Vissarion (aka Sergey Anatolyevitch Torop, aka the Teacher), founder of the Church of the Last Testament.
Ten hours into my first trip to Russia I catch an express train back to the airport. It’s August in Moscow so I’m sweating in a particularly gross and unfamiliar way, as I have since my arrival, and I’m running late. If I miss my flight, I probably won’t make it to Petropavlovka in time for the Holiday of Good Fruits, or speak with a Siberian man who looks like Jesus and believes his is the Word of God.
I buy a ticket and arrive at the platform with a couple minutes to spare, enough time to find the emptiest car and take a seat in the back. It departs three minutes later. This makes me feel a bit better, but I’m still suppressing a freak-out over the possibility of missing my plane. The flight only happens once a day, and I can’t fathom having to deal with whoever answers the phones at Vladivostok Air, Siberia’s largest carrier.
If I don’t make it in time I’ll also have to reschedule my ride. This will involve begging a woman named Tamriko, whom I’ve only corresponded with via email, to persuade a fellow member of what many consider to be a cult to wake up at 4 AM tomorrow, make the three-hour drive to Abakan International Airport to pick up a nosy American stranger, and take him to a remote and deeply religious community of about 4,000 people living in the middle of the Taiga forest. On any other day it would be a borderline-reasonable request, one that I have already made when I rescheduled because of a last-minute issue with my visa. But if I’m not in front of a check-in counter in 30 minutes, the earliest I can possibly arrive is August 18. This is the Church of the Last Testament’s holiest of holidays—the day, more than two decades ago, when a 29-year-old patrol officer and talented painter named Sergey Anatolyevitch Torop publicly declared himself reborn as Vissarion. Since then he’s fostered a “unified religion” that is a vast amalgam of Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, pagan, and other spiritual beliefs.
Just about everything Vissarion has ever said or thought has been recorded in the never-ending Last Testament, which currently spans ten volumes and thousands of pages. More than 5,000 followers around the world consider him a messiah of sorts, known as “the Teacher.” They also believe that the universe has two origins (one spawned nature, the other the human soul) and in something called the “outer-space mind” (aliens, basically), and that the end of the word is nigh. Or at least this is what I understand from the handful of scriptures that have been (somewhat poorly) translated into English.
On the train ride I reflect on my whirlwind impression of Moscow: It’s mostly gray, a little brown, and strangely efficient. And sure enough, I arrive at Vnukovo precisely on time and sprint to my gate. As I step to the end of a short line I look back at the neon-lit bar behind me. I was hoping to have time to get a beer, mostly because it’s not allowed where I’m going. Instead I distract myself by thinking about how fucked I would’ve been if this were JFK, and how I have to be careful not to say fuck over the next week because cussing is also forbidden within the church. So are tobacco, meat, and I’m guessing a lot of other things, but the above were specifically enumerated by Tamriko before I arrived.
Four hours, a gray piece of chicken, and two weird lemon candies later, I land in Abakan at 7:30 AM, half an hour late. I walk into the tiny lobby. It smells weird. Everything looks like it was assembled by a giant Soviet airport machine that produced identical airports, all of which have been left to rot in isolation. Worst of all, I don’t see anyone with a sign that says ROCCO. Tamriko assured me a guy named Ruslin would be here, holding it. Too exhausted to panic, I sit and wait for 15 minutes, when a tall, wiry blond man in his 20s with a piece of cardboard tucked under one arm walks through security and scans the room rapidly. Even before noticing the sign, I know it’s him—the type of guy you see coming. I get up and walk over to him. He snaps his head toward me.
“Rocco,” I say, pointing at my chest. He looks me in the eye and stares for a few seconds before holding the sign out in front of him. I just nod. “Yes,” he says, and puts something that looks vaguely Islamic on his head. We walk out of the exit and to the parking lot in silence. It creeps me out.
Standing alongside his car, a four-wheel-drive station wagon with a steering wheel on the right side, I meet who I assume is his wife or girlfriend. She’s young and pretty in a peculiar way, and smiles as she introduces herself. But there’s no way I’ll ever be able to properly pronounce—or remember—her name right now. I don’t even attempt to write it down in my notepad.
They quietly converse in the front seats for a few seconds, and then the man points to a thermos sitting in the console. “Coffee?” I nod. He pours me a cup while the woman rummages around her floorboard and comes up holding a mason jar of what looks like Elmer’s Glue. She pours some into my coffee and hands it to me. They stare until I take a sip. If it’s poison or brainwash juice, it doesn’t taste so bad. I quickly finish it, and we sit for another minute or two without talking. “We go,” the man says, and turns the key.
I quickly realize that Ruslin and his lady either don’t speak much English, or don’t, for whatever reason, wish to talk to me, so I stay busy trying to get a 3G stick I bought in Moscow to work with my laptop. I manage to connect and attempt to choppily video-chat, then iChat, with my girlfriend. I tell her everything’s going fine, that I haven’t slept in something like 26 hours, and joke about how I just drank really weird coffee given to me by people who are technically cult members and who are now driving me into one of the most remote regions of Siberia. Then the connection goes out and doesn’t come back.