Russian angel with a torn spirit

Anyone out there in GetReligion reader land today who, for whatever reason, feels the need to get depressed?

I have just the story for you.

This is one of those cases in which I kept reading deeper and deeper into this NewsBeast feature story because I just knew, somehow, that there was a big shoe that was going to drop and I had this nagging sensation that it was going to be a religion shoe, a haunted shoe or whatever.

Why is that? First of all, the story was so strongly soaked in tragedy and sin, in lost innocence, crushed souls, fragility and crushed dreams. There was this pervading sense of evil running through the text and, sooner or later, I assumed that a source was going to show up. Or, if not a source, at some point I assumed that there was going to be a blunt clash between evil and good that would eventually point toward the final act — which, in this case, is either suicide or murder.

All of that, in a gossipy global-level fashion scandal.

A Saturday, the bankers are away, the street is empty — apart from the dead girl in the middle of the road. Police report the deceased is a Russian supermodel. Ruslana Korshunova. “Her death is a suspected suicide by jumping from the building site next to her ninth-floor apartment. No signs of a struggle detected. No alcohol or drugs in her blood or urine. She left no note. She was 20. She landed 8.5 meters (27 feet) from the building.”

8.5 meters? That’s not a fall. That’s a leap. That’s almost flight. The supermodel didn’t stand on the ledge and take a step off. The supermodel took a run and soared.

There are models and there are models. There are the lanky androgynous clones, the perfect coat hangers for catwalk collections. And then there are the Ruslanas. The ones who stand out. Their proportions are not perfect, their catwalk work limited, but they become the faces that define a product.

So, to cut to the chase — an iconic beauty. Dead.

After a symphony of sad and tragic details, it is clear that the story of this doomed supermodel (and one of her friends) is heading toward some final act. And for those who have followed the religion beat in the United States for several decades, all I really need to say is one word — Lifespring.

It seems that the controversial Lifespring movement has been reincarnated in Russia under the name Rose of the World.

I realize that this is controversial territory, so let me just express this in journalistic terms: What we have here is religion without religion, “recovery” and self discovery without a confession of ethics, tradition, doctrine, etc. In other words, you are on religious ground — but people are trying to deal with tragedies and sins without moral standards. Throw in some non-religious health and wealth jargon?

The reporting here by Peter Pomerantsev actually gets into some hard, factual material — through recordings of group sessions.

Training for personality development is how the Rose of the World describes itself. “Our seminars will teach you how to realize your goals and achieve material wealth,” its website states, lit up by photographs of happy, shiny people. …

The Rose of the World runs its trainings in a Soviet-gothic palace at the All-Russian Exhibition Center (VDNH) in northern Moscow. VDNH was commissioned by Stalin to celebrate Soviet success; now it is rented out to petty traders selling everything from kitsch art to rare flowers. Stray dogs hunt in packs between gargantuan statues of collective-farm girls. The trainings are in a vast building where, in Soviet times, the Komsomol would meet to sing songs of praise to tyrants. I acquire hidden-camera and audio recordings of the training. When you enter the Rose, there is darkness and shouting, everything is designed to stun the conscious mind, suspend critical thought. Then the “life trainer” emerges. He talks so fast you can’t help but be confused, the microphone set at a level your head starts hurting.

“In the coming days you will experience discomfort. Fear. But this is good. This is the inner barrier you have to break through.” There are 40 people in the hall, who are asked to confess their worst experiences. Tales of rape, abusive parents. Ruslana, I learn, was the most enthusiastic speaker. She spoke about her father’s death, her failed romance — cried publicly, laughed violently. Three days of shouting, recalling repressed memories, meditation followed by dancing, tears followed by ecstasy. Every intense emotion you’ve ever had, stuffed into three life-changing days.

The models signed up for more training, each one a little more expensive than the last, each one a little more intense.

The article even gets the religion hook, even if all of this is coming at the end of the tragic tale.

The Rose’s website reveals its trainings are based on a discipline called Lifespring, once popular in the U.S. What the site doesn’t mention are the lawsuits brought against Lifespring by former adherents for mental damage, cases that caused the U.S. part of the organization to shut down in 1980. In Russia, Lifespring is in vogue, filling in the post-Soviet spiritual vacuum, providing “life-changing” and “transformational” experiences without the inconvenience of traditional religious moral codes. A Lifespring-inspired trainer has even had his own show on the country’s main television station.

At this point, you need to have read the article. Here is the key for me. While this feature has its strengths, it left me — no surprise — wanting at least a hint, a paragraph, about the religious backgrounds of the victims. Yes, I am sure that my interest is in part linked to the Russian setting and that culture’s search for iconic beauty, even in the context of commercialized excess.

I also wondered if the Lifespring material needed to be introduced briefly early on, giving a wider range of readers a hit of what was to come — that this was more than a fashion-eats-its-own soap opera.

Maybe? Maybe not. But the story is haunted, that’s for sure. And it’s depressing, that’s for sure. Cheers.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Jerry

    From my history as a student of psychology decades ago, I did not read this as a religion story but as a story about group therapy techniques marketed as something different and with aspects of a cult. So stories like this to me are better framed as examples of mass marketing psychological techniques with no screening for the stability of those taking such “courses”.

    I know from personal experience how powerful such experiences can be since I vividly remember a couple of therapy training sessions from my experiential student days. After one, the leaders gave me their cards and urged me to call them if and when needed.

    I do agree with you that the Lifespring material should have been introduced early on to provide context. And part of that introduction should provide a clear frame about why people sign up for such things: is it curiousity, psychological problems or a search for deeper meaning in life. And the last, of course, does eventually lead to a considering of religion and spirituality.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    The story’s too long to read, huh?

  • http://www.juliaduin.com Julia Duin

    The writing is stunning, beautiful. For those of you who’ve not been there, Kazakhstan is the one of the most atheistic societies I’ve ever encountered. Other than some undercover evangelical Protestants, simply no one attends church or mosque there. And that’s a great factoid at the end about Kazakhstan ranking 2nd in suicides of young women. Makes you want to locate every female orphan in that country and get them out of there.

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    Does this have anything to do with Andreyev’s ROSE OF THE WORLD?

  • Daniel

    Hmm-The U.S. part of their operation shut down in 1980 and Lifespring was busy doing trainings in Sonoma County, CA in 1995-1997. Who’s right?


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