Dateline, Jesus of Siberia

Transcript

The Russian region of Siberia has a forbidding image, a vast and rugged wilderness where icy winds howl and only the hardiest souls survive the bitter winter.

Well Dateline's Kim Traill has just had an altogether different experience, she found sunny skies and what appears to be, an idyllic and happy community lead by a man claiming to be the son of God.

The self-styled Jesus of Siberia, a former Russian traffic cop no less is ecologically inclined and preaches endless love to his devoted followers. Kim was determined to secure a rare interview.

REPORTER: Kim Traill

In a remote corner of the vast Siberian wilderness lives a Russian mystic who describes himself as the Son and Word of God.

SERGI CHEVALKOW (Translation): You can call him our Saviour. The Christ.

From his mountainside abode, deep in an almost impenetrable forest, the Russian mystic leads a community of 5000 disciples spread over an area with a radius of 300 kilometres.

TANIA DENISOVA, SCHOOL TEACHER (Translation): He looked at me from that photo in such a way that I was almost forced to raise my arms and say "œBut this is the Christ!"

They've come here from all over the former Soviet Union, even as far afield as Germany, Bulgaria, and Belgium, inspired by the message of the man they call the Teacher.

IGOR GONCHAROV (Translation): For us, the Teacher is ;. The Second Coming.

CONGREGATION (Translation): Vissarion, your bright new light is our path to unending bliss. Vissarion, Vissarion;

NATALYA GONCHAROVA (Translation): For me the most important thing, even if it's not the newest, is that people have to treat each other like their closest blood relations, like their dearest friends, and love each other, friends or strangers, like their closest kin.

Central to his teaching is the concept of harmony. Everyone must live harmoniously with each other and the environment, followers aren't even allowed to think anything bad.

IGOR GONCHAROV (Translation): So if all people on earth stop channelling their aggression out, if, as Natalia said, they love and forgive each other, and help each other, then we'll have a different world. It will be a new civilisation.

Vissarion's community is called the Church of the Last Testament, and beyond his Siberian commune, they tell me, he has gathered around 20,000 followers into his fold worldwide. Its genesis goes back to the collapse of the old Soviet Union. In 1991, when the officially atheist Soviet Empire finally crumbled, so did the ideologies and beliefs that had been part of it. A host of gurus, mentors and saviours appeared, both local and foreign imports. Spirituality-starved Russians rushed to embrace religion in droves.

OLEG POTULOV (Translation): We were so hungry for it, we grabbed whatever we saw. And there was a new problem - what to pick. Such a broad range, how do you find your way in it?

It was the perfect time for the then Sergei Torop, traffic policeman and painter, to present himself as Vissarion, the Second Coming of Christ. While this might look like an Orthodox service, Vissarion does have some unorthodox ideas, including belief in reincarnation, the existence of unearthly beings and the impending end of civilisation as we know it. Even the local calendar dates from the year of his birth - making it currently the year 53. Not surprisingly, Vissarion gets a lot of negative press, particularly here in Russia where the Orthodox Church is strongly linked to the State.

IGOR GONCHAROV (Translation): I started to read the press, the papers... And there I read "œVissarion's Community", "œVissarion is so and so,this and that", that they took passports away, that people went hungry and malnourished, that the children were sick there...

Despite the bad reports, Artist Igor Goncharov and his wife Natalya decided to visit the community.

IGOR GONCHAROV (Translation): So when we came over here, met the people, talked to them, we realised that this was really the place where...we could have children and not be afraid for them and where everyone's a friend.

They bought some land in the village, built themselves a house and haven't looked back.

IGOR GONCHAROV (Translation): For 20 years now...for 20 years, he's been teaching us, correcting us and talking to us about every possible subject that has anything to do with human life... human psychology, ways to organise one's life, our universe, our souls and so on...He gave us the answer to every question.

Vissarion forbids his followers to use alcohol, drugs or cigarettes and they are all strict vegetarians, they are trying to create a money free, self-sufficient, and environmentally sustainable utopia.

NATALYA GONCHAROVA (Translation): We mainly try to eat things that we can grow by ourselves.

IGOR GONCHAROV (Translation): We can live on our own stuff for a year or two without worrying.

Key to the commune's survival is the concept of belonging to a wider family, where everyone helps everyone else. Every morning, members get together by the church, and anyone who needs help with anything simply asks for it.

VOLODYA VEDERNIKOV (Translation): Today we will need seven people to dig holes and fill them with compost to plant corn.

It's an echo of the traditional Russian commune. For people who grew up under the Soviet system, it's a welcome escape from the harsh individualism of capitalist Russia.

TANIA DENISOVA (Translation): It's a mini Soviet Union. The best things that existed in the Soviet Union... that openness, that trust, the absence of selfishness, people being friends...It's all present here.

Disenchanted by life in Moscow, Tania Denisova moved here twelve years ago and built this school for girls.

TANIA DENISOVA (Translation): Veronica is here for the first time. Do you want to join our circle? All right.

Are you making a pillow? She wants to make a pillow. We're going to make one today.

She tells me that in the interests of future family harmony, girls are groomed to become perfect housewives.

TANIA DENISOVA (Translation): And we teach the girls how to keep their houses tidy and cosy, how to be their husband's helpmeet, how to deliver a baby and bring it up and how to be a good housewife and assist her husband, who is to be a creator.

While girls are discouraged from pursuing careers outside the home, they are actively encouraged to develop their bodies.

TANIA DENISOVA (Translation): They have to take care of their bodies. So at school we have many workshops for girls.

A ballet class, flamenco, variety and circus classes, so we have more than 100 girls attending various dance classes.

But Natalya Goncharova agrees that in the future these girls will be playing supporting roles to their husbands.

NATALYA GONCHAROVA (Translation): A man follows God, a man searches for God. A woman searches for a man and follows her man.

IGOR GONCHAROV (Translation): And follows her man.

NATALYA GONCHAROVA (Translation): If a man has already found God and a woman has found a man who has found God, then the task of that woman is just to obey her husband and all will be well.

I still don't know if or when I'll get to meet the Teacher. But his personal scribe and companion of over two decades, Vadim Redkin, is keen to meet me.

VADIM REDKIN (Translation): That is how we mow our lawns.

Vadim was a rising Soviet rock star when he met Vissarion in 1991.

VADIM REDKIN (Translation): I stopped doing tours, I rejected it. I rejected that whole way of life.

Since then, Vadim has been by Vissarion's side absolutely everywhere.

VADIM REDKIN (Translation): My musician friends in Moscow were surprised. They thought that I...

I'd gone a bit...But not all of them.

He's recorded, transcribed and published nearly every word Vissarion has uttered.

VADIM REDKIN (Translation): Those already living here won't change it for anything. If you leave here, it all loses its meaning. There's business, money, unlimited material consumption and not enough of human relationships.

Finally I hear that Vissarion will talk to me. We sit for two and a half hours. He tells me why the world as we know it must end.

VISSARION (Translation): Humanity, in the state that it currently exists in...Or one should rather say "œhuman society", the society we have now...It shouldn't exist at all. It's very essence is non-harmonious, I mean, this society should not exist.. it has to destroy itself or refashion itself radically to form an entirely different kind of society.

And why his followers will be saved.

VISSARION (Translation): The issue isn't about preserving all the people on earth. The main thing is to save the very part... and to save enough of it... that is able to create the most favourable conditions for laying down the foundations upon which a new humanity is going to be formed.

And he tells me about representatives from unearthly worlds.

VISSARION (Translation): Many new belief systems appeared on this planet. That was mainly the work of those from the Universe. They studied us and tried to give us various tips and as a result, humans became firmly convinced that God can speak to Man;

And I ask why he, Christ, needed to come back.

REPORTER: Did you miss anything last time?

VISSARION (Translation): A doctrine. I didn't leave behind a doctrine. There was just a call that was made. There was just a general story of God. Now I have to explain how to follow the laws of love. One has to explain how people should act in every situation so that their actions embody love, so their actions embody humility.

The next day hundreds of followers gather at the Abode of Dawn for Sunday liturgy. No-one seems perturbed by the almost Biblical rain.

PRIEST (Translation): The images of the liturgical sacrament that the Teacher has given us and Our Father has opened to us. Let us bow to Mother Earth. Let us bow to our Teacher.

The head priest was once a rocket scientist for the Red Army. And so begins the long rain-sodden procession up the mountain, to the special place where the Teacher meets his followers. They wait and wait, but there's no sign of Vissarion.

CONGREGATION (Translation): Vissarion, who gives us life and brings salvation to our hearts, Vissarion, who gives us life, the Holy mouth of Our Lord.

Apparently today, the Second Coming won't be coming.

Reporter/Camera
KIM TRAILL

Producer
ASHLEY SMITH

Fixers
SVETLANA VICHEROVA
MARCO PIGHIN
GERT DIERCKX

Editor
NICK O'BRIEN

Translations/Subtitling
ELENA MIKHAILIK

Original Music Composed by
VICKI HANSEN

13th August 2013