People seek sons, daughters among cultists in Kiev Hundreds of youths left home to join cult

November 15, 1993|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Staff Writer

KIEV, Ukraine -- The world did not end yesterday, but for many disconsolate families here it might as well have.

The city was filled with mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters who came to Kiev in search of relatives who had disappeared over the past year to join the Great White Brotherhood cult.

Cult members had said the world would end yesterday, after the resurrection from the dead of Maria Devi Khristos, whom they said was Jesus Christ returning for the Second Coming.

"Today is off," Valentyn Nedryhaylo, deputy interior minister, proclaimed yesterday. "The end of the world is hereby canceled."

While this information might have reassured the average person, the news left 38-year-old Valentina Tovstik standing in the historic St. Sophia Square here with tears streaming down her face. She came to Kiev Thursday from her village five hours away, hoping to find her son, Sergei, 18.

"I was cooking in the kitchen on June 8," she recalled. "He took his passport and left, without saying anything. I haven't seen him since."

Sergei had joined the estimated 2,200 youthful followers of the Great White Brotherhood. They believed that the former Marina Tsvygun, who calls herself Maria Devi Khristos, was Jesus Christ.

They believed the exhortations of the 33-year-old Ukrainian woman's husband, the mysterious Yuri Krivonogov, who had taken elements of Christianity and Hinduism and created his own religion, with his wife as "God."

Ms. Tsvygun and Mr. Krivonogov -- known as Yuoan Swami -- preached that the world would end after Ms. Tsvygun's death. She was supposed to have died Thursday to save sinners, leading to the end of the world yesterday. But police arrested the couple Wednesday, putting them safely in prison.

Over the past several weeks, police had picked up nearly 800 believers, fearful that they might commit suicide to join their leader in heaven. The followers contemptuously said that suicide was a sin, and that such pronouncements were the work of the devil and his earthly agents -- the KGB.

But the news of the end of the world brought some hope to people like Mrs. Tovstik, who thought their lost loved ones would come to Kiev for Judgment Day.

"I don't know the aim of this religion," Mrs. Tovstik said. "I only know I have lost my son."

She held out a picture of a dark-haired boy, wearing a coat and tie and a shy smile. He was in his second year of auto mechanics school.

"I don't care what kind of person this Maria is," the unhappy mother said. "I only want my son back."

Like many of the missing young people, Mr. Tovstik was a quiet youth with few friends when he came under the influence of the cult. He became more and more distant from his family and lost interest in life around him. For a time, his family feared he was using drugs. Then he disappeared.

Valentina Serebryakova, 24, came to the square looking for her sister, Irina Kozlyativa, 19, who had disappeared in Nakhodka, near Vladivostok, Russia, 6,500 miles away.

"She disappeared last December," Mrs. Serebryakova said, the tears nearly freezing on her face in the bitter cold wind. She held up a picture of a pretty young woman with long red hair. She had been engaged to be married when she disappeared.

"She worked in a shop and heard members of the White Brotherhood preaching everyday at a bus stop outside," Mrs. Serebryakova recalled. "She began talking to them. One day she said, 'This is what I've been waiting for.' And she left."

Mr. Krivonogov had done research in mind-altering drugs at the Institute of Cybernetics in Kiev, causing police and relatives to accuse him of using drugs or hypnosis to influence the young followers.

Cults in the United States and elsewhere have exercised similar influence without drugs, but the phenomenon has taken authorities here by surprise. Until recently, thoughts were strictly controlled by the government. Now anyone can think anything, and anything can happen.

"In a normal society, people have developed an immunity against such things," said Grigori Kutsenko, who was imprisoned under the old regime for his more traditional religious beliefs. "We lived in a sterile atmosphere, and now we are infected by everything that comes along."

Police were even a little nervous that the cult leaders would hypnotize them and break out of jail. So they have taken every precaution.

"[Mr. Krivonogov is] in solitary confinement, and he'll have to stare through a cement wall," said Col. Nikolai I. Kostyetski, a deputy chief in the interior ministry police. "Let him try, but he won't manage it."

Colonel Kostyetski expects that cult followers will gradually become disillusioned because the world has not ended. He predicts they'll slowly start to drift away now, and Kiev will quiet down, though police will be on the alert for another week or so. The world won't end with a bang, he said, but there may be a few more whimpers.

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