DAWN RESIDENCE, Russia – Atop a hill bathed in the fall colors of pines, birches and larches, Aleksei Demidov paused for a few minutes of quiet prayer. He directed his thoughts to his religion teacher, known as Vissarion, hoping he could feel her energy.
As he prayed, a group of small bells rang from a slender wooden gazebo. They belonged to the Church of the Last Testament, founded in 1991 by Vissarion. Except his name was Sergei Torop, and he was just a former policeman and an amateur artist.
Today, Mr. Demidov and thousands of other church members regard Vissarion as a living god. The Russian state, however, considers him a criminal.
For nearly three decades, Mr. Torop and his supporters practiced their faith in relative obscurity and without government interference.
But it ended in September of last year, when he and two assistants were taken by helicopter to a dramatic operation led by federal security services. The Russian commission of inquiry, the highest federal prosecuting authority in the country, accused them of “creating a religious group whose activities may impose violence on citizens”, allegations they deny.
A year later, the three men are still being held without criminal charge in a prison in the industrial city of Novosibirsk, 1,000 miles from their religious community. No trial is scheduled.
Since taking power at the turn of the century, President Vladimir V. Putin has gone to great lengths to silence critics and prevent any person or group from gaining too much influence. He has kicked out and locked up oligarchs, silenced the media, and tried to denigrate political opposition – like Alexei A. Navalny.
The state has also cracked down on non-conformist religious organizations, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, which were banned in 2017 and declared an “extremist” organization, along with Islamic State activists.
Although there are accusations of extortion and mistreatment of members of the Last Testament Church, academics and criminal justice experts say Mr. Torop’s arrest underscores government intolerance towards anything that deviates from the mainstream – even a small fringe group living in the middle of the forest, led by a former policeman who claims to be God.
“There is an idea that there is a definite spiritual essence of Russian culture, i.e. conservative values, etc., which is in danger,” said Alexander Panchenko, director of the Center for Anthropology of religions of the European University of St. Petersburg. , who was invited to serve as an expert witness in an administrative proceeding that could deprive the church of its legal status as a church, an act he said was based on “false accusations.”
“One way or another, the new religious movements are now also dangerous,” Panchenko said.
Roman Lunkin, director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the European Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, compared the crackdown on religious groups with a 2012 law on “ foreign agents ”which has been used against journalists and activists critical of the government or its conservative policies.
“There has been no court case involving the Last Testament Church that has proven any psychological or other abuse, such as financial extortion,” Lunkin said. “This is just anti-sectarian hysteria.”
He said the extreme remoteness of the church worked against that. “Hardly anyone will miss them or try to defend them, even in liberal Russian circles,” he said.
Ever since Russia emerged from an era of atheistic communism after the breakup of the Soviet Union, its myriad religions have featured an array of proselytes, gurus and teachers like Mr. Torop. When he founded his church three decades ago, thousands of spiritual seekers flocked to hear him as he gave gnomic lectures at events across the former Soviet Union. He adopted the name Vissarion, which he said meant “to give life” and was given to him by God.
His “Last Testament”, a New Age text describing a set of principles, focused on self-improvement, self-governance and community.
Many believers abandoned their cities, jobs and even their spouses in the hope of building a better world in the harsh conditions of a Siberian taiga forest, which at that time was a four-hour walk from the road. (unpaved) nearest.
“It was a euphoric time, even though it was so difficult,” said Ivanna Vedernikova, 50, who joined the church in 1998 and married one of Mr. Torop’s arrested associates. “We lived in tents and produced electricity by hand, but we knew we were building a new society. “
The community of Abode of Dawn now consists of around 80 families living in the mountains, with thousands more – no one knows exactly how many because the organization does not keep a list – spread across several villages around an hour and a half away. half way. , along the Kazyr river.
On Sundays, Vissarion descended from his residence above the circular village, the Celestial Abode, and answered questions from the faithful, which were collected by an assistant and assembled into a series now consisting of 23 volumes in gilded relief.
These days, his supporters say they communicate with him in prison every night at 10:05 pm in a ritual they call “sliyaniya,” which means integration or mingling; they address their thoughts to him for 15 minutes, and he addresses them in his thoughts.
When arresting Mr Torop last year, Russian authorities relied on accusations from several former members of the community, who spoke of the conditions of his first decade of existence. Elena Melnikova, whose husband is a former church member, told Russian state media that although there was no obligation to donate money, it was encouraged.
She said some food items were banned and seeking medical attention was difficult. The church came to attention in 2000 when two children died because the community is so remote that they couldn’t get medical help in time. But Ms Melnikova also said conditions had mellowed from the early days.
The charges stem from a vague Soviet-era law used to punish unregistered groups like Baptists, Evangelicals and Jehovah’s Witnesses, Lunkin said. The prosecution did not respond to messages requesting information on the status of the case.
In interviews last month with more than two dozen church members, none said they had been abused or strained financially, and all they could come and go freely for work or school. They said the church did not place a financial burden on them. When authorities searched Mr. Torop’s home, they found only 700 rubles (about $ 10).
Mr. Torop and his church have not been politically active or have spoken out against the government. Instead, worshipers believe that their very independence from normal Russian life is what made their church a target. “We have created an autonomous society and our freedom is dangerous for the system,” said Aleksandr A. Komogortsev, 46, a disciple who was a police officer in Moscow for 11 years before moving to one of the three largest villages. years ago.
“We showed how it is possible to live outside the system,” he said, exclaiming over a breakfast of salads and potato dumplings how rewarding it was to work with. his hands.
Tanya Denisova, 68, a follower since 1999, said the church focused on God’s judgment, not politics. She moved to the village in 2001, after divorcing her husband, who did not want to join the church.
“We came here to get away from politics,” she said.
Like the other devotees, Ms. Denisova follows a vegetarian diet, mainly consisting of foods grown in her large garden. Images of Vissarion, nicknamed “the professor,” and reproductions of his paintings hang in many rooms of his home.
Each village where devotees live, like Ms. Denisova’s Petropavlovka, functions as a “united family”, with heads of families meeting each morning after a brief prayer service to discuss urgent community work for the day, and with weekly evening sessions where community members can resolve disputes, seek help or offer help.
At a recent meeting, members approved two new marriages after making sure engaged couples were ready for the wedding.
For many believers, the arrest of their leader, combined with the coronavirus pandemic, is a sign that the day of judgment is approaching.
Others said they believed his arrest was the fulfillment of a prophecy, comparing their master’s fate to that of Jesus over 2,000 years ago.
Stanislav M. Kazakov, director of a small private school in the village of Cheremshanka, said the arrest made the teacher more famous in Russia and abroad, which he hoped would attract more adherents. .
Mr Kazakov said his school, like other community institutions, had been subject to repeated inspections and fines since 2019, with at least 100 students as young as 8 years old being questioned by police. He said the arrest and intimidation by the police made the community stronger.
“They thought we would collapse without him,” he said. “But over the last year, we’ve come back to the kind of community that sticks together.”