Ukrainian police capture doomsday cult leader Woman calls herself 'God'

many believe arrest may have averted mass suicide

November 12, 1993|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Staff Writer

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukrainian police were congratulating themselves on a job well done yesterday -- they had just saved the world.

They had managed -- however inadvertently -- to capture doomsday cult leader Maria Devi Khristos, formerly known as Marina Tsvygun, thus forestalling a chain of events that once begun was supposed to result in the end of the world on Sunday.

Many feared that the event, whose prelude has wrought havoc across the land, might have led to thousands of suicides.

Col. Nikolai I. Kostyetski, a deputy chief of the Interior Ministry police, had begun to get impatient as "the end" neared. "In Moscow they stormed the White House," he sighed as he rifled through the thick investigation file on his desk. "Here, we're being stormed by the White Brotherhood."

For months now the cult, called the Great White Brotherhood, has been proclaiming its leader as the Messiah. She was Jesus Christ; she would die to save the world, rise from the dead three days later and preside over the end of the world.

Young people began disappearing from cities across an expanse of thousands of miles, from western Ukraine to the Russian Far East. Families turned up in police stations, sadly holding pictures of young smiling faces.

This past summer in Moscow, young cultists took the stage of the famed Bolshoi Theater and the Grand Kremlin Palace, just before the curtain rose, and shouted out to startled ballet- or opera-goers to repent because the end was near.

Stage managers gaped in incomprehension before finally rushing out to hustle them away.

Pictures of their messiah were plastered from one end of this enormous land to another.

In Ukraine, police began rounding up cult members, but the movement persisted.

Authorities began believing they were dealing with dark powers who could hypnotize innocent children and lure them away. Over the past few days, children in Kiev have been told not to look into the eyes of strangers.

The police decided to fight the supernatural with the supernatural. Alexander Matasov, member of a volunteer spiritual society, described one effort earlier this week.

Three teen-age girls who belong to the cult sat in one room. Several extrasensory volunteers gathered in adjoining rooms.

"First we prayed," Mr. Matasov said. "Then the leader gave the signal for everyone to concentrate all their powers at once. They drew all the evil power out, and the leader of the group gathered all the evil power, made a ball and threw it out the window.

" 'Let it go to those who sent it,' he said."

Center of furor

The center of all of the furor is Ms. Tsvygun, who at 33 is the same age as Jesus is believed to have been when he died. She favors long white robes and a white headdress, and likes to carry a blue and gold staff. Those who believe in her would be saved, her followers said. Everyone else would face unpleasant news on judgment day as the world ended.

Ms. Tsvygun grew up in Donetsk, where her mother was a police captain. She was a star member of the Young Communist League.

After studying journalism in Kiev, she worked on a regional paper in Donetsk, got married, had a son. But along the way, Colonel Kostyetski said, she met a mysterious man named Yuri Krivonogov, whom she married -- at least spiritually. Mr. Krivonogov, now 51, is a Rasputin- like figure, a man with small piercing eyes and also given to long, flowing white robes.

He calls himself Yuoan Swami.

"He is not an ordinary man," said the colonel. "He has supernatural powers."

Second Coming

Mr. Krivonogov, who had done research in mind-altering drugs at the Institute of Cybernetics in Kiev, somehow persuaded Ms. Tsvygun that she was Maria Devi Khristos -- Jesus Christ put on Earth for the Second Coming. She left her husband and son, who is now 14, and in early 1990 began warning people about Judgment Day.

But even that has turned into an elusive moment.

"She was supposed to die on Nov. 1, but she didn't," said a weary Colonel Kostyetski. "Then she postponed it to Wednesday, and finally to Thursday [yesterday]."

By Nov. 1, police all across the former Soviet Union were on high alert, fearful that they might be facing a cult planning a mass suicide. Here in Kiev, large numbers of police patrolled St. Sophia Square, where Ms. Tsvygun had said she would die.

This is the most hallowed ground for Orthodox believers; Slavs were first baptized here 1,005 years ago. The first shrine was built here in the 11th century.

Ms. Tsvygun and Mr. Krivonogov went into hiding, issuing periodic bulletins about the end of the world through pamphlets that appeared in Russian and Ukrainian cities.

Police in Ukraine arrested nearly 800 members of the cult, which they say has about 2,200 followers. They had everyone looking for the two leaders -- even Interpol.

Then, on Wednesday, a group of about 50 cult members taking trains and buses arrived in Kiev from various Ukrainian cities. Posing as tourists, they bought tickets to enter the museum at the historic St. Sophia monastery.

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