Vol. 2, No. 3, Summer 1994, Covering the Former Soviet Union and East Central Europe
A Russian Homegrown Cult
Alarming cults, such as the Great White Brotherhood, provide both
a look at the spiritual searching of post-Communist society and a
frightening Russian national spin on Western extremist cults such as
David Koresh's Branch Davidians. Such groups hold a strong and powerful
appeal, especially in light of emerging nationalist sentiments. As the
governments of Russia and Ukraine struggle to frame legislation related
to religion, how they handle extremist cults may determine their
interpretation of religious liberty for all minority religious groups.
The Great White Brotherhood
The leaders of one of Ukraine's and Russia's new religious
movements, the Great White Brotherhood, predicted the end of the world
for November 14, 1993. After traveling throughout Russia and Ukraine
and gathering followers from as far away as distant regions of Siberia,
the new religion's founders, Maria Devi (former Komsomol leader) and
Yuri Krivonogov, remained in Kiev awaiting an apocalyptic end. Many of
the cult's followers had abandoned homes and families, prompting
distraught parents to appeal to local authorities, the media, as well
as the Ministry of Internal Affairs, to help them get their children
One mother wrote:
"My 19-year-old son recently joined the White Brotherhood cult.
Before that he was a student at the institute of transportation
engineering....One day he met some 'White Brothers' and two months
later he left home. The main thing that the White Brotherhood urges is
to save oneself from 'demonic parents.' Our family has joined the
Committee to Save Young People From Pseudo-religions. To date it has
more than 100 members--desperate parents whose children gave in to the
call to leave their jobs and families."
On November 9, just five days before the world was to end, one group of
White Brothers in Arkhangelsk declared war on Orthodox believers. They
interrupted Orthodox services, urging churchgoers to turn from
Christianity and to embrace Maria Devi as god.
As November 14 approached, Maria Devi reportedly prepared herself
to be crucified and resurrected in Kiev as part of a last judgment.
Rumors spread of impending acts of terrorism and of mass suicide.
Parents in Kiev were afraid to allow their children on the streets. In
response, Ukraine's President Leonid Kravchuk gave government
authorities power to expel nonresidents from Kiev. Authorities detained
or arrested hundreds of followers of the Great White Brotherhood.
A Parallel to Western Extremist Cults
At the time, some Western observers drew obvious and legitimate
parallels between the cult of the White Brotherhood and the Branch
Davidians who had so recently followed self-proclaimed deity David
Koresh to violent deaths. While Koresh and his followers mirrored
aspects of popular culture and at the same time strove for separation
from it, the White Brotherhood links its teachings to Slavic people and
practices from the past, making this new religion appealing to a broad
segment of the population of Russia and Ukraine. Thus, the teachings of
the White Brotherhood, and other new religions emerging in Russia, have
a power that likely will outlast their more sensationalistic
apocalyptic teachings. Without Western money or influence, Devi and
Krivonogov gained thousands of followers, caused great distress in
homes across Russia and Ukraine, and garnered the attention of the
The Distinctive Appeal of National Cults
In claiming to be the reincarnations of early-twentieth century
artist and mystic Nicholas Roerich and his wife, Krivonogov and Devi
gained an audience among Russians alarmed at the foreign inroads of
many of the new religious voices in the country. The two also have been
part of a resurgence of interest in Roerich's theosophical teachings.
For example, Maria Devi's claim to be the reincarnation of the Holy
Spirit, Helena Roerich, the grandmother of Vladimir, the Virgin Mary,
Exeda, Radha, and Eve mirrors theosophy's attempt to unify all
religions into one. A missionary in Russia recently reported that
Roerich's philosophy is even being taught in some public schools as
part of a social studies curriculum.
In contrast, many foreign evangelical workers are not familiar
with the history of national Protestant missionary work in Russia, so
they rarely ever link themselves or their ministry with national
movements in Russia's history. Evangelicals would do well to acquaint
themselves with the past history of Protestant movements on Slavic
Russia's new religions often appeal to folk traditions and
practices that predate Orthodox Christianity, a development in some
ways even more alarming than the overt connection with Roerich's
theosophy. Ancient pre-Christian practices in Rus find contemporary
interpretation and revitalization in the teachings of new religions
like the Great White Brotherhood. In times of crisis, Slavic people
often resorted to the volkhvy, magical priests of pagan Russia, because
these ancient sorcerers reportedly foretold the future. In Russian Folk
Belief, Linda J. Ivanits describes one act of pagan Russian sorcery:
"The person desiring to receive mysterious powers, or, as the
peasants often phrased it, `knowledge' removed the cross from his neck,
stomped on an icon placed face down, and renounced God, his mother and
father, and, sometimes, the earth, sun, and moon" (p. 96).
While this may read as strangely pagan to many Western people,
followers of the Great White Brotherhood renounced their parents,
declared war on the Orthodox church--even reportedly disrupting places
of worship--and believed, for a time at least, that their leaders could
indeed foretell the future. Although their prediction for November 14
did not come to pass, leaders of the Great White Brotherhood, along
with other extremist religious groups, may unwittingly play a decisive
role in the shaping of Russia's future where legislation related to
religious liberty is concerned.
Laws on Religion, New Cults, and Minority Religious Groups
The final document adopted unanimously by participants at the
seminar, "Totalitarian Cults in Russia," held in Moscow May 16-20,
1994, addressed the issue of legislation on religion as follows:
"We believe that legislation in Russia on religious activities
still needs further improvement. In particular, the current legislation
is weighted in favor of those religious groups who evade registration
as religious associations. ...We consider it expedient to create an
interdenominational expert commission at the Russian Ministry of
Justice and the Russian Ministry of Education, without whose
recommendation it would be impossible to introduce religious education
programs in state schools and institutes."
This document, jointly drafted by Orthodox, Catholics, and Protestants,
reveals widespread Christian concern over the growing influence of
cults in Russia. Yet it does not address the problem of how cults or
new religions--or any minority religious groups--fit into a society
attempting to create a pluralistic democracy guaranteeing freedom of
religion. During the eleventh century, when Orthodoxy was new to
Russia, government authorities sometimes killed pagan volkhvy
who were attempting--and often succeeding--in turning people away from
newly adopted Christianity (Fedotov, p. 394). As Russia and Ukraine
seek to develop modern democratic governments, legislators must seek
options that do not rely on violence or persecution to contain
Careful preparation and study would best serve Western evangelicals
working in Russia and Ukraine as they confront followers of alternative
religious movements. The following guidelines and recommended readings
provide places to start:
Know the history of Protestant movements in Russia and Ukraine.
Protestant Christianity predates the Communist era. Such knowledge can
only help in discussions with nationals who may mistakenly assume
Protestantism is new to Russia. Recommended reading: In the Cauldron of Russia, The Life of an Optimist in the Land of Pessimism, Ivan Prokhanov, available from One Body Ministries, Box 645, Joplin, MO 64802-0645.
Become acquainted with ancient Slavic traditions which continue to shape the hearts and minds of the Russian people.
Russian folk traditions have their charms as well as their
superstitious elements. Whenever possible, develop an appreciation for
those traditions which are compatible with Christianity. Recommended
reading: Russian Folk Belief, Linda J. Ivanits, available in
hardcover ($42.50) and softcover ($16.95) from M.E. Sharpe Inc., 80
Business Park Drive, Armonk, NY 10504; tel: 914-273-1800 or
1-800-541-6563; fax: 914-273-2106.
Editors' Note: For statistics and available resources on
cults in the former Soviet Union and East Central Europe, see "Cult
Membership Estimates for the Former Soviet Union and East Central
Europe," EWC&M Report 1 (Fall 1993), 5-6.
Be aware that not all religious impulses in Russia or Ukraine are compatible with Christianity.
Though Orthodox Christianity has a thousand-year history in Russia and
Ukraine, pagan practices go back even further. Don't mistakenly
consider every Russian tradition to have a basis in Orthodoxy. While
some of the new cults of Russia express open hostility to Russian
Orthodoxy or any form of Christianity, others falsely claim to be
Christian. Recommended reading: The Russian Religious Mind,
George P. Fedotov (Cambridge: Harvard University Press: 1946); for more
on new religions in Russia and Ukraine, see the thematic issue on
"Tomorrow's Paganism" in Update and Dialog on New Religious Movements
2 (February 1993). Dialog Center International, Katrinebjergvej 46,
DK-8200 Aarhus N, Denmark; tel: 45-86-10-54-11; fax:
Wil Triggs is director of publications for Peter Deyneka Russian Ministries and coeditor of the East-West Church & Ministry Report.
Wil Triggs, "A Russian Homegrown Cult," East-West Church & Ministry Report, 2 (Summer 1994), 4-5.
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© 1994 Institute for East-West Christian Studies
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