Russian authorities on Tuesday carried out a special operation to arrest Sergei Torop, a former traffic police officer who claims to be the reincarnation of Lord Jesus and has been running a religious sect in Siberia for the last 30 years. Torop, also known as Vissarion by his followers, has been accused by the Russian intelligence committee of extorting money and causing physical and psychological harm to his followers. Two of his aides, Vadim Redkin and Vladimir Vedernikov, were also arrested in the operation that involved agents from Russia’s FSB security service as well as police and other agencies.
Who is Sergei Torop?
Sergey Anatolyevitch Torop was born at Krasnodar in southern Russia in January 1961. He worked in the Soviet army, before settling down at Minusinsk, where he worked as a traffic officer. Torop lost his job in 1989, and a year later he claimed to have had a mystical revelation, and that he was born as Vissarion, or the reincarnated Christ.
Torop was 29 years old back then, and the Soviet Union he grew up in had just disintegrated. The fall of the atheist state, gave rise to several domestic religious movements. A report in the New Yorker written in 2013, suggested that as per the Russian orthodox church, close to four thousand religious movements existed across the country. In an interview to journalist Rocco Castoro for a documentary film in Vice media, Torop had said it is no coincidence that his religious community came up at the same time as the fall of the Soviet Union.
“Freedom of a religious denomination was supposed to happen around that time, otherwise it would have been hard to establish the community….Man has to experience hunger for sacred truth, then go look for it,” he said.
As Vissarion, Torop is generally seen sporting long Christ-like hair and beard, and he wears a long velvet robe. Soon after his spiritual revelation, he started writing the Last Testament, a 12-volume follow up of the new testament, which provides details of the major tenets of his religious movement and rules of proper day to day conduct. He began preaching in March 1991, and continued spreading his teachings as he travelled across the former republics of the Soviet Union. The religious association of Vissarion was formally born in 1995 as the ‘Church of the last testament’.
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What is the Church of the last testament?
The Church of the last testament that Vissarion founded combines elements of Russian Orthodox Church with Buddhist themes of reincarnation and theories about an impending apocalypse. In 1995, followers of the church 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, the total number of followers of Vissarion 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.
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“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,” she wrote.
Vissarion’s settlement is governed by a set of mysterious religious tenets, prayers, and a new calendar that begins from the year 1961 when Torop was born. A strict code of conduct is in place where veganism is the rule. Use of abusive language, tobacco and alcohol is strictly prohibited. Any kind of monetary exchange within the community is not allowed. Restraining from criticising others and avoiding conflict are some of the fundamental rules of the movement.
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 endeavours has frequently raised suspicions of him living off the money of his disciples.
While the Russian Orthodox Church has been critical of the group, up until now, they were largely left undisturbed. It remains to be seen what happens to the disciples now that Vissarion has been arrested.
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