Spas (htpcl) wrote in talk_politics,

Vissarion's Siberian utopia

Hello, my comrades utopianists (sic?)! Political Utopia Month reminds me of a very real utopian mini-society, which still exists in the Siberian Far East. It was created by a self-proclaimed messiah spiritual teacher, former policeman Sergey Trolop now-become Father Vissarion. I learned about this back in my university years, when a Bulgarian traveler once visited my class (I was studying Tourism Management) and promoted his travel book, which included his account of the 2 years that he had spent in that remote utopian colony in Siberia. So here's the story. I don't know if I have a clear conclusion from it, maybe we'll come up with one after I'm done. And beware: it's long!

So the Bulgarian traveler Petar Stankov, a 31 year old working class guy, had spent 2 years in the Russian taiga, in the village of Petropavlovka which is now inhabited by the mysterious sect of Vissarion. The sect has been labeled a "destructive religious cult" by its detractors both within and outside the mainstream Orthodox church. But still, it remains one of the most popular sects in Russia ever since the 90s, when its founder Sergey Trolop started building an "eco-village" to accommodate his followers. The village has grown into a complex of 40 villages around lake Tiberkul in the Krasnoyarsk district, with a total population of around 5,000 followers. Their stated purpose is to live a life in harmony with nature and to separate themselves from the financial system of modern society (i.e., abandon money). Sounds familiar, right? The Amish, anyone? Well, that community is pretty international - mainly Russians and Ukrainians, but also some Germans, Chinese, Koreans and East Europeans, including about 60 Bulgarians.

Vissarion has traveled a lot around the region promoting his social system, and BG has been by far the most frequently visited foreign country. His last visit here was in 2004, and his followers at a local level are about 100. This tradition of environmental primitivist escapism and New-Age inclination may be traced back to the time of the legendary neo-Theosophic teacher Petar "Beinsa-Douno" Deunov, whose Universal White Brotherhood still performs its spring and autumn equinox rituals on top of the highest mountain of the Balkans, and has lots of followers in the US.

Anyway; Vissarion's message is mostly related to preaching love to everything and everyone, and most of all to nature and to thy neighbor. His followers believe this is the original teaching of Jesus without all the institutional / Church / priesthood bullshit. His critics accuse Vissarion of turning his "Heavenly Abode" into a place where individual freedoms are deleted upon arrival, private property is eliminated for the benefit of the leader, and all its followers are completely dependent financially on the leadership of the group. A place where people get separated from the outer world, where even the most basic health care aid is denied, the communiy has total control on the indoctrination of its children through their specific education system, and even people have restictions on their eating habits and the way they dress, and they often suffer sleep deprivation because of the endless compulsory prayers and meditation.

These are the accusations. Meanwhile, the traveler Petar Stankov told us quite a different story during that lecture. As an almost teenager he got interested in Petar Deunov's teachings and Zen-Buddhism. A few years before that lecture, he found a booklet of Vissarion's missionaries who were criss-crossing East Europe (just like those weird pairs of Mormon missionaries tend to do). He liked the idea of having a "nature-friendly" life in the wilderness and living on self-sustainable farming and producing his own means of living and developing useful craftsman skills. So he figured he could drop everything here and move to Siberia.

So he got sucked up into Vissarion's doctrine. And its main tenet is that the Universe has two sources - the Creator, from whom/which everything spiritual originates, plus the source of all material life. And the humans are the only creatures in the Universe who can have access to the former. Yep, because the Universe is inhabited by various civilizations, but all of them lack the "spiritual" part, save the humans. And the only way to unleash it in humans is to embrace "the full love to thy neighbor". Sounds very New-Age, doesn't it? Well, at least Vissarion himself doesn't claim to be a re-incarnation of the Messiah (although he does dress like the mainstream idea of what Jesus must've looked like). Instead of outright calling himself a Messiah, he says he's just one spiritual being like the rest of the human race, only he has some of his hidden skills more developed/unblocked. He doesn't claim to be God's son, and neither being able to converse with God (hey Bush, are you listening?), because God has created each spirit in a way that its ability to communicate with God is inherent, only it's latent in most humans, save some gifted ones like Vissarion (and he certainly hadn't realized that skill in his earlier life as a cop, until some traumatic experience unleashed it).

Stankov went to lake Tiberkul and met the founder of the sect, Vissarion. He reported that he had sensed "Some kind of purity in that guy, something elemental and spontaneous; and his teachings were so compelling that I decided to move there". So Stankov spent nearly 2 years in Siberia (with some short interruptions when he shortly returned home to renew his visa). He saw the 40 villages in the southern Krasnoyarsk district, centered around the so-called "City of the Sun" where Vissarion lives in one of the small wooden houses. "Once you get there, you get soaked into a typical Russian rural atmosphere, surrounded by people living by the laws of nature" - whatever he meant by that.

He reported that once you've contacted them and they find you a place to stay, you don't need any money any more. You don't pay for your stay. Which is in contradiction with the claim from Vissarion's detractors that you've got to relinquish all your possessions and property in favor of the sect, if you want to stay there. There *are* donations, he says, but they're totally voluntary. And you may start building a wooden house for yourself if you have the skills and inspiration, and others will help you with that without expecting anything in return. The purpose of that community is to divorce itself from the "decadent" financial system existing in the rest of the world, and to establish a lifestyle of self-sufficiency and no money. "Money, and ultimately, the striving for power, creates a clumsy and vicious mechanism that causes tension and fear, and all sorts of conflicts. We try to get out of the vicious circle of our financial system, and build a place where everyone can work for themselves while caring for their neighbor". In addition, Vissarion's teaching says that in order to live peacefully, one has to love all living things. And the other crucial thing is learning some craft or skill which they could use to help themselves and the community. And that has made that community a center of traditional, old-school craftsmanship. Which is very visible by the awesome architecture they've managed to develop there.

As you might expect, the main building block of the commune is the "nuclear family". All families convene on a regular meeting every evening. Because everyone knows some craft and has some specific skill, work is done in a very well organized way and most daily tasks are finished by early afternoon, so the evening is dedicated to arts, games, education, entertainment (there are specialized groups for that too).

But so far there've been difficulties completely divorcing from money - many locals still own the buildings they live in, some rent them out, they pay taxes to the government for them, they have water and electricity bills, and the older members receive their pensions on a payroll from the government. The commune is gradually shifting to self-sustainable energy sources, though - mostly solar and wind power.

There *is* some truth to the claim that there are restrictions to personal freedom, though. Alcohol, smoking and meat are completely banned. There's a requirement for vegetarianism and smoking/drinking abstinence. They grow their food on their own, they have cooperative farms, and they do use some machines, so they're not exactly like in the Stone Age. But it definitely is like a communist utopia, perhaps in the way some of the original communist idealists had envisioned it before the idea got quickly hijacked by unscrupulous political opportunists and thugs who were more than willing to use it as a means to establish total control on their societies through coercion and bloodshed.

There's a very high birth rate there - out of the 5,000 inhabitants, 600 are children. This is a fact their missionaries are using as argument to support the notion that when you live in a calm and harmonious environment, without the stress of "civilized" life and the pressure of money, when you know exactly how much work you have to do in order to feed X number of kids, you'd do the best family planning. Indeed, Stankov claims their kids look much happier, healthier, fresher than those in the outer world, and obesity is an issue that's virtually non-existent there, as well as some diseases that stem from it.

Education is a bit specific there - their principles have made them accept the state education curriculum, with one exception - any mention of wars, violence and other strife (especially in History classes) is dropped out, so that their children never really learn anything about that part of human existence, which is kind of like keeping them under a glass lid. And granted, some of the youngsters go on to pursue their higher education in the big cities of Russia or abroad. Vissarion says his followers shouldn't restrict anyone's free choice of personal development. There are concerns that those kids would experience a huge culture shock when they mingle with the secular world outside, but still Vissarion maintains that every family has to provide complete freedom of choice to their kids, and encourage it. As for educating the kids in the principles of life from an early age, he says that parents should make sure to teach their kids of the relations between the genders and the responsibilities that come with that. Especially the boys, since his teaching says that men have the greater responsibility for the well-being of the family. A man is not allowed to abandon a woman, once they're in a relationship, no matter if they're married or not (because extra-marital sex *is* allowed).

Stankov is categorical - almost no one of the followers commits major sins, they don't drink, don't steal, so there's no need of a court. If there's a problem, it's discussed at the regular meetings, and the whole community serves as an arbiter. If someone does a mistake, they're given a year to amend it and improve themselves.

And if you thought life is boring there, actually they have much more spare time to spend with their families and fellows and have fun in many ways different from playing videogames or watching MTV. After all, there are all sorts of people there from different backgrounds, coming from all corners of the world, including former artists, musicians, painters, teachers. There are special groups performing arts, theater and entertainment for the kids. So the day is dedicated to work (except Sunday), while the evening is for arts and entertainment.

"I went there because I wanted to see what it's like to live in the nature, and I love nature", Petar Stankov told our university audience, which was already starting to get bored (some of my class-mates were already playing Tetris on their mobiles). He said it's very different to live without money, and rely on your own labor for a living. Since there's no stress and pressure, people find it kind of easier to be kind to each other and share stuff, and since they don't have anything to divide, they don't care about taking. They take whatever they need, and they contribute whatever remains as a surplus from their labor, without having problems with that. Pure communism, no doubt!

Petar admits at first his family were very hostile to his plans to move to that commune in Siberia. They were concerned that he might harm himself that way, but in time they realized that the change in him had been to the better, he had become a more down-to-earth guy, a calmer guy, and his health had improved a lot due to the new experience and environment, so they accepted his decision and moved on.

In turn, as he spent a couple of weeks back in "civilization" (as much as you could call this country "civilized" at all), he couldn't help noticing the drastic difference in the general atmosphere and the attitude of people to each other and the lack of a sense for society (this is very common here, perhaps it's a cultural thing). So he couldn't wait to return to Siberia again, once his visa was renewed, and get back to being a calm, balanced, and happy man, and live in a place where money doesn't exist and where people really do care how you're doing when they say it, as opposed to saying it out of sheer courtesy and hypocrisy.

I don't know what has happened with this guy since then. That was a long time ago, maybe 7-8 years ago when I was still in university. But Vissarion's commune is still there, and his missionaries occasionally pop up around here. Probably Stankov has had to return to BG every year since then, because we've got quite a complicated visa regime with Russia and people need their visa renewed at the embassy here (same for Russians who visit BG). Unfortunately the flight tickets to Siberia have become rather expensive in recent years - there was a time you could have a two-way ticket for $300 but now it's maybe twice as much.

It's normal to expect that Petar would vehemently deny all negative claims about the sect. That doesn't mean that those are completely untrue, and should be shunned. And there are indeed many claims and speculations around our yellow press, and in the more mainstream one as well. Like: Vissarion's society is a social experiment from KGB (but of course, who else?); and people are starving there, and Vissarion is using them to build him palaces (in fact not one palace has been spotted in the area). He insists that the core idea of that utopian commune is to build a small society of their own, where fear and tension is not a factor - be it fear from bankruptcy, or tensions because of property dispute or jealousy, and therefore no social injustices can occur; let alone this alienation between people that we see everywhere around us (I guarantee you that you don't know even half of your closest neighbors if you're living in a big city).

Vissarion maintains that the success of such a society, any society in fact, entirely depends on its own capabilities and cohesion, and the presence of a core idea around which said society could rally, and be inspired about - whatever that idea might be. Of course he forgets to mention that he's talking about a capsulated, small society, which comes in almost no interaction with the rest of the world, and one which consists of multiple separate communes, each managing itself on its own without practically being part of a larger "society" per se. Which makes it more akin to the primitive pre-historic hunter-gatherer social structures, or at least the earliest agricultural proto-societies. The question is, who wants to revert to that level of "development" at this point, and what's the point in doing that.

And if you thought it's just another End of Days apocalyptic (and potentially suicidal) sect that I've been wasting your time with, actually they're not expecting the end of the world to come any time soon. Vissarion is categorical that everything is in people's hands, and their fate depends on their actions and decisions. And most importantly: nobody should try to force their opinions and way of life upon others. Sounds idealistic and inapplicable in a broader and vastly interconnected world like ours, but that's what they profess as their main principle. Although they do promote their teaching through some print materials like brochures, they don't have a Bible, no holy Scripture, and no Commandments carved in stone that everyone has to follow (save for that weird no-meat / no-smoking / no-alcohol ban, but I could understand the latter two). Also they got no messiahs, and no angry gods hanging upon them, threatening punishment if they fail in some way. And actually, no definition of "Fail". And anyone who joins them, is free to leave whenever they decide it's not worth the effort any more. I haven't heard of Petar Stankov returning to the "real world", so I think it's safe to assume that he has found happiness in that utopia.
Tags: communism, russia, society, utopia
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