“Will you die if I ask you to?” That was the question Father Sergei Romanov asked of his nuns. One by one, the women approached the head of their convent, draped in black robes, his long gray hair tied back into a ponytail. “I’ll die with joy,” came the reply. “If you bless me, I will die.”
Wearing thick winter jackets, their heads covered, the women queued to kiss his hands and receive a blessing while he raged against drunkenness and moral decay. The sermon, held last December at the convent in the forests outside Ekaterinburg in Russia’s Urals region, 900 miles east of Moscow – where Europe ends and Asia begins – would be one of the controversial Russian monk’s last. A video of the eerily-lit exchange went viral on social media last year, prompting a police inquiry.
Already excommunicated from the Orthodox Church and now facing claims he was running a secretive death cult, Romanov and his hundreds of followers prepared to make their last stand at Sredneuralsk monastery. “Let them come,” he told the congregation around him. “Let them try to fight with our spiritual power… this will be their first lesson in defeat.”
And, on the evening of the 29th of December last year, they did come. Armed riot police stormed the snowy complex. As their flashing blue lights lit up the hand-painted murals of saints which adorn the white walls of the convent buildings, officers from Russia’s national guard detained Romanov and his deputies.
By morning, he had been bundled into a plane and flown westwards to Moscow, where a court read out the charges – encouraging his followers to kill themselves, violating their basic rights and causing outrage to religious believers across the country.
Just months before, the local archbishop had accused him of vanity, lying and suffering from “schizophrenic delirium” as part of a dispute with Church officials, who he branded heretics and denied access to the monastery. The breakaway convent had also been plagued by allegations from former students that drug-addicted monks were plying teenagers who lived there with narcotics, as well as subjecting them to corporal punishment and abuse. After a 15-year-old girl died at the monastery last year detectives launched a probe.
Around the same time, three young people who had been involved with the church told popular TV journalist Ksenia Sobchak that they had been beaten with electrical cord, and locked in a shed without food. She and her camera crew were chased away by Romanov’s followers as they tried to gain entry to the complex while filming a documentary, and her director was left with a broken wrist.
The monastery and its enigmatic priest have captured the imagination of Russians, with the media uniformly portraying the church as a shadowy sect. Pictures of Romanov looking bedraggled and hauled up in front of court have made the front pages. Little has been said, though, of the people that said they would follow Romanov to the grave.
VICE World News met one of those followers, “Elena,” outside a KFC in Ekaterinburg, before driving out to one of Romanov’s former monasteries. She’d agreed to show us around one of the country’s holiest sites, speaking on the condition that her name be changed, to avoid drawing unwanted attention from the authorities or criticism from others in the church.
If alleged death cults are supposed to attract a certain type of person, Elena probably wouldn’t fit the mould. With a good job and a young family, her eyes lit up when she said how she’d started attending church because of the 66-year-old branded online as “mad Sergei” (a reference to the “mad monk” nickname given to Rasputin), and how she’d struggled since the monastery was shuttered by the authorities.
“When I first went to him, I felt love from him,” she said as we sped down the highway. “I felt he cared for people and helped them. I had some problems, and I didn’t have to tell him. He knew straight away.”
We were driving to Ganina Yama, a collection of wooden churches and shrines built around a colossal pit out in the woods. The former mineshaft is said to be the spot where communist revolutionaries dumped the bodies of the Romanovs, Russia’s last royals. In 1918, as loyalist forces closed in on Ekaterinburg, the family were taken down to the basement of the house where they had been imprisoned, and executed by their drunken guards. The bullet-ridden corpses of Tsar Nicholas II, his wife and children, were pushed down the shaft, before the Bolsheviks poured in acid and blew it up.
In death, the family has taken on a mythical status for many Orthodox Christians, especially those who followed Romanov. A steady stream of coaches and minibuses ferry religious Russians to the quiet forest shrine each week, where pilgrims can kneel on a platform in front of the pit and chant prayers, their voices carrying through the trees. “We are praying not just for the Romanovs,” one worshipper told VICE World News, “but for the forgiveness of all Russians. We’ll never know who carried out the murders, so we pray for all of our ancestors.” The royals were given sainthoods by the Church not long after the fall of Communism and, for many believers, the slaughter of the head of the Orthodox faith and his innocent children marked the start of eight decades of oppressive, atheistic Soviet rule.
By a strange twist of fate, before becoming a monk and taking on a new name, Father Sergei had been born Nicholas Romanov – just like the last Tsar himself. A former Soviet police investigator who dramatically fell from grace in the uncertain times before the implosion of the USSR, Romanov confessed to an armed robbery and the murder of a man in 1985. He claims he found faith while sentenced to 13 years behind bars in a special prison colony for law enforcement officers.
A year before he was sentenced, Romanov was involved in a car collision while committing a crime, killing one person and leaving him hospitalised in a coma for three days. According to Elena, that planted the seeds for his conversion, and “he only started to believe in God after he was involved in the crash.” While technically his criminal convictions should have blocked him from the priesthood, Romanov claims that the then-head of the Orthodox Church, Patriarch Alexey II, personally waived the rules and welcomed him as a reformed man. As religious leaders worked to regain their flocks after years of Soviet repression, the newly ordained monk was conveniently positioned as the model of a sinner who had seen the light, and quickly moved up through the ranks to preside over his own congregation.
Inspired by a near-death experience, infatuated with the murdered Romanovs and with a congregation pledging their willingness to die, the priest has struggled to shake off the morbid reputation he has gained in recent years. Elena, however, denied that the group has an unhealthy obsession with suicide, as prosecutors allege. “When Russians join the army, they pledge they are ready to die for the country. So why is it different when it’s about God?” she asked.
However, their apathy towards the mortal world seems to have made the group a threat in the eyes of officials since the start of the pandemic last year. Romanov stood almost alone among religious leaders when he defied orders to suspend his sermons and encourage mask-wearing to prevent the spread of the virus. “All the problems began in the time of Covid,” Elena sighed. “Before, everything was OK, but he said he wouldn’t listen to the government. We believe in God, so how can we be afraid of Covid?” she added. “We believe that even if you die, you will be OK… it is God’s will.” Romanov was also belligerently opposed to government efforts to convince priests to encourage their flocks to sign up for the vaccine.
While Elena insists the church’s teachings aren’t far outside the mainstream, she acknowledges that their piousness can seem strange to outsiders. “Some people don’t like him of course – for example we took our friends and they were afraid because when he prayed, some people started screaming – speaking in tongues. And they were like ‘oh God,’ they weren’t ready for this, it was too much. They thought it was a cult.” Stories of parents searching for children who had run away to sign up with the group haven’t helped its reputation locally either.
Now, former members of the church claim the authorities are monitoring them to make sure they don’t regroup in Romanov’s absence, with the most devoted of his followers put out on the street.
Although the charges their spiritual leader is facing stem from his supposed mistreatment of followers and calls for them to kill themselves, Elena says the authorities were more worried by how strongly the church’s members felt about him and the fact the breakaway group had rejected control from senior bishops. “I think they are afraid people will break the law, because Romanov says a lot of bad things about the government, and they’re worried that it is dangerous for society, like we will start some kind of revolution,” she said. “But it isn’t true – we won’t do this. We will never start an insurrection.”
One top Orthodox clergyman, Moscow Deacon Andrei Kuraev, however, warned last year that even if the monk’s teachings are peaceful, it is his personal hold over his congregation that is potentially dangerous. According to the church official, Romanov was more interested in being adored by his supporters than living a humble, godly life. “A monk is someone who says I am shit, and you can walk over me like a doormat,” he told local media as the case made headlines. Romanov, however, “has nothing like this in his face, intonations, eyes or behaviour. He feels like a Fuhrer who is ready to lead everyone.”
According to Professor Nikolai Shaburov, one of the country’s leading religion experts, describing the group as a “cult” is not helpful in understanding them. “The terms cult and sect are best avoided altogether, since they’re basically pejorative terms and have lacked all meaning,” he says. Instead, he said, Romanov’s group is better understood as a “new religious movement” within the Orthodox Church, made up of highly-motivated young people looking for inspiration. “The peculiarity in Russia is the fact that these groups are becoming more influential in society,” he said, adding that “it is common for the authorities to take a negative view towards them.”
One of the problems, he went on, is that top bishops take a dim view of individuality in local preachers. “The Russian Orthodox Church isn’t known for its tolerance”, Shaburov says. The row with leaders over his refusal to suspend sermons and encourage mask wearing in 2019, as well as his harsh criticism of top bishops, could also play a role. “I note that Father Sergei was accused of authoritarianism only after conflict with the Church leadership,” Shaburov added.
Cult or not, as the controversial monk languishes in a Moscow jail cell awaiting trial, his followers have been left trying to pick up the pieces and trying to keep their community together, while praying the court finds him not guilty later this year. In the meantime, though, like the Romanovs, Sergei has become just another holy figure, taken away from them too soon.