MIKHAIL METZEL IN NIKOLSKOYE AND STEVE GUTTERMAN IN MOSCOW
HOLDING out in a remote underground hide-out, members of a Russian cult are maintaining their vigil as they wait for the end of the world - and refusing to release four children they have with them.
Yesterday, authorities tried to get the group's leader, the self-declared prophet Pyotr Kuznetsov, to persuade his followers to release the children in the group, the youngest of whom is 18 months old.
He refused. "He changed his mind or maybe he lied in the first place," said Yevgeny Guseynov, a regional official.
Believing the world will end in May next year, the 29 cult members have threatened to blow themselves up with about 100 gallons of stockpiled petrol if authorities force them out of what officials described as a cave or bunker near the village of Nikolskoye, about 400 miles south-east of Moscow.
The group also have large supplies of food and other necessities.
Mr Guseynov said that, according to experts whom officials have consulted, "only their leader can coax them out".
Kuznetsov, who established his True Russian Orthodox Church after he split with the official church, did not join his followers. He underwent psychiatric evaluation on Friday last week, a day after he was charged with setting up a religious organisation associated with violence.
Russian TV showed Kuznetsov speaking at the clinic where he was being examined.
He said that cult members initially aimed to dig small refuges where they could spend a day or two in prayer.
Later, he said, "we had the idea of making a big dugout for all of us to go to and stay there, just to avoid acts of hooliganism by the local population".
Kuznetsov, who is thin and bearded, said on Rossiya TV that he had not gone into the hide-out himself because he "had to meet others who were yet to arrive".
Kuznetsov blessed his followers before sending them into the cave earlier this month. Most of the adults are women.
Mr Guseynov said police were guarding the site, but there are no plans to remove the people forcibly.
Russian TV broadcast footage of what appeared to be a snow-covered hillside or mound with two narrow stove-pipes poking through the snow and sending smoke drifting into the air.
"There is no talk whatsoever of any sort of storming of the site," Mr Guseynov said.
Throughout this week, Orthodox church clergymen have visited the refuge, but the cult followers refused to listen to their arguments, said a security official monitoring the crisis who refused to be named.
The senior Russian Orthodox cleric in the region, Archbishop Filaret, said that Kuznetsov's followers were at least listening to what clerics speaking to them through a ventilation hole had to say.
He stressed that they must not be forced out.
"Only prayer and persuasion - other methods must not be used," ITAR-Tass quoted the archbishop as saying.
"We want these people not only to calm down but to understand us, and we are calling on them to return to God's sanctuary, to normal Christian life," he added.
"We are patient and we'll wait until May if necessary," he was quoted as saying.
The Orthodox church has traditionally been harsh on sects - but in the current situation it is showing a high degree of compassion.
Anna Vabishchevich said that her 41-year-old son, Alexander, and his wife and two teenage daughters were among the cult members.
She said she was sending two relatives from Belarus to try to persuade him at least to send the girls home.
She said that her son, a railway worker, had come under the influence of Kuznetsov several years ago.
He stopped eating food packaged with the universal product code - which the cult regards as the mark of the Antichrist, she said. "My son was kind and now he is mentally ill. It's like he is hypnotised," she said between sobs.
Alexander Dvorkin, of the Moscow-based independent Centre of Religious Studies, said there were about ten similar, nominally Christian cults in Russia, with members living in isolation under the influence of a leader.
He said he hoped the crisis with Kuznetsov's group would force authorities to act against other groups.
A Russian Orthodox Church spokesman called the emergence of Kuznetsov's cult a consequence of "the absence of a system of spiritual and moral education" in Russia.
PROPHET OF DOOM
PYOTR Kuznetsov, 43, an engineer from a deeply religious family, declared himself a prophet several years ago, left his family and settled in Nikolskoye. He began writing books, borrowing from a mixture of established beliefs, and visited monasteries in Russia and Belarus, recruiting followers.
Kuznetsov said his group believed that, in the afterlife, they would be judging whether others deserved heaven or hell.
Followers of his group were not allowed to watch television, listen to the radio or handle money. Local villagers recounted that cult members had for the past few months quietly wandered the streets of Nikolskoye, dressed in long black robes.
"Petya [Kuznetsov] brainwashed them. But they didn't bother anyone ... I didn't see them for two weeks; turns out they were in the dug-out," said Lyuda, a local resident.
"Some of his ideas are similar to the ideas of anti-globalists in the West. It's a rejection of civilisation," said Yury, a neighbour of Kuznetsov's aunt in Bekovo.
The followers came from several regions of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine and lived in five houses in the village, erecting large Orthodox crosses on the roof and on the doors.
READ THE PREVIOUS POST RELATD TO THIS STORY:
A New Level of Conversation – the Crisis of Beauty - I am excited by the opportunity to have this conversation with Kevin Allen on Ancient Faith Radio. He does a masterful job of researching and guiding a c...
23 minutes ago