The beard and long hair are both present and correct. And with his flowing linen robes and beatific smile he certainly does a fine impression of a holy man. But to his believers in this remote corner of Siberia, Sergei Torop, a former traffic policeman, is the literal reincarnation of none other than Jesus Christ. Torop, 48, is the spiritual leader of at least 5,000 devoted followers, among them intellectuals, artists and professionals who flock to worship him in the small isolated village of Petropavlovka - more than 2000 miles from Moscow.
Torop was ‘reborn’ as ‘Vissarion’ in 1991 just as Russia was facing a crisis of confidence following the collapse of the iron curtain. He is just the latest example of Russia’s reoccurring fondness with the cult of the personality in a national obsession that leads back all the way to Rasputin. Both Lenin and Stalin tapped into the Russian people’s eagerness to embrace powerful figures and actively fostered the almost religious fervour with which they were worshipped. After time spent in the Army, Torop had been working as a traffic policeman on the night shift in the small Siberia town of Minusinsk until he was made unemployed. Suddenly something ‘awoke’ inside him, he says, and he instantly knew that he was the second coming of Christ - 2,000 years after he was first crucified.
He says he realised that God had sent him to Earth to teach mankind about the evils of war and the havoc we were wreaking on the environment. With Christmas abolished his followers mark the day of his first sermon on August 18 as their special feast day. Time in the community is measured by Vissarion’s life and so as he is 48 years old his Church is now living in year 49. His followers, who have given up their lives to follow him, are strict vegans and are banned from smoking and drinking or handling money. Around 300 of them live in wooden huts in the village that has grown up around his church and which does not appear on any maps. Many thousands more have made their homes in the small villages that surround Petropavlovka and survive the vicious Siberian winters so that they can be close to their Messiah.
On a mountain close by their village a large bell tolls three times a day so the followers know when they should break off from their back-breaking work to kneel and pray. Vissarion himself whiles away his days painting in his chalet where he lives with his wife and six children - one of whom he adopted from a single mother in the commune. But critics in Russia have accused him of fleecing his loyal community of followers for personal gain. In recent years he has travelled to France, Italy and Holland to ‘convert’ new followers although he claims that his visits were sponsored by his hosts and that his Church makes no money.