarters, it・s not surprising. Despite all the talk of love, Yulia says back at her house, :You see many divorces here.; She and Vessilen have rough patches, she says. He・s 36 and wants her to run the household. She・s 52 and finds it hard to play homemaker.

Life here is hard for other reasons as well. Walking near the shores of Lake Tiberkul, Lumiya confessed to getting tired sometimes, to wishing he could rest for a while. He missed museums and galleries, too. The reality of this place can diverge from the fantasy. :I knew from childhood that I would follow the Christ,; Yulia says. :But it has been very difficult. It・s harder than I expected.; She pauses. :The Saints and Apostles had hard lives, too.;

Given the innumerable ways something like this could fall apart, it・s somewhat remarkable that the cult of Vissarion has lasted 17 years V an epoch by cult standards and longer than most of new religions that rose from the USSR・s ashes. All were products of their time. For the prior seven decades, organized religions, including the Russian Orthodox Church, had been derided as opiates. In Lumiya・s words, :The soil was fertile for this to grow.; Russians :didn・t know anything about religion,; says Roman Lumkin, :but they knew one thing, that religion and faith is a good thing.; As all manner of missionaries flooded into the country and New Age prophets emerged, no one knew what to believe, so no one knew what was unbelievable. Proud as they are, Russians have a long tradition of subservience to higher authorities: tsars, general secretaries, or prime ministers (Greetings, Mr Putin!) who cast themselves as would-be saviors. For a few thousand people, Vissarion filled both vacuums. He chose the right location, too. Siberia has historically incubated various fringe groups, including the Old Believers, a breakaway Russian Orthodox sect established in the 1800s. In its early days, in fact, Vissarion・s followers clashed with Old Believers. Father Sergei says relations improved, but that was mainly because most Old Believers moved.

Crucially, Lumkin says, Vissarion and the community have adapted over time. Once a rigid :totalitarian sect,; he says, it・s become more open and :now it・s growing like a New Age movement.; Some rules have been relaxed. Milk and eggs are now permitted, for instance, and believers are encouraged to seek work outside the community. The Teacher has reached out to local authorities. Village schools, which emphasize emotional development and offer heavy doses of Vissarionism, also cover the state-sanctioned curriculum. And over time, his followers have proven to be hard working, teetotaling, and child bearing V an uncommon combination in these parts V instead of a mass suicide waiting to happen. The governor of Krasnoyarsk province even visited Vissarion earlier this year.

There are still critics. The most strident come from the Russian Orthodox Church, which has steadily been extending its influence in the country and working with the government to limit the growth of sects. Father Iselslav Adlevankin of Moscow・s Kruchitski Monastery works with people who・ve left cults. He says Vissarion is :one of Russia・s top enemies; and his church is akin to the Moonies or Japan・s Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult. Followers often emerge with deep-rooted psychological problems, he contends, because Vissarion exploits fragile psyches for his own gain. A few ex-members even committed suicide after leaving. (He won・t say how many or provide contacts for families affected by the church.)

Lumkin notes that there have been no criminal cases filed against the community and that Vissarion and his followers don・t seem to be breaking any laws. If they keep it that way, and maintain a low profile, they could avoid the wrath of a government happy to punish enemies.

The Ascent, Part V:
The path leading to the house is bordered by well-crafted stone walls. Off to one side is a shed containing piles of firewood and a four-wheel ATV. A pair of children・s skis and a portable generator sit by the side door.

Inside, we are greeted by Sonia, Vissarion・s wife V she is petite and lovely, like a ballerina V who points us to the second floor. There, inside a bright, airy studio, Vissarion sits in a swiveling office chair, a computer monitor behind him, dozens of tiny figurines on a shelf above it. Spread throughout the room are several empty easels, a pair of running shoes, some weights, a chess board, pictures of his sons and numerous oversized art books (the Uffizi, The Louvre, Velasquez, Rembrandt). He maintains the same placid (or is it blank?) expression with which he greeted his followers earlier. Over the next two hours, he is by turn cheerful and grave, present and distant, narcissistic and full of love.

He absolutely seems to believe he is who he says he is. In the past, he was far more explicit, referring to himself as Vissarion Christ. He would initial his paintings :VC; and he put himself forward as the Second Coming. More recently, though, he・s backed off that claim somewhat, and when I ask, he says that it doesn・t matter what anyone calls him or what he calls himself, that he・s been called many things, not all of them flattering. But he knows what he knows because his father wants him to know it, and that what he is, in the end, is :the living word of my father.; Then he smiles his beatific smile, letting you know he is very content with that answer, which simultaneously claims Christhood and divine heritage but also allows him to adopt a moniker less likely to rankle outsiders or local authorities.

He has adapted to his earthly surroundings, naturally, and his very human life. With a newborn in the house, he・s weaned himself off his cell phone and one-on-one meetings with followers. He・s painting much less than he used and he・ll soon move to another house, halfway down the hill, so his older sons can be closer to other children. He came in the first place, he says, because he was needed. God is not vengeful, this he knows with certainty, but people were mismanaging the planet and courting disaster. The Christian church, he says, misrepresents him V him being Jesus V his teachings, and God・s will. (Revelations? So wrong.) So he is here to correct the record. He will not resort to performing miracles: that would undermine his message. :The truth is open to those who are ready to accept it,; he says. :People will accept this when they are ready.; He frequently says things like :it will happen as it should,; words that disconnect effort from outcome. He・s generally pleased with the community・s growth. There have been mistakes, but they were born of the same frailties humanity has contended with for 2,000 years. Living here requires total commitment, he says. :If someone wants to help create a new society, he cannot have part of him in another world,; he says. :A man should love the truth more than he loves his mother or father.; 

His own mother, he reveals, lives in Petropavloka. (She calls him :son,; he says.) Long unsure what to make of it all, she・s come to think it・s not a bad place to live. (She declined to be interviewed). He says he wasn・t religious at all until his awakening V though that, like his police work and his family life, is not something he wants to talk about. He doesn・t look back.

He does not refer to the Bible or anything he did the first time around two millennia ago. The primary content of his teachings are based in the here and now, in the trees that surround the village and the families that populate it. He does not speak of an apocalypse. He has no intention of winding up on a cross and sacrificing himself. This is a man building a new home, a man with a new child and a lovely wife (also quite new). His future is in this world, in this village, with his family and his followers, not in another, more celestial world, where the angels sing. And over time, he says, humanity will come to accept his teachings.
The man who makes claims such as these has one advantage: you cannot disprove something for which no proof exists. Vissarion takes refuge in the very abstract notion of faith, finding all the evidence needed to back up his assertions in his own certainty and the certainty of his followers. He is a vegetarian, an environmentalist, a family man of sorts with a big house and an ATV and a studio in which to paint and a perch above all those who, for whatever reason, think there is some truth in his words. Obviously he is not trying to behave as the Biblical Jesus did. He has adopted the look, the dress, and the demeanor of Jesus Christ as He is popularly known, but Vissarion has taken a different name, uses a different language, and instead of trying to be more like the Biblical Christ, insists that the Biblical Christ was more like him.

this church is on the fringe of the fringe, but the power of what Vissarion can offer some people should not be underestimated. He took on the persona of an instantly recognizable figure who elicits strong, visceral reactions. At the same time, he・s a blank canvas on which seekers and wayward souls can project what they・ve always dreamed of finding. And this vision of an earthbound society taps into an equally alluring notion of building a sustainable sanctuary in a world taken for granted by those who should be its stewards. He cannot prove that he is the second coming of Jesus Christ, of course, but he stands as proof that there are people who want him, or someone, to be.

These people are looking ahead. They intend, they say, to keep working on the community and themselves, hoping to further perfect both. More houses are being built. An old-age center is planned. They・re even anticipating an influx of new converts given the present financial crisis.

Back in Petropavloka, I accept an invitation to use the town・s banya, the famed Russia bath. When I arrive, Father Sergei is waiting. With great efficiency, he heats up the stones, pours water over them, douses dried branches with oils and thrashes himself, then me, with them. Sitting with him, naked and sweating, I think about what I・ve just seen. I saw people who did discover something they deem meaningful. People who still seem lost. People who made choices and are living with the consequences V the hardships, the pain left behind, and the uncertainty ahead.

We walked back from the Abode of Dawn with a strapping Belgian named Geert, who had first gone to Petropavloka because a friend had told him it was friendly and a good place to learn Russian. :At first I thought I had just gone to a strange village,; he said as we walked. :The people were very friendly even though they were living with no comforts, with dirty roads, in a village that looked like it had just been in a war, in these houses with funny angles. I thought there was no future for these people.; But they seemed happy, he noticed. Skeptically, he started reading, then listening to what the Teacher said about shedding ego and negative associations. It resonated. He felt free. He stayed.

Is Vissarion the Second Coming? :I tried to answer that question for the first two years I was here,; he says, :then I decided it was not important.; To him, Vissarion became a guide, :the voice in your ear when you・re making decisions,; the man who helped him and his first wife realize they・d be better off apart. :I・ll be here until I see I need something more,; he says, :But I・m really happy to be here. I・m really happy.; 

 

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