MOSCOW—My phone started to ring, it was Elena Plotnikova FaceTiming from a village known as the Adobe of Dawn, which is at the center of a sprawling commune in Siberia. She was trying to stay calm but the smile on her face was cracking. Military vehicles and FSB gunmen had arrived at about 6:40 am on Tuesday morning and arrested their leader.
The Vissarion, or teacher, as his followers call Sergei Torop, as well as his best friends, Vadim Redkin and Vladimir Vedernikov, were rounded up by agents of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) who had brought cages into the commune to hold “psychologically unstable people” in case there was any trouble, Plotnikova said.
Torop has been running the commune in rural Russia for a quarter of a century, and has around 5,000 followers living in a network of villages in the Krasnoyarsk region. There are schools, performance centers, galleries and workshops, and seven churches with a star of Bethlehem instead of a cross at their apex. On a recent afternoon the followers’ orchestra rehearsed Verdi, Vivaldi and Handel, accompanied by ex-soloists from Moscow theaters.
The Christ of Siberia, a retired traffic cop from the provincial town of Minusinsk, is worshipped as a god by his followers. One Sunday this month, The Daily Beast was present as he told them: “You always asked me when and how Apocalypses was going to happen; it is already happening this year.”
Prior to this announcement, the settlement had lived peacefully for 25 years, after it was filled by disillusioned Russians during the economic crises of early 1990s. The Vissarion’s followers don’t drink alcohol, don’t smoke, don’t curse, nor do they lock their doors at night since there is no crime in the commune.
The cult is officially registered as a religious group called the Church of Last Testament, their holy place, the home of their “teacher” is the Adobe of Dusk, a picturesque village with skillfully carved houses that evoke the Shire in The Hobbit. The population of about 300 people treat the whole village as a church. Earlier this month, men put on their white clothes and gathered in the central square to take part in the daily morning meeting—standing shoulder to shoulder—to pray and share out the day’s errands. The ceremony was blessed by the community’s “Father,” Sergei Chuvalkov, a former colonel of strategic rocket forces.
The community has opened its doors to followers of all kinds; Russians; foreigners; healthy people or those with serious disabilities or psychiatric illnesses. It has always allowed law enforcements to come and inspect life inside the commune. High level officials including the governor of Krasnoyarsk, Alexander Khloponin, have even visited.
But the Russian Orthodox Church called the Vissarion “a faker,” and an “anti-Christ.” They say his teaching is “heresy.” The law enforcement authorities have also investigated the community many times. Vissarion has been criticized for brain-washing his followers, for taking their money and even been blamed for some of their deaths, both suicidal and accidental.
Some well-connected officials are said to want the land and the woods where the Abode of Dawn has been built up, so members of the cult feared the FSB would seek a reason to evict them, forcing them to escape deeper into the Taiga.
The FSB began to question hundreds of cult members over 13 alleged criminal and bureaucratic charges in December. The community members told The Daily Beast they did not know what the crimes were. The FSB has promised to ban the religion and all the literature.
After Torop, Redkin and Vedernikov were arrested on Tuesday, investigators said they had “extracted income from religious activities, they attracted funds from citizens, and also used psychological violence against them, as a result of which, some of the followers of the religious organization suffered serious health damage.”
Chuvalkov, the colonel turned “Father,” does not believe the crackdown will succeed in making the cult disappear. “We followed our Teacher to the depth of Siberia, about five thousand people joined us, we built a unique eco-community, I don’t think that by arresting people the state will manage to ruin our beliefs,” he told The Daily Beast.
On my second trip to the commune last week, I also met Plotnikova, 48, the mother of seven children, about a third of the community’s population is made up of kids.
Plotnikova was born to parents who were both unable to walk. She was taken from them by doctors at a young age. “I have been through hell in my life, thanks to the Vissarion, who came to our institution and helped us two decades ago, I ended up here with my own home, my own garden, with seven happy and healthy children,” Plotnikova told me. “I am not afraid for my fate—I have been through hell—but I am very much upset that my kids are terrified. I just say to my husband: ‘Zhenia, what will happen to our kids now?’”
By Tuesday evening, a member of the cult claimed that FSB agents had locked all of the men in the Adobe of Dawn into one barn. The agents have set up a camp with a field kitchen, so don’t look like they are set to pull out anytime soon.
Svetlana Gannushkina, a well-respected human rights campaigner, said this kind of crackdown could be unpredictable. “I don’t believe that Vissarion is Christ, all I know is that an ideology can be beaten only with ideology; somebody has obviously complained and may be for a serious reason but the methods used turn leaders into martyrs,” she said. “It is unlikely the community is going to believe their leader is a criminal, their belief can only turn more fanatical, as we know from history of Christianity.”