The name of the event — "Aliens Created Us In Laboratories" — sounded like a joke this week when it was posted on Facebook and spotted circulating around Moscow on fliers, but it came a day too late for April Fools.
The event was real, and it was held on Saturday in downtown Moscow. Inside a hotel across the street from the Russia's Foreign Ministry, Swiss and Russian members of a group called the Raelian movement earnestly explained their beliefs: Geneticists from an extraterrestrial race known as the "elohim" created all life on Earth and wish to return home by 2035, bringing with them technologies 25,000 years more advanced than our own, including robots that will make it so human no longer have to work. It will be a new era of peace and ease, and all mankind needs to do is build an "extraterrestrial embassy" to properly welcome our benevolent alien creators.
French automotive journalist Claude "Rael" Vorilhon founded the movement in 1974, and the the Raelians have been trying to build their embassy ever since. Now they have their sights set on a new location for it: Russia. It turns out Rael is a fan of President Vladimir Putin.
Jean-Marie Briaud, head of the Swiss delegation, told VICE News that Russia's recent bombing campaign in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad demonstrated that it is a "counter-balance" to what they perceive as warmongering by the US and its European allies. According to Raelian beliefs, in addition to building the embassy, humans must "eliminate aggression toward each other and toward the environment" for the aliens to return.
"In France, the Americans are the chiefs, [Francois] Hollande is a puppet, and [David] Cameron, too," Briaud said, referring to the French president and British prime minister. "If the US says 'Bomb Libya,' they go, and they have gone. So Rael is very interested in Putin's actions. The Russians are more for peace than the others, they want a diplomatic way to resolve conflicts, not war. We've seen that in Syria."
Asked whether the Russian bombing campaign in Syria could really be considered a peaceful action, Briaud replied that the Raelians "don't say Putin is perfect." But without Russian intervention, he added, "Syria would not exist." Another Raelian, Philippe Chabloz, also noted during a presentation that an alleged UFO was filmed hovering above Putin's hometown of St. Petersburg on March 22.
When audience members interrupted the presentation to ask whether Putin was aware of the "extraterrestrial embassy" project, Briaud said the Raeliens recently wrote letters to Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, asking them for four square kilometers of land and extraterritorial status, and inviting them to the event on Saturday.
The Russian leaders were nowhere to be seen, however, and it seems highly unlikely that they will approve the group's request. Saturday's presentation seemed geared more toward recruitment than embassy-building, however, and the Raelians might actually have some success on that front.
Amid the collapse of the atheist Soviet system and the economic troubles of the 1990s, Russia became a hotbed of cult activity. In particular, the Japanese doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo gained tens of thousands of followers in Russia, more than it had in Japan. Russia banned the group in 1995, the same year that it attacked the Tokyo subway system with sarin gas, killing 13 commuters and injuring hundreds more. Aum Shinrikyo continues to be active underground in Russia, and Montenegro recently deported 58 foreigners, including 43 Russians, who were believed to be members of the cult.
Cult activity dropped off after the 1990s, but it's once again growing in Russia, according to Alexander Dvorkin, a professor at St. Tikhon's Orthodox University who studies religious sects. In January, he told Interfax news agency that there were 700,000 "sectarians" in Russia, and he called the 15-20 cults that are shut down each year by Russian authorities just a "drop in the ocean."
"What [the Raelians] are trying to do is a new push just like other cults that have been really active during the past couple of years," Dvorkin told VICE News. "During the past couple of years, there was a real increase in the activity of various cults, so this just follows the trend."
'Will the extraterrestrial embassy have a bar? Will it be hiring bartenders?'
The Raelians claim their prophet Vorilhon spoke to 1,200 people when he visited Moscow in 1993, but the movement currently seems to have few members in Russia. (They wouldn't say exactly how many.) Dvorkin, however, said the current climate in Russia is ripe for cult recruiting.
"The world is in crisis, the country is in crisis, and people are worried about international relations, about the standard of living, which is lower than it used to be," Dvorkin said. "And once people are worried and stressed out, then they're much more vulnerable, and cults recruit people in vulnerable positions."
Russians have also traditionally been receptive to conspiracy theories. Eliot Borenstein, a professor of Russian and Slavic studies at New York University, argued in a recent piece that the roots of this tendency lie in the Soviet era, when truth was so rare amid the propaganda that it "not only facilitated skepticism about official pronouncements, but also left a knowledge vacuum easily filled by speculation and rumor."
Since the start of the Ukraine crisis, Russian state media has also increasingly pushed the idea that truth is relative, broadcasting conspiracy theories about the Euromaidan protests and the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight 17 in Ukraine.
While Putin and Medvedev didn't show up to the Raelian presentation on Saturday, more than 100 curious onlookers did. Some came to acquire paraphernalia with the group's symbol, a swastika embedded in a Star of David, or ask questions like, "Will the extraterrestrial embassy have a bar? Will it be hiring bartenders?"
Others seemed genuinely interested, like psychotherapist Alexander Kupriyanov, who was visiting from the city of Bryansk with his daughter and her friend. He said afterward that he was still forming his opinion about the Raelians, but he liked that they "are trying to build something, not just make money, wreck things and line their pockets like everybody else here."
He said it didn't bother him that the group was widely considered to be a cult. "You could say political parties are also cults, they resemble them. Early Christians were also a cult," he said.
A biologist who would only give her name as Natalya was also sympathetic to the Raelian cause.
"In any sphere, in science, in molecular biology even, there are dogmas," she said. "You need to be open to new knowledge, but also not submerge yourself in total mysticism and nonsense."
Natalya added that the Raelian idea that aliens created all life on Earth "can't be excluded."
"It's possible," she said.
Follow Alec Luhn on Twitter: @ASLuhn