The Mysteries of the Teacher
Mysteries : 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.
The many friendly faces of the Church of the Last Testament, and a few visitors.
I manage to grab an hour or so of shut-eye upstairs before my roommate again wakes me and says it’s time to go. It takes me a bit to get dressed and check my supplies because I’m deliriously tired and half-dreaming in a place that could easily be a dream itself. I run downstairs with my shoes still untied, almost forgetting the sleeping bag loaned to me by Tamriko, who decides to stay behind, and squeeze into a rusty yet seemingly indestructible Soviet-era bread loaf packed with my new friends from the German House and a few fresh faces.
It’s an even bumpier ride than the one I took this morning, but our skilled driver—who looks like he probably knows his way around a Soviet tank—easily navigates endless potholes and muddy puddles that could pass for small ponds. I try to make small talk with my fellow passengers, but it’s so loud and uncomfortable that shouting is necessary to communicate. Mostly we just stay quiet and hang on. In the seat adjacent to mine, facing the opposite direction, is a young blond man wearing a ball cap. His eyes—piercing and greenish brown—remind me of Ruslin’s, and he anxiously rolls what appears to be a black rosary between his fingers. I am later told that he is Vissarion’s son, but it’s obvious he does not want to speak with me or anyone else in the van.
An hour later we arrive at the base of the mountain trail, which is filled with parked cars and travelers who’ve come to celebrate the community’s equivalent of Easter. I’m told that last year more than 2,000 made the pilgrimage. It looks like this year the turnout could be even higher. The hike up the mountain is nowhere near as strenuous as I imagined. Much of it is covered with wood planks, and no rock climbing is involved. Still, a few people have trouble keeping up with Vladimir’s brisk pace, and we stop a few times to rest. I shuffle around in the pack, chatting with my fellow travelers to find out why they’ve come all this way.
One woman, who appears to be in her 50s—all smiles and bright eyes—tells me she has been traveling the world for decades, with a vague general mission of celebrating all religions and spreading the good word. She also mentions that a friend of hers recently invented a television that is capable of broadcasting the viewer’s soul. She’s come here many times before, and encourages others to do so, but spends most of her time in India. A couple—from Sweden—talk a lot about the environment and how the creator is present in everything, and how eating meat is reprehensible. It makes me crave a hamburger and a beer. Another guy—in his late teens or early 20s—has what appear to be small triangular cuts all over his face and forehead. I try to steer clear of him.
We reach the end of the trail 30 minutes ahead of schedule, and Vladimir instructs us to walk to a small green structure in the distance and form a line in front of what is basically a makeshift customs office. The attendant inside the shack takes our names and grants admission to the Abode of Dawn. We walk in silence to the city gates, a narrow and sloped-roof structure made of pine, where a small group of what looks to be town elders is waiting for us. They greet Vladimir and have a short conversation. I make out the word American, and one of the men motions for me to follow him and Nina—a woman in her mid-30s who took the van up with me and seems to speak good English—to an unknown destination.
“Where are we going?” I ask. “To the house,” Nina says. I laugh nervously.
We walk up to a small dwelling and are excitedly greeted in Russian by a woman in a skirt. Nina tells me that her name is Marina and that we will be staying here for the next two days along with another half-dozen guests. I finally realize that Nina will be serving as my guide and translator for the rest of the trip; it seems they are fond of letting people figure things out on their own here.
Marina shows us where we will be sleeping—the floor of an attic that has been converted into a living area just outside a curtain that leads to Marina and her husband’s room. She insists that we head downstairs for lunch immediately, where we are treated to simple food—cold vegetable soup, cheese, bread, potatoes, and black tea. Marina, communicating through Nina, gives us the lay of the land: where to find the outhouse, shower, and headlamps that will help us get to those places at night. I ask Nina why Vissarion requires his followers to adhere to a vegetarian diet (strict veganism was practiced in the earliest days of the community, but underwhelming crop yields and complaints of babies getting sick prompted the Teacher to change dietary restrictions). She says it’s because meat contains “information of death,” and I quickly change the subject. We wind up talking about her family. “I have a son here in the monastery, on the temple peak,” she says. “He’s 18, and I used to visit him all the time but…” She also tells me a little about herself—that she used to translate Stephen King’s books into Russian before moving to the community many years ago. She likes fantasy novels. “That’s what this place is,” she says. “It’s like stepping into a fairy tale.”
I try to finish my bowl of soup but can’t, handing it back to Marina and hoping she takes no offense. A man who introduced himself as Slava appears, seemingly out of nowhere, smiling widely, and tells Nina and me to meet him outside Marina’s at 7 PM sharp if we wish to attend tonight’s liturgy. We do.
The liturgy consists of a few hundred people praying and kneeling around something that resembles an ankh from afar. When I get closer I realize the shape is that of a standard Christian cross, but with a circle around the crux. Statues of angels surround it. Nina tells me the circle represents the all-encompassing nature of their faith and then makes what appears to be the sign of the cross, ending with the additional motion of tracing a clockwise circle around her head and upper torso. She also points out the 14 roads of varying prominence that radiate out from the city center. “Thirteen was a number of significance in the New Testament,” she explains. “And so, we have 14 because it is the beyond.” A bell then tolls 14 times while everyone closes his or her eyes to pray.
After the last toll I’m handed a thin yellow candle from a stranger who lights it for me. Darkness falls, and even the most steadfast atheist would have to admit that the scene here is pure and beautiful in a way few things are in this world. After about an hour of hymnals and blessings, I sit down on a rock and nod off with my head in my hands. Nina soon rouses me, and we return to Marina’s for the night. I sleep like a dead dad.
The procession to the Temple Mount on the Holiday of Good Fruits.
I awake at sunrise. Today’s the big day, the Holiday of Good Fruits, and the reason that thousands of followers from all over the world have come here—to catch a glimpse of their lord as he gives his annual address on the mountain. Many of these people converted after meeting Vissarion on one of his many missions throughout Russia, Europe, and other parts of the world during the early and mid-2000s. American visitors, however, are a rarity.
By 8 AM we’re back at the circle-cross, as if last night’s liturgy never ended, but this morning there are at least three times as many people surrounding it, and more keep streaming in through the gates. I stare at the trail to the temple mount—and Vissarion’s home—in the distance and leave the liturgy to take a stroll around town. Quite a few journalists have visited the community throughout the years, many of whom made the place out to seem like it was primitive and full of hardship. And while I’m sure the brutal Siberian winters suck in ways I can’t imagine, looking around the place it seems almost entirely self-sufficient. Most of the houses appear to be solar powered, and some have satellite TV and internet. Freakishly huge vegetables grow in meticulously manicured gardens that dot the landscape. I’m beginning to understand the allure of this place, and so far, everyone I’ve met seems to be extremely happy and at peace with his or her decision to drop out of a world they consider beyond hope and start anew on this virgin plot.
For whatever reason I get the impression that some of its inhabitants are more into the lifestyle than the faith, but considering that one cannot be had without the other, they happily go through whatever motions are required to stay. Most, however, are wholeheartedly devoted to Vissarion and his teachings. I also consider that they might have it right—perhaps humanity can’t sustain itself in its current, self-destructive state, and we should throw the whole thing out and start over. Also, if the end-times are coming soon, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better place to wait it out than on the top of a mountain in Siberia.
Nina tracks me down to let me know that the procession to the Temple Mount will begin in 20 minutes, and we make our way back to the gates, where the congregation is growing by the minute. Around the perimeter, musicians—many of them children—tune their violins and blow notes from wind instruments. Soon it’s time to start walking, and I watch as a couple thousand stream through the gates and join them. We halt when the front of it reaches the entrance of the path up the mountain. It begins to rain about halfway up, but it’s still a beautiful day and no one seems to mind. By the time we reach the monastery it’s sunny again, and we continue on to a small temple tucked away inside a clearing. And it’s more of the same: singing, bells, incantations, and lots of white robes. I try to stay engaged, but I’ve never been one to enjoy mass.
Afterward I’m invited to tour the monastery, an impressive two-story cabin in which Vissarion used to live before donating it to the headmaster, Andrey, and an inaugural class of eight teenage monks. Andrey tells me he always felt out of place in life before his first visit to the community, which instantly felt like home. I ask him about the movement’s earliest days, soon after the fall of the Soviet Union. “The universe was preparing this place before the collapse of Communism,” he says. “It stayed preserved from development.” He then details the boys’ daily routine, which seems to include nothing but chores, prayer, academics, and lots of physical fitness. Later he asks me how I feel about the community, and whether I would ever consider moving here. I tell him it seems like a very interesting place but I’m not sure what a city boy like me would have to offer. “You are a writer,” he says. “It’s a profession that is fascinating to us because we strive to create new works where negative characters do not exist.” Trying to change the subject, I ask whether I can perhaps speak with one of the young monks. He agrees and takes me upstairs, to the room Vissarion had formerly used as his painting studio.
I meet John, a third-year student who seems better adjusted than most 16-year-olds I’ve met, but that may be because he doesn’t know much outside of this community, and for the first time I imagine what it must be like to be born here (even though John tells me he was not—his parents moved here when he was nine). I ask him to name his favorite subject or daily activity. “To be helpful to others,” he replies, almost reflexively. After a bit of prying, I get him to admit that he enjoys construction and using “power tools and gas-powered equipment.” He’s reluctant to answer anything too personal, and the hour of Vissarion’s holiday sermon is fast approaching, so we exchange good-byes and I head about halfway down the mountain with Nina to a massive stage carved out of rock where thousands of followers await a few words from their teacher.
Suspense mounts, and the crowd pushes forward as one of Vissarion’s high priests (there are only two) appears on the stone platform a few minutes before sundown. He preps the crowd, revving them up with an extended homily. Then he sits in a chair off to the side, and everyone grows silent with anticipation for the Teacher’s grand entrance.
Vissarion appears in the distance, and walks slowly, like a good showman, before pausing to scan the crowd. Then he takes a seat in a kingly throne covered by a red umbrella that appears to be made of velvet. He swings the microphone toward him, audibly breathes into it for 20 or 30 seconds, and begins. I can’t understand a word, but whatever he says only takes ten minutes before he pushes the microphone away, slowly rises, and walks back up the path from which he came—disappearing around a bend.
Nina gives me the gist of what he said: “He told us that he was happy to see us all together and that we are all staying on the path. And that we have to stay cautious and determined so that we can celebrate another anniversary together.” She relays a few more things, but they all seem like circular statements without a point. But maybe that’s my problem, because everyone in the crowd is radiating with happiness. I stop a few people at random, asking them what they think about Vissarion. It’s all more or less the same: “When I saw him for the first time, he is the one I had been looking for all my life.” “I feel he is my close friend.” “I have a feeling that he has his own state of being.” “Everything he says gets into my soul.” Was I missing something?
Slava, the guide who greeted us on arriving at the Abode of Dawn, joins Nina and me on our walk down the mountain, back to Marina’s house. He tells me that one night a few years ago he looked into the night sky and saw three glowing spheres in the shape of a triangle. “Extraterrestrials?” I ask. But after that he drops it, saying that the subject matter doesn’t interest him. He tells me that my meeting with Vissarion—which has already been rescheduled twice—will take place tomorrow morning, at the Teacher’s house on the mountain. I wish him good night and walk upstairs, where I fall asleep almost instantly.
Vissarion addresses his followers in a sermon on the Holiday of Good Fruits.
The next day Slava arrives at our scheduled time and escorts Nina and me through a usually off-limits back road, where machinery and supplies are stored. The walk is taking longer than planned, so we pick up the pace, and I start sweating like I was on the train in Moscow. Nothing like showing up to meet a person many consider to be a deity looking like a total slob. We arrive at his house, which is covered in stucco and features a different style of architecture from the rest of the village. It throws me for a loop; the place looks like something you’d find inside a gated community in Florida. We are greeted outside by Vladimir and brought up to the porch, where we meet Vadim, the Teacher’s official biographer, who apparently will be including the answers to my questions in some sort of official literature.
Vissarion steps out from his patio door. I was half-hoping he’d be wearing loungewear, or maybe pajamas, but of course he’s in a white robe. He eschews the drawn-out posturing of yesterday’s sermon and holds out one of his hands, which are massive and seemingly bloated. Up close he’s a bit older and heavier than I anticipated, but he seems to have a gregarious way about him. We sit down and get right to it, Nina translating our exchange for the group.
“Why did you agree to meet with me today?” I ask. “I know that you have been refusing interviews for a while now.”
“I am not sure.”
“Are you regretting it now?” He laughs.
I tell him that I am 29, the same age at which he experienced his spiritual awakening, hoping it will prompt him to talk about it. “It’s extremely hard to express in words,” he says. “I’m not even sure how to do so.”
Over the course of our 45-minute conversation he reveals that his “feelings” first guided him to this land, that my residence in New York City is “not life,” that every object has a “unique energy,” that “outer-space minds do not have a soul,” the pitfalls of modern science, and that he can “feel a person” in my soul but its features are “undefined.” At one point I watch in awe as a fly lands on his sleeve, where he begins petting its wings. It doesn’t fly away.
Perhaps the most poignant thing he says has to do with his supposed knowledge of a doomsday event: “The less truth a human knows, the fewer responsibilities he carries on. A human is safer to make a mistake without knowing the cause of it, instead of consciously making that mistake in response to wrong guidelines.”
Vladimir signals me that it’s time to wrap things up, so I take a risk and ask Vissarion a couple personal questions: his favorite food and whether he likes the Beatles. He doesn’t bite, skirting the question by saying, “I don’t have preferences for anything. It would be hard to explain how it works with me.”
The following day I leave Petropavlovka, and Ruslin drives me back the way we came. I wonder how many times a year he has to make this trip, and whether he minds. After checking into the Hotel Siberia in Abakan, I manage to get my laptop to work with Russian internet and catch up on all I’ve missed over the past week. I’m greeted with headlines about violent upheaval around the world, more than 750 emails from work, a credit-card bill, and a Gmail message from my roommate, telling me that my alcoholic Polish neighbor dropped dead the day before from delirium tremens. I close my laptop and lie down. For a few minutes, I seriously contemplate what life would be like as a member of the Church of the Last Testament. Could I hack it? Probably not. But then again I don’t have much of a problem with the way the world is right now. Sure, it’s nowhere near perfect, but things like indoor plumbing and chicken wings make it worth it—at least for me—and I’m lucky enough to have access to them, so why not enjoy?
I close my eyes and feel myself drifting into sleep, chuckling as I imagine what I’ll say the next time I hear someone complaining about how everyone is corrupt, money is evil, and our problems are unsolvable: “Well, there’s this place you can go in Siberia…”