When Russia opened its iron curtains during perestroika, it instantly became a pristine target for missionaries. Since atheism was the official doctrine of the USSR, most people did not practice any religion. Their isolation from the outside world meant that they had no idea about Operation Snow White or other scandalous incidents involving untraditional religious groups.
The entrance of different mainstream and fringe religions into Russia after 1989 became yet another novelty in the country. Considering the complete overhaul of people's lives over the 1990's, the appearance of missionaries hardly stood out against market reform, privatization, new products, and new information coming from all directions at once. And so in the general social clutter, the sects did not appear fishy, people just gulped them up as yet another part of the winds of change.
It seems almost farcical now, but Mikhail Gorbachev had an official summit with Sun Myung Moon (the Korean founder of the Unification Church, who was discredited by his mysterious money flows in the 1970s) in 1990, while the most respected national university, the Moscow State University, opened a Hubbard reading room at the Faculty of Journalism and gave Dean and Scholar Yassen Zassoursky the dubious title "Doctor of Scientology."
The Church of Scientology, Jehovah witnesses, the Church of Christ, you name it - it all came to Russia after 1989. After observing western missionaries, Russia's own religious entrepreneurs have started cooking up their own little cults. A bit of Russian Orthodox, a pinch of Slavic paganism, a handful of mysticism, then add some mass-culture phenomenon like the Snow Man, UFOs, a medicinal teaching about the panacea of baking soda, and you have a nice religious sect, ready for operation.
Who knows why, but a large percentage of sects and their followers are in Siberia and the Ural region of Russia. Take the Bazhov sect, for example. Russian folktale author Pavel Bazhov would turn in his grave if he knew that his name is used by a Siberian group led by Vladimir Sobolev from Chelyabinsk.
Bazhov followers organize summer camps where they worship the Queen of the Copper mountain, a mystical heroine of one of Bazhov's tales. They get together in Siberian forests, make a large wooden doll symbolizing the Queen, ask her various questions about the future and then burn it, completing their neo-pagan ritual. Other elements of Sobolev's creed are equally bizarre and random: evil astral microbes that were brought by American austronauts from space, the role of the Urals as the energetic center of the world, concentrated in a Bashkyr archeological site called Arkaim, where the second coming of Christ is awaited. In the end, Sobolev's predictions state, the planet will tilt by 15 degrees, and ocean waves will wash Western Europe and America off the face of the earth, simultaneously bringing solar warmth into Siberia. That will sure make Russian Eurasianists happy!
Other less jolly sect examples include Konstantin Rudnev's Ashram Shambala based in Novosibirsk. Naming himself the great magician and yogi Sri Dzhnan Avatar Muni, publishing a book "The way of a Fool," and selling various items like magic un-spendable coins (with a face value of 5 kopecks, they cost up to 20 dollars), Rudnev got richer and richer through offering seminars in "tantric sex", "esoteric business", and "spiritual healing". After dozens of parents declared their children missing and money disappearing, Rudnev was arrested, but later declared himself insane and finally disappeared in the general direction of Germany.
Another self-proclaimed magician, Grigoriy Grabovoi, has just published a book called "Methods of Concentration" that teaches readers how to solve all problems by repeating certain number sequences over and over. Grabovoi uses the proceeds to pay for further self-promotion, offering the possibility of family members' resurrection and prediction of natural disasters. His latest work includes spreading resurrection leaflets in Beslan, and convincing several desolate parents to pay over $10,000 to bring their children back. "Her soul doesn't want to come back to you - there is nothing else I can do," he told one family after the resurrection failed.
Playing on people's weaknesses, whether it's grief, depression, or plain stupidity, isn't a criminal offence, so over the past decade and a half, the number of religious groups and their participants has been growing, barely attracting any attention from the government. It was only in 1995 and the Aum Shinrikyo gas attack in the Tokyo subway that sects were recognized by society as potentially dangerous. But there is still no criteria as to what makes a sect harmful, and what makes it a sect. Today's estimates of various religious groups operating in Russia are from three to five hundred, with over a million participants.
Most active opposition to sects comes from the Orthodox Church, and sceptics see it as merely a way for the Church to nip religious freedom in the bud, declaring any diverging view dangerous. One of the most comprehensive lists of all "sects," made by the Alexander Nevskiy Cathedral of Novosibirsk, lists Mary Kay and Herbalife distributors as "dangerous commercial sects," for example, decries all Protestant religions, and groups Mormons, Baha'is and Aum Shinrikyo under one indistinct title: "New Revelation Cults." Another Christian cult-fighter is Alexander Dvorkin of the Saint-Tikhon Orthodox University, who came up with the term "totalitarian sect." Christian efforts to counteract destructive sects often rebound on the Orthodox Church itself, presenting it in an equally totalitarian light or simply paranoid about innocent groups like the Bazhov cult, who are just having fun role-playing as medieval pagan simpletons in the woods.
Whether it is striving for spiritual health or religious monopoly, the Church is practically alone in its crusade against cults and sects. Criminal charges against people like Grabovoi or Rudnev are very rare, since proving that the victims were forced to donate or participate in the leaders' machinations is very difficult. And the government is not so eager to put its foot down in the wake of 21st century pluralism and the canons of religious freedom.