WORLD

KIEV’S CULT OF DOOM

NEAR-HYSTERIA GRIPS DEVOTEES AS THEY AWAIT THE END OF THE WORLD

MALCOLM GRAY November 22 1993
WORLD

KIEV’S CULT OF DOOM

NEAR-HYSTERIA GRIPS DEVOTEES AS THEY AWAIT THE END OF THE WORLD

MALCOLM GRAY November 22 1993

KIEV’S CULT OF DOOM

NEAR-HYSTERIA GRIPS DEVOTEES AS THEY AWAIT THE END OF THE WORLD

WORLD

Do not be afraid to die. You will ha ve died for our God, Maria Devi Khristos.

—instructions printed in a leaflet distributed among members of The Great White Brotherhood, a religious sect

In apocalyptic terms, Kiev’s Saint Sophia Square is Ground Zero. There, in the centre of the Ukrainian capital, absolute certainty and sheer incomprehension have collided during the past two weeks. Nominal control of the area lies with the local police who daily patrol the open space before an 11th-century Eastern Orthodox cathedral. But that display of secular authority means little to members of a cult who believe that Judgment Day is imminent. In response to a summons from a woman they regard as a living god, thousands of devotees have flocked to Kiev from all parts of the former Soviet Union to witness the end of the world. With that strange pilgrimage under way, an atmosphere of near-hysteria has settled over the city. And rumors that the cult’s Ukrainian-born leader would be martyred in the square—either by killing herself or crucifixion by the authorities in order to atone for humanity’s sins—have visibly unsettled local authorities. Nervous police officials have publicly predicted that such a dramatic death might prompt thousands of cult members to follow her example and kill themselves.

There are compelling reasons, historical

as well as current, for Kiev to be a magnet for a religious sect whose leader claims to be the embodiment of Jesus Christ. For one thing, the capital of Ukraine is also the cradle of Russian civilization: in 988 AD, Kiev was the first Eastern Slavic city to embrace Christianity. And as one of the major centres of the now-vanished Soviet empire, Kiev has been swept by the doubts and uncertainties that have accompanied the collapse of communism. Indeed, independent Ukraine is now wracked by problems that range from hyperinflation and the scarcity of bread to

fierce debates about the wisdom of retaining a nuclear arsenal inherited from the old union. In Kiev as in other parts of the former empire, the end of communism has been marked by a search for spiritual sustenance by millions of former Soviet citizens. Many have found or renewed solace in Orthodoxy, Islam and other established faiths. But others have become willing converts to more esoteric beliefs ranging from astrology to the doomsday beliefs of the White Brotherhood, a cult that claims to have as many as 500,000 followers across the former union.

Religious cults and a widespread belief in the occult were all part of the old Russian empire before the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution tried to suppress all forms of religious expression. And in the wake of the Communist collapse, such sects as the Doukhobors, or spirit-wrestlers, are enjoying a revival after decades of government-sanctioned persecution. But the emergence of such extremist sects as the White Brotherhood presents the traditional faiths—and post-communist society—with a far greater threat to established order. In Russia, Ukraine and other former Soviet republics where the old system of values has been turned upside down, the White Brotherhood provides a simple explanation for the chaos of contemporary life: the world is coming to an end. To Yelena Speranskaya, an Orthodox church member who follows the emergence of new sects, there is a ready explanation for the rapid success of the White Brotherhood. Said Speranskaya: “For 70 years we had no information about religion or any religious education of any kind. Our people are naïve and susceptible to such cults.”

Detailed information on the White Brotherhood has been difficult to get. Sect members, most of them under 30, refuse to speak to outsiders who are not potential converts. And the cult’s founder, Yuri Krivonogov, a Russian-born engineer and self-proclaimed spiritual leader, has been a fugitive since being charged with extortion two years ago. But glimpses of the cult’s growing power could be detected in Kiev, Moscow and elsewhere last summer as posters showing a serene young woman wearing white robes and carrying a shepherd’s crook started appearing on the walls of buildings in the city centres. They are likenesses of Marina Tsvygun, Krivonogov’s wife and the cult’s Messiah, now known as Maria Devi Khristos. Beneath the posters is a simple appeal to prospective followers: “I am the living god and through me alone can you receive redemption against Judgment Day.” At subway entrances, similarly whiteclad devotees delivered Tsvygun’s seductive appeal to those disoriented by the turbulent changes around them: leave your families and come with us.

In the three years since its founding, the White Brotherhood has sent tremors of alarm rippling among officialdom from Kiev

to Moscow. Indeed, rattled Ukrainian officials have formally accused Moscow of threatening Ukrainian stability by allowing thousands of cult followers to flood across the poorly guarded border between the two countries. That is an acknowledgment of the influence now wielded by Krivonogov, 52, the cult’s self-styled prophet. Critics say that he has a hypnotic hold over his followers, including Tsvygun, a former Communist Youth leader and journalist who left her first husband of 14 years and a young son to link her destiny with that of Krivonogov. In 1991, Krivonogov relinquished the most prominent role in the cult that he had founded 0 by declaring that Tsvygun 0 was a living god.

1 Last week, police arrest| ed Krivonogov and Tsvygun § when they made a sudden I and dramatic appearance £ at St. Sophia Cathedral, x According to a police g spokesman, about 60 sect § members, including the £ couple, gained access to the

church by posing as a party

of tourists. But some work-

ers inside the building became suspicious

and called the police, who arrived on the scene to find the cultists performing ritual dances and songs around the altar. A fight quickly broke out, during which the devotees reportedly damaged gold-covered icons and frescoes by spraying them with foam from fire extinguishers. The next day, an interior ministry videotape of Tsvygun undergoing interrogation showed her gesticulating wildly and maintaining that she was the second coming of Christ. “I am Maria Devi Khristos. You are all servants of Satan and the devil,” she said. And referring to the age of Jesus Christ when he was crucified, Tsvygun added: “Just like 2,000 years ago, I am 33 years old.”

Tsvygun’s prophecy that she would die on Nov. 11 and be resurrected three days later did not come to pass. But Kiev police remained on guard late last week as cult members continued to gather outside the cathedral in expectation of the world’s end. Said Ukraine’s deputy interior minister Valentyn Nedrehaylo: “We’ve dealt with various types in the past, such as strikers and demonstrators. But with these people it is very difficult to find any common ground.” Once known as the breadbasket of the Soviet Union, Ukraine last week seemed more like a basket case.

MALCOLM GRAY in Kiev