I’m starting to get a bit worried about the Son of God. Vissarion Christ, the messiah formerly known as Sergei Torop, was arrested atop his Siberian mountain eyrie a few weeks back, on charges of extortion and inflicting “psychological violence” on his followers. But after the initial flurry of reporting, I’ve not heard anything since. How is Vissarion getting on in his jail cell, I wonder? Is he making many converts?
I met him once, a few years back, atop his holy mountain. Of the numerous Christs knocking about in Russia after the collapse of the USSR, Vissarion was the only one of any significance still active and was, it must be said, rather successful. This ex-traffic cop had established a spiritual community of several thousand apocalyptic vegetarians who lived in villages around the mountain. They were all awaiting the end of the world, somehow avoiding the attention of the Russian state, which is, I think it’s fair to say, not known for its tolerance.
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Out there, Vissarion dictated his “The Last Testament” into existence in weekly meetings with his closest followers. I must admit that I was pretty pleased when his gospel writer, Vadim Redkin, wrote my visit to the mountain into its pages (I returned the favour by including both Vissarion and Vadim in my book on post-Soviet alternative realities, Strange Telescopes). So far it is the only holy book in which I have ever received a mention, and, if truth be told, the only one in which I expect to appear.
I didn’t expect that, of course, although before flying out to Siberia I was confident enough in my Orthodox-style holy man look (I was regularly asked for directions to churches on the street in Moscow) that I had been planning to challenge Vissarion to a Jesus-off. Like Vissarion I, too, had long hair and a beard, but I had the added advantage that I was in my early 30s and had not yet outlived Jesus by more than a decade, unlike the forty-something Russian messiah. Naturally, no self-respecting saviour would descend to such low japery, but I thought that maybe I could arrange the contest surreptitiously, by posing for a photograph beside him, which I would then publish in my book.
Yet the moment I entered the room and saw Vissarion standing before me, resplendent in his white robes, I knew that all was lost. It wasn’t just that he dressed the part; there was a mysterious, mesmerising look in his eyes, and he had a powerful presence, an aura, if you will. Clearly the years spent on top of a mountain surrounded by people who believed he was divine had left a mark on him. Surrounded by all that belief, he absorbed it, and reflected it back: to compete I would have had to persuade several thousand people I was Christ, and then believe it myself.
There was little chance of that, so I abandoned the Jesus-off. And it was probably a good thing that I did so, because in truth I was actually very serious about understanding the allure of Vissarion. Just why would anybody accept a burly ex-traffic cop’s claim to be the Son of God? It seemed that if I could understand that, then a few other things about human nature might also stand revealed.
So that week I spent a lot of time talking with believers as well as the man-god himself. He taught his followers that our industrial society was destroying itself, and advocated sustainability, vegetarianism, homeopathy and a syncretistic blend of the world’s major religions. Nothing too far from Greta Thunberg or Gwyneth Paltrow, then — although since I visited, Vissarion has apparently started promoting polygamy.
Believers find that a hard sell, apparently — but it hasn’t stopped them believing. After all he retains his magnetism. Yet the question remains: why?
Life in Siberia is brutal: the winter is freezing, during the summers the mosquitoes will eat you alive and the taiga is full of things that will kill you. Villages are ravaged by alcoholism and poverty is everywhere. Yet 30 years ago Vissarion persuaded a hardcore group of believers to follow him into the wilderness where they cut a path through the trees to the top of a mountain to build an ideal city.
Since then, thousands had come to this remote and forbidding place to join them as they waited for the end of the world. Stalin had to use slave labour to extract the region’s resources, but as the Russian state was collapsing around them, Vissarion and co had built and maintained something without polluting anything, or killing or torturing anyone.
It was not a little unnerving, to see what a charismatic leader with a hodge-podge of not terribly original ideas cribbed from the world’s religions could achieve. Neither the messiah nor his followers should be underestimated, I realised. So, who were they?
The likes of David Koresh, Jim Jones, Heaven’s Gate and Aum Shinrikyo have done a lot to perpetuate the idea that sexual exploitation, fraud and/or mass suicides are always close at hand whenever somebody suddenly starts receiving messages from On High. Those who follow self-declared messiahs or prophets are typically treated as objects of pity lacking in agency. Believers are “cult zombies” who have been “brainwashed”, or robots requiring “deprogramming”. There’s as much contempt in these descriptions as there is sympathy.
That’s not what I saw in Siberia, however. On the mountain, I stayed with a Cuban scientist whose capacious brain had taken him from the Caribbean to Sweden to Russia. He was undeniably a highly intelligent fellow and was able to square that with his belief that Vissarion was the messiah. Nor was he the only one: some 80% of Vissarion’s followers have a higher education. That’s a way higher percentage than you’ll find in the general population of Russia, the US or the UK for that matter.
None of these people could be easily dismissed as weak-minded dupes. In fact, they tended to be Perestroika-era intellectuals or Bohemians who had rejected the USSR’s materialist ideology completely. That only made them more fascinating. Having rejected one repressive regime, here they were in Siberia submitting to a truly totalitarian system. Vissarion told his followers precisely what to think, what to believe and how to feel; when I attended his Sunday audience he held forth on what kind of detergent his followers ought to use. This was a regime much more demanding of obedience than the late period USSR the Vissarionites had grown up in; yet they embraced this unfreedom absolutely.
At the time I was reading a lot of Dostoevsky and my experience in the village made me think a lot about this line, spoken by the Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov: “There is no more ceaseless or tormenting care for man, as long as he remains free, than to find someone to bow down to as soon as possible.” Among the Vissarionites, I found powerful evidence that while the Grand Inquisitor’s dictum might not apply to all people, it certainly applies to some people.
The Vissarionites may be an extreme example, but this desire to find something or “… someone to bow down to as soon as possible” is hardly unique to them. The pandemic has made it very clear how easily people can be scared out of any allegedly innate love of liberty, with members of the public asking for more, not fewer, restrictions to be applied and enforced. And, of course, we are also living through a period in which Woke moralists compete with each other to establish new rules about sex, art, politics, and what can and cannot be said, and by whom. Obviously, many people rather dread freedom and look for ways to be rid of it; if they could only accept Vissarion as their saviour they might actually enjoy life on the mountain and be less bothersome to the rest of us.
Except, of course, that there might not be a community out there for much longer. Long after the Russian state banned Jehovah’s Witnesses and clamped down on Baptists, it has finally taken action against this much more heretical group. I am not sure why it took them so long: the charges Vissarion faces could have been applied at any time over the past 30 years, as it can hardly be difficult to find disgruntled ex-members of so large a community.
Some messiahs welcome martyrdom, of course, but as for Vissarion, when I spoke with him, he was very clear that he was not into it. Jesus’s crucifixion was a mistake, he explained, which was why he, the Christ, had returned to finish the job started by his predecessor two thousand years ago. Only now that message has been interrupted, again. Perhaps we will need another Christ?
In the meantime, I’ll be watching the news for word of what befalls this Son of God. The truth is, I enjoyed the time I spent out there, and I liked a lot of the people, even if their messiah didn’t persuade me. New religions will always get a rough ride from the majority, and the fact that Vissarion’s followers believe a lot of things that are not true is not what makes them different from the rest of us. The same, after all, can be said of everyone who has ever lived, and after we are all dead, future generations will say the same of us.