The Mysteries of the Teacher
Vissarion’s Church of the Last Testament Is the Only Reason to Visit Siberia
The view of the Abode of Dawn from the Temple Mount.
We make a few pit stops for food and other supplies in what I—probably rudely—assume is Russia’s version of the most rural parts of Tennessee. But yeah, it is. Orange vests and fatigues run rampant, stores don’t seem to have signs, and I’m pretty sure one of our errands is to a place that sells giant garbage bags full of secondhand clothing. Also, the landscape is majestic and wild. At one point, we randomly pull over in front of a house and the young woman gets out of the car while Ruslin waits. She returns with a giant jar of what I assume is milk, and it assuages my fears about what I drank earlier.
An hour later we leave the highway and alternately hit dirt and paved roads for the next half hour, until it’s just dirt. Ruslin rolls up the windows so the dust doesn’t suffocate us while he floors it. The engine and rocks hitting the chassis make it too loud to talk, so everyone’s silent the rest of the ride as we bake in the 90-degree heat.
We make the final turn toward Petropavlovka, greeted by a sign-sculpture that literally looks like it belongs in front of one of the lesser Orlando theme parks. But the place is beautiful. Lakes, clear skies, trees, bountiful vegetable gardens, and grass forever, encircled by the Sayan Mountains. A few hundred structures of various sizes dot the landscape, most of which are of an architectural style unique to the community. I spot the temple I’ve seen in photos, the one Vissarion and his followers built more than a decade ago as they transformed an unfertile mud pit into a self-sufficient village at least 100 miles away from civilization. Somewhere around 4,000 followers live between here and Abode of Dawn, the area where Vissarion and his closest disciples moved after Petropavlovka got too busy for their liking. I feel like I’ve driven into a Tolkien novel.
I arrive at the German House—a sort of spiritual halfway house run by Ruslin and Birgitt, a German woman who hosts students, Vissarionites from abroad, and the spiritually curious. Tamriko works here too, but she’s not around. I introduce myself to Birgitt, and she asks whether I’m hungry. I tell her that I’d rather sleep than eat, so she directs me upstairs to my room. She also instructs me to come back down in an hour and a half to meet the rest of the guests and speak with Vladimir, one of Vissarion’s minders and an important community leader. He will explain what is expected of guests invited to the Abode of Dawn. I also learn that I won’t be sleeping here tonight, or tomorrow, which is news to me. “Spah-see-bahh,” I say as I thank her with the inflection of a recent stroke victim.
I manage a 45-minute nap, my first sleep in 30-odd hours, before being roused by a guy unpacking his stuff on the bunk across from mine.
“Sorry if I woke you,” he says. I figure if I go back to sleep, I won’t wake up. He’s Maciej, a Pole studying anthropology of religion at a university in Slovenia. He says he’s come here via the Siberian Express, followed by a Soviet monster bus. “Some people I met on the train told me they brainwashed visitors here,” he says. “They tried to persuade me not to come, but I didn’t think I’d be in danger.”
We go downstairs for lunch—lots of fresh potatoes and green things—and meet our fellow lodgers, who include two female anthropology students and a German photographer and his wife. Tamriko is here too, and she isn’t what I expected (in a good way). She’s only 24, and tells me that less than a year ago she was practicing civil law in Moscow.
“I didn’t feel like I was comfortable living in Moscow,” she says. “I realized that I didn’t like my job. When I came here I felt this very good feeling, that maybe I wanted to live here.”
She has known about Vissarion since she was 18, when her uncle first introduced her to his teachings. She tells me that at first her parents—folks who lived through the fall of Communism and didn’t think much of religion—disapproved of her decision to leave Moscow and her job.
“[My family] didn’t talk about ‘God’ or anything. But I was a very open person. For example, for me it’s OK to go to a Catholic church or to go meet Baptist people, but when someone told me about Vissarion it was like, ‘Wow, if this is the truth, it’s so interesting. I should try to find his books.’”
Tamriko tells me that her parents have since come around—that they had some “soul problems” and her uncle explained to her “very logical” father that the Teacher held all the answers. Within six months, her father had virtually all of Vissarion’s books, and her mother, while not quite as emphatic in her belief, thinks the Teacher is a “good guy who has done good things.” She then says they have told her they want to move to Petropavlovka or a nearby community someday soon, even though they have yet to visit. Later I learn that she has never met Vissarion personally. Yet she has somehow facilitated my interview with him, the first he’s granted in at least three years after deciding he would no longer talk to journalists. She initially told me that an audience with the Teacher was highly unlikely, but I persisted, emailing my questions weeks before my trip. Five days before I left she sent me an email saying that the Teacher had approved our meeting, which will hopefully take place the day after next. She provided no explanation as to why I was bestowed with this honor, but that was fine with me.
After lunch, we meet with Vladimir, a stout and energetic man wearing a gray ponytail and hat similar to Ruslin’s. He tells us what’s expected of visitors invited to the Abode of Dawn, specifically those who wish to document their experience. In other words, myself and the middle-aged German photographer sitting at the other end of the table. He tells us we will leave in two hours, and gives tips on what to do if we run into a bear. Apparently I will be staying with a family who lives in the Abode of Dawn, or in the grass under the stars (I neglected to bring a sleeping bag); it’s not clear which. Either way, I will sleep soundly.