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Soul Snatchers: Russian Newsweek, Jan. 17, 2010


Patron Meritorious
Translated by Anonymous from the Russian edition of Newsweek (No 4 [273] Jan. 18-24, 2010).



by Darina Shevchenko, January 17, 2010

In Russia, the war against sects is on. The first strike is aimed at missionaries.

In appearance, Vladimir Kamushek is an ordinary man from a village. For a visit to the capital, he wore a suit and looked a bit shy. When the conversation veered toward the subject of faith, he gradually relaxed, but not for long. Hearing that legislative amendments are expected from the Duma that would restrict missionary activities, Kamushek hardened his tone. "Make no mistake! When he dies, I go after him, to the most terrible torments," he says suddenly, with a gasp. "He" is Vissarion, a former policeman who is now leader of the Church of the Last Testament, which is in the top-ten list of totalitarian sects.

In Russia, there are no official statistics on sect members. According to various estimates, their numbers range from 800,000 to 1.5 million. Aside from the Vissarionites, the largest groups are Mormons (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints), Jehovah's Witnesses (Watchtower Society), Scientologists, and followers of the Unification Movement of Sun Myung Moon and of the Krishna Consciousness Society.

The list of totalitarian sects - about 80 large ones and nearly 1,000 small ones - is compiled by the Russian Association of Religious and Cultic Studies Centers, whose head is Alexander Dvorkin. The chief sect watcher borrowed the phrase "totalitarian sect" from French law, which uses this term for "an authoritarian organization whose leader, to gain power over his followers, hides his intentions behind religious, educational, cultural, and other masks.”

In Russia’s legal language, the term "sect" does not exist at all. For this reason, there is no mention of sects in the amendments to the law on freedom of speech being developed for the Ministry of Justice by an advisory council headed by Dvorkin himself. Such a new term cannot be created through an amendment; a new law would be needed. Preparing a new law would take a long time, but the problem requires an immediate solution. "A large number of complaints have been received from the public. Across Russia, there are major court cases related to the activities of sects. It is already impossible to ignore this," says Dvorkin. Sectarianism is thus not being dealt with head-on, but it is being grappled with through amendments which tighten “the responsibility for the missionary activity of religious associations.”


One of the amendments requires that a person engaged in missionary activity have power of attorney from the spiritual leader. Heads of totalitarian sects immediately disown their followers if they fall into a difficult situation, explains one of the authors of the amendments and member of the advisory council, Evgeniy Mukhtar. "Such an amendment will oblige sect members to bear responsibility for their people,” he says. “It will end so-called spontaneous and disorderly religious manifestations in public places.”

Doing missionary work in orphanages, schools and medical institutions will now be possible only with the consent of the leaders of these institutions. "These rules must apply to all, but from our point of view, it will be easier for representatives of traditional religions to accept this than, for example, Jehovah's Witnesses or Scientologists," says Mukhtar. This may sound somewhat naive, because with or without changes to the law, a person can be classified as a missionary with the blessing of a school director.

"This is only the first step!” says Mukhtar. “Under current legislation, I cannot help a woman who, under the influence of psychological techniques, gave her apartment to her guru and then changed her mind and wanted to return. I cannot bring to justice the leaders of a sect whose speeches on the imminent end of the world filled the head of a 15-year-old girl who then committed suicide. Religion watchers furthermore intend to lobby for enactment of a law specifically directed against totalitarian sects. It will contain a clear definition of what this is, along with a ratified list of religious organizations whose activities are in need of special supervision. The process of determining which organization is a totalitarian sect and which is not will be determined by the opinion of experts on religion. At present, law enforcement agencies have to operate by instinct.

Police have had to deal with sects since last year, when the Internal Affairs Department established divisions to combat extremism. This, as hoped, broke new ground. But there was a lack of knowledge. "After a case involving the ritual murder of a teenager in the Yaroslavl region, police began arresting innocent people,” says Evgeniy Mukhtar. “I had to explain at length to the Internal Affairs Department that the Goths are pretty harmless, even though they wear black with skulls.” In many regions, the police started inviting Orthodox priests to have them explain who is harmful and who isn’t.

The head of the "Slavic Legal Center" law firm, Roman Lukin, considers the existing legislation sufficient. "There are articles in the Criminal Code for religious extremism, fraud, and failure to provide medical care. This is enough to bring to justice those who refuse a blood transfusion to their child, take money and property from their followers, or practice ritual murder", says Lukin. In Lukin’s opinion, the adoption of special anti-sectarian legislation could lead to infringement of the rights of all those who belong to non-traditional religious movements.

Localities have gradually adapted their fight against cults using the existing legislative framework. Last fall, for example, the Rostov Regional Court banned the Jehovah's Witnesses in Taganrog. In Naberezhnye Chelny, the operation of the Scientology organization was shut down. In Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, Pentecostals were fined 1.24 million rubles: doctors came from Korea to treat members of the community but these physicians did not have work permits.

Sects don’t always demonstrate a willingness to turn the other cheek; instead, they seek protection in Strasbourg, where the Court of Human Rights often takes their side. In October last year, the European Court fined Russia 20,000 euros for refusing to register Scientology as a religious group in Nizhnekamsk and Surgut. In February, the court imposed fines on Russia for persecution of the Moon sect.

"The current crisis has seriously complicated the situation concerning sects: social instability creates favorable conditions for attracting people into all sorts of spiritual labyrinths,” says Alexander Chausov, head of the Novgorod anti-sectarian project “Gnev” [wrath] and member of the pro-Kremlin “Young Guard.” “Since last fall, the number of calls from relatives of people who have joined sects has increased several-fold.”

Those who combat sects admit that their opponents are growing more sophisticated. In many Russian cities, organizations with a sectarian agenda are opening anti-drug and anti-alcohol centers. For example, schools in Kazan display flyers that advertise the Scientologists' “Narconon” center. The rehabilitation method practiced by Narconon is banned in many countries.

Whereas the major sects previously sought support from local authorities, they themselves now strive for power via business structures, explains Alexander Dvorkin. As an example he cites the commercial company "Zemlyane", which operated in housing construction, rental of commercial real estate, and agriculture. During an interview, a job applicant was asked if he would become a follower of Ron Hubbard. If not, even the most stellar resume would not help. “They pointed to the door,” says Dvorkin. "Zemlyane" has now been renamed “Soyuz Marins Grupp” [“Marins Group Union”] and the personnel department assured Newsweek that the company bears no relation with Scientology.


Ten years ago, Alexander Dvorkin used to call foreign colleagues and ask about sects that were arriving in Russia. Now it’s the complete opposite: foreign sect watchers and security services are asking Dvorkin to provide information about sects from Russia that proselytize abroad.

Chief on the mind of the Europeans is Anastasia, a mythical woman who is said to live in the Siberian taiga and to possess paranormal abilities. Thousands of followers flock to Germany for meetings with Vladimir Megre, founder of the cult and author of a series of books about Anastasia. Anastasia of Siberia is also popular in Holland.

Inge is a sixty-year-old Dutch woman who lives in Rotterdam in a small house with a garden. For her, Russia is not associated with vodka and nested dolls, but with the magical woman Anastasia, who heals with herbs and communicates with animals. Inge refuses to believe that Anastasia is the product of Megre’s imagination. "In Russia, where such an untouched natural environment still exists, such a miracle must be real," she replies to all objections. Inge regularly orders new books about Anastasia on the Internet and buys various pendants and ointments that are supposedly made by the Siberian healer.

According to Urvan Parfentiev, coordinator of the Center for Internet Security, sects are very progressive as far as new methods of communication are concerned. "They meet teenagers and young people through blogs, social networks, and chat rooms. They offer friendship and emotional support. It’s very rare that they openly say they are representing a sort of religious organization," says Parfentiev.

The hotline operated by his center often receives complaints about the recruiting activities of sect followers on the web. "Our center recently shut down an operation used by a pseudo-Islamic sect to incite teenagers to extremist actions," says Parfentiev. Measures such as this are rare, however. It is difficult to act, given the absence of a special law on sects.

In France, anti-sectarian legislation was passed several years ago stipulating that successful prosecution of two court cases against a religious organization is enough to close it down. Germany does not yet have a national law on combating sects, but many German states have introduced their own laws restricting the activities of sects. Committing a single excess is sufficient to have a religious organization expelled from a region. The state of Bavaria, for instance, adopted a law on the incompatibility between membership in the Scientology organization and working in a public service.


In Moscow, Scientologists are feeling wonderful. The Church of Scientology building resembles a “magic castle” with towers, marble staircases, and colorful garlands. Inside, everything looks like the office of a successful corporation: reception, numerous classrooms, plasma TV in the center of the hall, library, training rooms. On a Sunday evening, there are plenty of people, especially young people.

They show me a film about Dianetics, the technique which attracts new followers. They say it can solve all problems. Nearby, on a soft leather couch, sits a prim-looking twelve-year-old boy.

“Do you understand this?” I asked the boy, motioning to the screen.

“Of course. Every person has destructive engrams. We have to get rid of them to become Clear.

“I’m already a Clear,” declares a pretty teenage girl, who is chatting with another girl not far from me.

“You're just a Clear, but I’m an auditor. I’m already a Class V,” boasts the other girl.

The children spout all this mumbo jumbo smoothly, in a casual tone, as though they were talking about their success in school.

A middle-aged man in a faded white shirt, Victor, who spotted me as a newcomer, has been cheerfully smiling all the time, but when he sees me strike up a conversation with the youngsters, he leads me aside. "How fortunate you are that you came to us. It’s obvious that you have problems, but we will help you," Victor constantly repeats.

To evaluate the scale of my supposed problems, I am offered the Oxford test, a standard psychological questionnaire. At this point, Victor insists that I give my last name and telephone number.

After processing my results, Victor shows me a chart and announces that I have so many problems that I might die soon. The Dianetics course, he assures me, will postpone this inevitable death for a while. One lesson costs 800 rubles. "A month ago, it was 3,200, but now is the time for Christmas discounts," Victor says with a smile.

Seeing me hesitate, Victor shows me thank you letters from the government of Moscow. Not succumbing to persuasion, I decide to leave, and Victor begins to look visibly nervous. "Stay with us, and then you will never end up in psych hospital! Scientology is fighting against psych hospitals all around the world," he shouted after me. On the contrary, according to psychologists who work with sect members, a "psych hospital" is precisely the place where the followers of totalitarian sects find themselves sooner or later.

Dennis lives in Saint Petersburg and he spent ten years spent in various sects. He lived in the Krishnaite community, underwent Scientology training, and for a time, he sought the truth among the "Cosmic Communists." He ran away from all of them for one reason: he lacked the money to pay the "fees" that, sooner or later, were demanded of him.

Dennis does not believe that he has any problems. Instead, he is confident that he is living his life in spiritual perfection. But after a half-hour of conversation, it emerges that Dennis has no work, he has no family, and he often thinks about suicide.

Psychologists say that persons like Dennis sooner or later find themselves in various sects. "Individuals who formerly belonged to a sect can return to normal life, but adapting to society is harder for former sect members than for ex-prisoners,” says psychologist Evgeniy Volkov. “This country has not a single rehabilitation center for victims of destructive sects. Very few psychologists have the ability to work with these clients.”

Volkov is convinced that the main efforts should be targeted toward the prevention of sectarianism: schools should be teaching not the fundamentals of religious culture, but logic and social psychology, so that people with children know what psychological manipulation is and how to resist it.

In Ukraine, this has already been understood. Local psychologists have developed anti-manipulation training for schoolchildren that is approved by the Ukraine Ministry of Education. In Russia, a small number of enthusiasts are doing something similar. For example, the well-known traveler Anton Krotov began organizing discussions to which he invites leaders of various spiritual movements and observers of religion. The participants arguing at his debates are followers of Vissarion, Orthodox priests, atheists, Buddhists, and even people who worship the light bulb.

"The best thing you can for a member of a sect is to pull that person away from his or her habitual surroundings. Let them get out of their ashrams, churches, mosques, and underground shelters. Let them argue, discuss, draw conclusions, and hear a different point of view," says Krotov. Then, perhaps, no one will want to bury themselves underground to await the end of the world.
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Free to shine

Shiny & Free
Seeing me hesitate, Victor shows me thank you letters from the government of Moscow. Not succumbing to persuasion, I decide to leave, and Victor begins to look visibly nervous. "Stay with us, and then you will never end up in psych hospital! Scientology is fighting against psych hospitals all around the world," he shouted after me. On the contrary, according to psychologists who work with sect members, a "psych hospital" is precisely the place where the followers of totalitarian sects find themselves sooner or later.

I love this bit. And also that there is awareness of a problem. :)


Gold Meritorious Patron
Sounds like the Russian Governmebt is pulling ahead of the American Government in stopping cults. Hope they can keep it up inder the pressure of the European Congresses.