(RIA Novosti continues its six-part series on Russian sects and fringe beliefs with an account of Pyotr Kuznetsov's Doomsday sect)
MOSCOW (Robert Broadie, RIA Novosti) - In late 2007 a small, reclusive community of Christians in a village deep in the Russian countryside became the focus of intense media scrutiny.
The believers, who saw themselves as followers of "true" Russian Orthodoxy, had spent half a year burrowing a network of tunnels into the side of a ravine outside the village of Nikolskoye in the Penza Region, stockpiling rice, grain, water and fuel in preparation for a long, dark wait underground. They entered and sealed the enclosure in late October.
This strange story provoked public curiosity on all sorts of levels. Holed up in the dugout, waiting for the end of the world, were women and young children. There was their threat to blow themselves up if forced out, and a perceived extremism. There was their apparent longing for death, entombed in a ravine. And there was their gaunt, wild-eyed leader Pyotr Kuznetsov, known as Father Pyotr, a wandering evangelist who had recruited disciples from far-flung provinces of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. Kuznetsov had chosen not to join his followers underground, and was soon arrested and admitted to an asylum.
Kuznetsov told his followers that the world would end in May. Or June - the accounts varied. Why did he believe this?
I travelled from Moscow to Nikolskoye in early April 2008, after most of the believers had emerged from the dugout, which had largely collapsed. Of the original 37, only 11 remained underground. It was easy enough to find the home of Vitaly Nedogon, who the papers told me was one of the more hardline members, terrifying rescuers by firing bullets through the dugout's ventilation pipes. He had spent almost half a year underground with his wife, son and two daughters.
In the garden outside the run-down wooden house on the edge of a forest was his 22-year-old son Sergei, standing behind a police cordon. He had just finished talking to some journalists from the Izvestia daily, who wanted a photo of the pet parrot that had survived with the group underground. While the seven women living in the house refused to speak to journalists, Sergei saw it as a God-given opportunity to spread the word.
We took a walk around the house, out of earshot of a police officer keeping watch, and Sergei gave me a detailed account of the group's beliefs, which seemed to be largely based on Bible texts that had been filtered through Father Pyotr's feverish mind. The spiritual leader had published several tracts, and distributed them to his followers and any locals who would take them.
"I read his books, and didn't believe them at first. But I opened the Bible, and then I believed - it's all correct, the numbers all match," Sergei told me.
I asked him whether they had really been ready to blow themselves up for their beliefs.
"If you look at the history of the Russian Orthodox Church, Christians never submitted to worldly powers when those worldly powers went against God's laws," he explained. "So those Orthodox Christians were ready to die to stay faithful to God, and to not submit to the devil with his three sixes. So yes, we would have blown up those canisters."
So how did Kuznetsov work out that the world would end in May 2008?
"There is this number in the Bible. After the church - our Orthodox Church - betrays Jesus Christ, 1300 evenings and mornings will pass. This could be either seven years if you count full days, and if you count half days, then three and a half, which would be spring 2008. Pyotr Kuznetsov took fragments from the Bible and proved all this."
I asked him what had been the great catastrophe three and a half years ago that signalled the fall of the Orthodox Church.
"The Orthodox Church took on a taxpayers' identification number. It began to depend on the state, to serve the anti-Christian state."
The main theme running through Kuznetsov's teachings appeared to be a fear and obsession over meaningful numbers - sevens, multiples of seven, twelves, triple sixes. Tax registration codes, passport numbers and bar codes contain the number of the Beast, so the followers burned all their documents and refused to pay taxes or buy goods with barcodes attached.
I hesitantly pointed out to Sergei that items he was wearing - a digital watch and a Nike baseball cap - probably came with barcodes.
"No, these are fake Chinese goods," he said.
Walking by the woods in the clean spring air and feeling a long way from Moscow's pollution, the whole story of Kuznetsov's sect felt like a pleasant joke. I drank some water from the well behind the Nedogons' house, birdsong echoing from the woods. There seemed to be an intensity and sincerity to Sergei's beliefs, and it was hard to see that the sect was doing any harm - they had rejected most modern comforts and discomforts and were living a pseudo-medieval existence, with no electricity and no running water, chopping firewood and catching fish.
So it was easy to forget the trouble Kuznetsov had caused. Two women had died underground - one of cancer, the other of starvation from an extended fast. Many of the believers had children back at home, who were understandably anxious, and were pressuring the authorities to drag the group out from their cave. Rescuers and police had been forced to camp in the ravine throughout the cold winter, with local officials and occasionally Orthodox priests visiting to try to coax the group out of the hole.
And there were children down there - Sergei's two sisters, aged 15 and nine, as well as an infant, 18 months old at the time she was carried out in late March, apparently in good health.
"People think we forced the children down there. I'll tell you what happened. My sister - who you saw just now - when we were sitting on the gas canisters because the Spetsnaz (special forces) had started to dig, she went up to our mother and said 'mamochka, don't worry, there will be an explosion and then we'll all be with God' - a little child calming her grown-up parents. That surprised everyone."
I suggested to Sergei that perhaps the planet was going to die through another means - the cars and coal plants are still belching out their greenhouse gases, the ice caps are shrinking.... Did Pyotr talk about this?
"Yes, of course. Man with his sins is destroying the Earth.... When God flooded the world, he produced a rainbow, and promised to never flood the world again. He said next time I'll burn it. And now it's burning."
I was surprised that this sect, feeding on obscure writings, counting holy numbers and avoiding television, were aware of anthropogenic climate change. I reassured him that scientists don't expect the collapse of the climate system to occur by Kuznetsov's alternative date for the apocalypse - 2011.
"Let them say what they want, people don't decide these things, God decides these things" was his answer. "It can happen in a single moment, he can destroy the world in a single instant. It's all written in the Bible."
At the time of my visit, Kuznetsov was in hospital with head wounds. He had been let out of the asylum as part of a deal made with several women in the dugout - they came to the surface on the condition that they could live with their leader in his house. The reports said he was found in the shack outside, severely beaten, a bloodied plank lying next to him. Local officials said he had been attacked by his own followers, but investigators called it an attempted suicide.
Sergei had a different view on the matter - the Inquisition had come to get Kuznetsov, and in fulfilment of the prophesies, he had died and risen.
"When they tried to kill Pyotr, they smashed him on the head seven times, and when the administration chief came, they found him dead. They took him to hospital and started to fill out the death certificate. My sister saw them writing it."
Father Pyotr was left for dead, but when they came for him in the morning, "he was lying there whispering something, praying... Pyotr was dead. And he rose from the dead. No one believes this, but in it is written that when the prophet is killed, no one will believe it. And this is what happened."
This apparent resurrection, which provided the sect with yet another sign that the apocalypse was approaching, seemed to have turned him from a mere prophet into Christ himself.
But the question of how the unimposing figure that was Kuznetsov, regularly pictured in the tabloids in a shabby coat, pyjama-like trousers and a beanie hat, managed to make such a powerful impression on this group of a few dozen people, remained unanswered.
Later that evening I hitched a lift to the nearest town, Bekovo, with a local couple. The woman in the front passenger seat, Maria, said she had been to school with Kuznetsov. I asked what he was like back then.
"He was a normal boy. A good kid, a bit of a joker - he would tell you these funny stories. I don't understand what happened to him," she said.
Born in 1964, Kuznetsov appears to have had an ordinary provincial upbringing. We drove past his father's house, where I was told his grandmother was still living at the ripe old age of 102. He studied construction and appears to have had a normal career and family, but at some point in his thirties found his true calling in life.
"He would go to church and meet people, and start to indoctrinate them. He wrote books, he would hand them out. I had some of those books, I threw them away," Maria told me.
"The relatives of those people sitting down there told us that that they were all living peacefully like everyone else before, but then he appeared, that Pyotr. He would go to people's houses, the rich houses, not the poor people's houses, and he had some kind of hypnotic power... They sold their homes, whatever they had, and gave all their money to him."
The next afternoon I paid a visit to the house of the holy man himself, which I found at the end of a dirt track called Poganovka, converted into a prayer house with a cross on the roof. Several of his followers, all middle-aged and elderly women, were living there. In the yard was a makeshift chapel, tidily put together with roofing and transparent plastic sheets, capped with wooden crosses and onion domes.
Having seen cheerful photos in the newspapers of these women in black headscarves sawing wood with a local official, and after the surprisingly open chat with Sergei, I thought there would be no harm in approaching the house. But unfortunately the occupants were less welcoming than Sergei - one of them barked angrily as soon as I stepped over the police cordon.
I walked over to the famous ravine, a few hundred meters away. I climbed up the slope, and in the distance I could see a police van and some tents near where I knew the entrance to the dugout was. It was a warm evening and the sun was beginning to set, and by this time my urge to follow the circus had waned, so I began the long walk back to the main road.
More than a month after my visit, having braved a long winter and the first months of spring in the dugout, the remaining 11 finally emerged squinting and jaundiced into the sunlight. There were no signs of God's destructive wrath.
Kuznetsov was charged with inciting religious and ethnic hatred, but was declared insane by psychiatrists and avoided a conviction. Last June, media reported that he had been issued with a passport, numbers and all, which he meekly accepted in his asylum room.