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Brooklyn, New York (VICE) -- In the middle of Siberia's Taiga forest, east of Abakan and down an unmarked dirt road stretching across the Kuraginsk district of Krasnoyarsk territory, there is a place where many have found salvation. It is known as Petropavlovka, the home of the Church of the Last Testament, which has attracted at least 5,000 followers since its establishment in 1990. Last summer, after years of unanswered emails to the church's press department, I was finally invited to visit.
The church's leader is known as Vissarion, a.k.a. the Teacher. In another life he was Sergey Anatolyevitch Torop and served as a patrol officer in Minusinsk until the late 1980s. Then, on August 18, 1990, he experienced a revelation: His was the word of God. He began sermonizing in and around his hometown and soon, with a handful of newly converted followers by his side, he retreated to the ancient Taiga and began a new life -- and, some might say, founded an entirely new world.
Just about everything Vissarion has ever said or thought has been recorded in the never-ending Last Testament, a follow-up of sorts to the New Testament that currently spans 10 volumes and thousands of pages. Inside is doctrine on the dual origins of the universe (one spawned nature, the other the human soul), something called the "outer-space mind" (aliens, basically), and the rapidly approaching end of the world. Or at least this is what I understand from the handful of scriptures that have been (somewhat poorly) translated into English. While Christian imagery abounds, the church's ideology is an all-encompassing amalgam of the world's major religions and includes aspects of Buddhism, Hinduism, Paganism and many other spiritual philosophies.
I first learned of Vissarion and his church from "Bells from the Deep," Werner Herzog's 1993 documentary about Russian mysticism that explored the country's renewed interest in religion following the fall of the USSR and its official stance of gosateizm (state atheism). Back then, Petropavlovka was nothing more than a handful of simple structures on unfertile land in the middle of the forest. Today, I would discover, it is an almost completely self-sufficient community with solar power, satellite television, bountiful organic gardens and an overwhelming air of contentment.
Once open to journalists, a few years back Vissarion claimed that he would never give an interview again. But somehow, some way, he granted me an audience and I was allowed to ask a man who many believe to be the reincarnation of Christ if he had any answers for our troubled world. I'm still not sure if his advice is applicable outside of his insular kingdom, but since my trip I have often thought of his blessed community and how everyone there seemed to be full of joy. It's enough to make you consider that they just may be onto something.