East-West Church & Ministry Report
Vol. 2, No. 3, Summer 1994, Covering the Former Soviet Union and East Central Europe

A Russian Homegrown Cult

Wil Triggs

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 back.

One mother wrote:

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 world media.

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 soil.

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:

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:

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 extremist cults.

Practical Preparation
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:

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.

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
ISSN 1069-5664

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