When the leader of a small religious sect is arrested, it shows how far Russian repression stretches.
Aleksei Demidov took a few minutes out of his busy day to pray on a hillside blanketed in the golden hues of pine, birch, and larch trees. He was focusing his attention on his spiritual leader, Vissarion, in the hopes that he would sense his energy.
A jumble of little bells chimed from a slender wooden gazebo as he prayed. In 1991, Vissarion established the Church of the Last Testament, which these people belonged to. Unless, of course, you’re talking about Sergei Torop, who was just a reformed cop turned amateur artist.
For Mr. Demidov and hundreds of other churchgoers, Vissarion the Living God is now an actual person. However, he is regarded as a criminal by the Russian authorities.
Mr. Torop and his adherents have been practicing their faith in relative obscurity and without intervention from the authorities for the better part of three decades.
However, in September of last year, government security agents abducted him together with two of his assistants in a dramatic operation. Their actions have been linked to acts of violence against Russian nationals, according to Russia’s Investigative Committee, which is the country’s highest federal prosecutorial authority. The group denies these charges.
It’s been a year since the three men were arrested, and they’re still being held without charge in a prison in Novosibirsky, an industrial city 1,000 miles away from their home. There is currently no set trial date.
Since coming to power at the turn of the century, Vladimir V. Putin has gone to considerable efforts to silence his detractors and prevent anyone or any group from amassing an excessive amount of authority. He’s evicted and imprisoned oligarchs, stifled the press, and attempted to silence political opponents like Aleksei A. Navalny.
The state has also taken a hard line against nonconformist religious groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who were outlawed in 2017 and labeled as “extremists” on par with ISIS terrorists.