The Penza Region sect has existed since the 1990s, when Russia was submerged by a tidal wave of New Age groups and self-proclaimed messiahs.
"They are not doing anything dangerous - they are calmly waiting for the end of the world," said Aleksandr Yelantontsev, who is responsible for religious issues in the provincial administration.
The group, said to consist of a core of about 15 women aged 45-50, is headed by 52-year-old Alexander Zhukov, who calls himself Raphael. According to a number of occultists, the archangel Raphael is one of the seven angels of the apocalypse. Among Catholics, Raphael is the patron saint of mental illness.
Yelantontsev said that more of the group's followers, "from the surrounding regions," often come to visit 'Raphael' in the sect's fenced-off residence on the outskirts of Penza.
Last November, 35 members of another Penza Region sect went underground to wait for the apocalypse, which they initially claimed would come in May. Their leader, Pyotr Kuznetsov, is reported to have said they would be given the power to decide who would be sent to hell and who would go to heaven. The sect pledged to commit mass suicide if any attempt was made to force them to come to the surface.
Two members of the sect perished in the dugout, one from malnutrition brought about during fasting, and another from cancer. Although Kuznetsov has already been declared legally insane, a court is currently attempting to determine his mental state at the time his followers first went underground. He himself remained above ground.
Both Kuznetsov's sect and the current group are generally considered part of a wave of extreme Russian Orthodoxy sweeping Russia and some former Soviet republics. Adherents of this radical form of Christianity refuse to own passports, as they "contain the number of the Beast", and will not handle money or consume products packaged in containers bearing 'Satanic' barcodes.
Russia has seen a great number of sects throughout its history. One of the most famous of these was the Skoptsy, who castrated themselves and cut off women's breasts "to avoid sexual temptation and sin." The sect was first reported in the 18th century and is known to have still existed in the 1920s.
Another notorious sect was the Khlysty, an offshoot of the Russian Orthodox Church. The Khlysty believed that the way to salvation lay through the repentance of sins. The greater the sin, the greater the repentance, the Khlysty reasoned, and following this logic they rejected conventional doctrines of 'right and wrong', indulging in sins that they could later confess to, being in this way 'pleasing to God.' Grigori Rasputin, the mysterious monk who had a major influence on the Tsar and the Tsarina prior to the 1917 Russian Revolution, is believed to have had links to the group, which was active from the 17th to the early 20th century.