Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Visarrion: Jesus of Siberia

While the predominant religion in Russia is Russian Orthodox Christianity, with 75% of the population identifying as Orthodox and 150,000,000 adherents worldwide, a unique religious movement emerged 21 years ago that has attracted over 5000 followers and has piqued the interest of religious seekers worldwide.  The fall of the Soviet Union, according to the movement's founder, provided the necessary ripe conditions for his religious movement--as well as other religions--to develop and flourish in Russia.  

Sergey Anatolyevitch Torop--who has come to be known as Vissarion, the Teacher, and the Messiah by his followers--established the Church of the Last Testament after a revelation in which he claims that he discovered that he is the reincarnation of Jesus Christ.  Around 4000 of Vissarion's followers live together in a community in the town of Petropavlovka in the Siberian taiga, where they lead simple lives purified of alcohol, tobacco, meat, and swearing.  The Vissarionites embrace a very patriarchal family dynamic in which wives are expected to serve as their husbands' "assistants"; during the teenage years, boys typically join the monastery to prepare for their careers in the community, and girls attend school to learn how to be good wives.

The community has developed its own rituals and liturgy, inspired in part by Russian Orthodoxy, but also incorporating beliefs and practices from other faiths and philosophies. The Holiday of Good Fruits, reports Rocco Castoro, is essentially the Church of the Last Testament's equivalent to Christianity's Easter, as it commemorates Vissarion's revelation of messiahship.  It is during this holiday that the Teacher delivers a brief annual sermon to thousands of pilgrims, affirmed followers and curious seekers alike.

As Castoro notes in his documentary on Vissarion and his Church, the cult-like vibe of the community scares many away from the community and Vissarionites in general.  However, Castoro and the religious seekers who curiously stumble into the village also affirm that there is something intriguing, even alluring, about this community of people who have withdrawn from the luxuries and hassles of society.  While the Church of the Last Testament diverges from traditional Russian society, it is fascinating to see how the fall of the Soviet Union opened up the room for such a unique community to establish itself and find its niche in the remote Siberian taiga.

If you have 30 minutes to spare, I recommend that you check out Castoro's documentary here.

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