SERGEI Torop, a former traffic police officer who amassed a cult following and lots of dosh by pretending to be the reincarnation of Jesus, has been arrested in Siberia by Russian special forces.
The Guardian reports that helicopters and armed officers stormed communities run by Torop – aka Vissarion – and arrested him and two of his aides.
Russia’s investigative committee said it would charge him with organising an illegal religious organisation, alleging that the cult extorted money from followers and subjected them to emotional abuse.
Torop, 59, who now has a shaggy grey mane and a beard, was led by masked troops to a helicopter. The operation involved agents from Russia’s FSB security service as well as police and other agencies.
Vadim Redkin, a former drummer in a Soviet-era boyband who is known as Vissarion’s right-hand man, was also arrested, along with another aide, Vladimir Vedernikov.
Torop, who lost his job as a traffic officer in 1989, claimed he experienced an “awakening” as the Soviet regime began to collapse. In 1991 he founded a movement now known as the Church of the Last Testament.
Several thousand followers live in a series of remote hamlets in the Krasnoyarsk region in Siberia. Converts to the cult have included professionals from across Russia as well as pilgrims from abroad.
Back in 2002 Torop told The Guardian:
I am not God. And it is a mistake to see Jesus as God. But I am the living word of God the father. Everything that God wants to say, he says through me.
Russian media reported that in the original ideology of the cult, Vissarion claimed Jesus was watching over people from an orbit close to Earth, and the Virgin Mary was “running Russia”, but later he declared himself to be Jesus.
His commune mixes a selection of rites drawn from Orthodox Christianity with environmental edicts and a series of other rules. Veganism is enforced and monetary exchange is banned inside the commune. Followers wear austere clothing and count years starting from 1961, the year of Vissarion’s birth, while Christmas has been replaced by a feast day on January 14, his birthday.
The official Russian Orthodox church has long condemned the group but officials have largely left the devotees alone. Some Russian media outlets reported that the community had become involved in a dispute with local business interests.
The Indian Express adds that in 1995, Torop’s followers founded a settlement known as the “City of the sun” in the Kuraga region of Siberia.
Anthropologist Joanna Urbanczyk, in her research paper titled, Last Testament Church – the power of unanimity, noted that by 2013, Torop’s total number of followers numbered about four to five thousand. They come mainly from Russia and former Soviet republics, but there are some from Western Europe as well, primarily Germany.
Attracted by Vissarion’s teaching they have moved to what they believe to be the Siberian ‘Promised Land’ to create an ideal society of the future based on money-and-violence-free relationships and focused on spiritual development and balanced relations with the natural environment.
However, Vissarion spends very little time with his flock. He is known to be living in a lavish house on top of the hill, where he paints, while his priests and assistants take care of his followers on an everyday basis.
A report by journalist Ian Traynor written in The Guardian in May 2002, noted that:
In recent years Vissarion has been to New York, to Germany, the Netherlands, France, and Italy seeking converts.
His globe-trotting has frequently raised suspicions of him living high on the hog off ill-gotten gains from of his disciples.
Hat tip: BarrieJohn