Jesus of Siberia - Part 2
THE MYSTERIES OF THE TEACHER
VISSARION’S CHURCH OF THE LAST TESTAMENT IS THE ONLY REASON TO VISIT SIBERIA
By Rocco Castoro
Photos by Jason Mojica
Vissarion (aka Sergey Anatolyevitch Torop, aka the Teacher), founder of the Church of the Last Testament.
Ten hours into my first trip to Russia I catch an express train back to the airport. It’s August in Moscow so I’m sweating in a particularly gross and unfamiliar way, as I have since my arrival, and I’m running late. If I miss my flight, I probably won’t make it to Petropavlovka in time for the Holiday of Good Fruits, or speak with a Siberian man who looks like Jesus and believes his is the Word of God.
I buy a ticket and arrive at the platform with a couple minutes to spare, enough time to find the emptiest car and take a seat in the back. It departs three minutes later. This makes me feel a bit better, but I’m still suppressing a freak-out over the possibility of missing my plane. The flight only happens once a day, and I can’t fathom having to deal with whoever answers the phones at Vladivostok Air, Siberia’s largest carrier.
If I don’t make it in time I’ll also have to reschedule my ride. This will involve begging a woman named Tamriko, whom I’ve only corresponded with via email, to persuade a fellow member of what many consider to be a cult to wake up at 4 AM tomorrow, make the three-hour drive to Abakan International Airport to pick up a nosy American stranger, and take him to a remote and deeply religious community of about 4,000 people living in the middle of the Taiga forest. On any other day it would be a borderline-reasonable request, one that I have already made when I rescheduled because of a last-minute issue with my visa. But if I’m not in front of a check-in counter in 30 minutes, the earliest I can possibly arrive is August 18. This is the Church of the Last Testament’s holiest of holidays—the day, more than two decades ago, when a 29-year-old patrol officer and talented painter named Sergey Anatolyevitch Torop publicly declared himself reborn as Vissarion. Since then he’s fostered a “unified religion” that is a vast amalgam of Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, pagan, and other spiritual beliefs.
Just about everything Vissarion has ever said or thought has been recorded in the never-ending Last Testament, which currently spans ten volumes and thousands of pages. More than 5,000 followers around the world consider him a messiah of sorts, known as “the Teacher.” They also believe that the universe has two origins (one spawned nature, the other the human soul) and in something called the “outer-space mind” (aliens, basically), and that the end of the word is nigh. Or at least this is what I understand from the handful of scriptures that have been (somewhat poorly) translated into English.
On the train ride I reflect on my whirlwind impression of Moscow: It’s mostly gray, a little brown, and strangely efficient. And sure enough, I arrive at Vnukovo precisely on time and sprint to my gate. As I step to the end of a short line I look back at the neon-lit bar behind me. I was hoping to have time to get a beer, mostly because it’s not allowed where I’m going. Instead I distract myself by thinking about how fucked I would’ve been if this were JFK, and how I have to be careful not to say fuck over the next week because cussing is also forbidden within the church. So are tobacco, meat, and I’m guessing a lot of other things, but the above were specifically enumerated by Tamriko before I arrived.
Four hours, a gray piece of chicken, and two weird lemon candies later, I land in Abakan at 7:30 AM, half an hour late. I walk into the tiny lobby. It smells weird. Everything looks like it was assembled by a giant Soviet airport machine that produced identical airports, all of which have been left to rot in isolation. Worst of all, I don’t see anyone with a sign that says ROCCO. Tamriko assured me a guy named Ruslin would be here, holding it. Too exhausted to panic, I sit and wait for 15 minutes, when a tall, wiry blond man in his 20s with a piece of cardboard tucked under one arm walks through security and scans the room rapidly. Even before noticing the sign, I know it’s him—the type of guy you see coming. I get up and walk over to him. He snaps his head toward me.
“Rocco,” I say, pointing at my chest. He looks me in the eye and stares for a few seconds before holding the sign out in front of him. I just nod. “Yes,” he says, and puts something that looks vaguely Islamic on his head. We walk out of the exit and to the parking lot in silence. It creeps me out.
Standing alongside his car, a four-wheel-drive station wagon with a steering wheel on the right side, I meet who I assume is his wife or girlfriend. She’s young and pretty in a peculiar way, and smiles as she introduces herself. But there’s no way I’ll ever be able to properly pronounce—or remember—her name right now. I don’t even attempt to write it down in my notepad.
They quietly converse in the front seats for a few seconds, and then the man points to a thermos sitting in the console. “Coffee?” I nod. He pours me a cup while the woman rummages around her floorboard and comes up holding a mason jar of what looks like Elmer’s Glue. She pours some into my coffee and hands it to me. They stare until I take a sip. If it’s poison or brainwash juice, it doesn’t taste so bad. I quickly finish it, and we sit for another minute or two without talking. “We go,” the man says, and turns the key.
I quickly realize that Ruslin and his lady either don’t speak much English, or don’t, for whatever reason, wish to talk to me, so I stay busy trying to get a 3G stick I bought in Moscow to work with my laptop. I manage to connect and attempt to choppily video-chat, then iChat, with my girlfriend. I tell her everything’s going fine, that I haven’t slept in something like 26 hours, and joke about how I just drank really weird coffee given to me by people who are technically cult members and who are now driving me into one of the most remote regions of Siberia. Then the connection goes out and doesn’t come back.
The view of the Abode of Dawn from the Temple Mount.
We make a few pit stops for food and other supplies in what I—probably rudely—assume is Russia’s version of the most rural parts of Tennessee. But yeah, it is. Orange vests and fatigues run rampant, stores don’t seem to have signs, and I’m pretty sure one of our errands is to a place that sells giant garbage bags full of secondhand clothing. Also, the landscape is majestic and wild. At one point, we randomly pull over in front of a house and the young woman gets out of the car while Ruslin waits. She returns with a giant jar of what I assume is milk, and it assuages my fears about what I drank earlier.
An hour later we leave the highway and alternately hit dirt and paved roads for the next half hour, until it’s just dirt. Ruslin rolls up the windows so the dust doesn’t suffocate us while he floors it. The engine and rocks hitting the chassis make it too loud to talk, so everyone’s silent the rest of the ride as we bake in the 90-degree heat.
We make the final turn toward Petropavlovka, greeted by a sign-sculpture that literally looks like it belongs in front of one of the lesser Orlando theme parks. But the place is beautiful. Lakes, clear skies, trees, bountiful vegetable gardens, and grass forever, encircled by the Sayan Mountains. A few hundred structures of various sizes dot the landscape, most of which are of an architectural style unique to the community. I spot the temple I’ve seen in photos, the one Vissarion and his followers built more than a decade ago as they transformed an unfertile mud pit into a self-sufficient village at least 100 miles away from civilization. Somewhere around 4,000 followers live between here and Abode of Dawn, the area where Vissarion and his closest disciples moved after Petropavlovka got too busy for their liking. I feel like I’ve driven into a Tolkien novel.
I arrive at the German House—a sort of spiritual halfway house run by Ruslin and Birgitt, a German woman who hosts students, Vissarionites from abroad, and the spiritually curious. Tamriko works here too, but she’s not around. I introduce myself to Birgitt, and she asks whether I’m hungry. I tell her that I’d rather sleep than eat, so she directs me upstairs to my room. She also instructs me to come back down in an hour and a half to meet the rest of the guests and speak with Vladimir, one of Vissarion’s minders and an important community leader. He will explain what is expected of guests invited to the Abode of Dawn. I also learn that I won’t be sleeping here tonight, or tomorrow, which is news to me. “ Spah-see-bahh ,” I say as I thank her with the inflection of a recent stroke victim.
I manage a 45-minute nap, my first sleep in 30-odd hours, before being roused by a guy unpacking his stuff on the bunk across from mine.
“Sorry if I woke you,” he says. I figure if I go back to sleep, I won’t wake up. He’s Maciej, a Pole studying anthropology of religion at a university in Slovenia. He says he’s come here via the Siberian Express, followed by a Soviet monster bus. “Some people I met on the train told me they brainwashed visitors here,” he says. “They tried to persuade me not to come, but I didn’t think I’d be in danger.”
We go downstairs for lunch—lots of fresh potatoes and green things—and meet our fellow lodgers, who include two female anthropology students and a German photographer and his wife. Tamriko is here too, and she isn’t what I expected (in a good way). She’s only 24, and tells me that less than a year ago she was practicing civil law in Moscow.
“I didn’t feel like I was comfortable living in Moscow,” she says. “I realized that I didn’t like my job. When I came here I felt this very good feeling, that maybe I wanted to live here.”
She has known about Vissarion since she was 18, when her uncle first introduced her to his teachings. She tells me that at first her parents—folks who lived through the fall of Communism and didn’t think much of religion—disapproved of her decision to leave Moscow and her job.
“[My family] didn’t talk about ‘God’ or anything. But I was a very open person. For example, for me it’s OK to go to a Catholic church or to go meet Baptist people, but when someone told me about Vissarion it was like, ‘Wow, if this is the truth, it’s so interesting. I should try to find his books.’”
Tamriko tells me that her parents have since come around—that they had some “soul problems” and her uncle explained to her “very logical” father that the Teacher held all the answers. Within six months, her father had virtually all of Vissarion’s books, and her mother, while not quite as emphatic in her belief, thinks the Teacher is a “good guy who has done good things.” She then says they have told her they want to move to Petropavlovka or a nearby community someday soon, even though they have yet to visit. Later I learn that she has never met Vissarion personally. Yet she has somehow facilitated my interview with him, the first he’s granted in at least three years after deciding he would no longer talk to journalists. She initially told me that an audience with the Teacher was highly unlikely, but I persisted, emailing my questions weeks before my trip. Five days before I left she sent me an email saying that the Teacher had approved our meeting, which will hopefully take place the day after next. She provided no explanation as to why I was bestowed with this honor, but that was fine with me.
After lunch, we meet with Vladimir, a stout and energetic man wearing a gray ponytail and hat similar to Ruslin’s. He tells us what’s expected of visitors invited to the Abode of Dawn, specifically those who wish to document their experience. In other words, myself and the middle-aged German photographer sitting at the other end of the table. He tells us we will leave in two hours, and gives tips on what to do if we run into a bear. Apparently I will be staying with a family who lives in the Abode of Dawn, or in the grass under the stars (I neglected to bring a sleeping bag); it’s not clear which. Either way, I will sleep soundly.