August 17, 2009
RIA Novosti continues its six part investigation into Russian sects and fringe beliefs with a look at self-proclaimed messiah Grigory Grabovoi, jailed on fraud charges in 2008.
Dressed in an anonymous dark suit and tie of the type favoured by harassed office workers the world over, the slightly nervous middle-aged man frowns and turns on his computer's camera.
He clears his throat, wipes an expression that could be interpreted as anything from nerves to boredom off his face and begins to speak.
"I, Grigory Grabovoi, born on November 14, 1963 in the Bogara village of the Kirov District in the Chimkent Region of Kazakhstan announce that, er, I, Grigory Grabovoi, am the second coming of Jesus Christ."
The clip, easy to find on the Internet, is comical and in some ways a little sad. For anyone who is unfamiliar with the name, Grabovoi seems like a most unsuccessful and unlikely would-be messiah, severely lacking in charisma and guru-appeal.
However, this self-proclaimed leader of men is at the centre of one of the most bizarre stories to have come out of modern Russia.
Although he had been in the resurrection business for some time, Grabovoi made the headlines all over Russia in 2005 after allegedly promising to bring back to life, for some $1,500 a corpse, the 186 children killed when Chechen separatists seized school number one in Beslan, an incident often referred to as Russia's 9/11.
Media reports claimed that the "Second Coming" and his political organization - the very Clockwork Orange sounding "Drugg" - regularly held "healing sessions" in Moscow with members of the Mothers of Beslan, a group formed by bereaved parents from the tragic North Caucasus town.
"I believe in this miracle and I know that it will come about," one of the group's founding members, Susanna Dudiyeva, told a gathering of Grabovoi's followers in the Cosmos hotel in north Moscow. "My maternal instinct tells me this, my maternal faith."
"I want my child back, and I will believe in anything to get him," Zalina Guburova, who lost her 9-year-old son in the attack, told Russia's NTV.
Public outrage, whipped up by both the broadsheets and the tabloids, grew and Grabovoi was eventually arrested in 2006 after a sting operation carried out by Moscow journalist Vladimir Vorsobin, from the Komsomolskaya Pravda daily.
Vorsobin appealed to Grabovoi to resurrect his fictional step-brother, whose "photograph" was complied from different images by the paper's art department.
After Vorsobin had handed over the cash, he was informed that his "step-brother" had been resurrected and was leading a happy life somewhere near St. Petersburg.
Grabovoi was subsequently detained and, after the paper appealed for other people who had been conned to come forward, eventually charged and jailed on 11 charges of fraud in July 2008. His 11-year sentence was later cut to eight on appeal.
I met Vladimir Vorsobin this summer in central Moscow. It was over three years since he had become involved in the Grabovoi case, yet the details were still fresh in his mind.
"Before I started, I spoke to lawyers who told me that it was impossible to convict Grabovoi. He had, they said, everything covered legally so that nothing could be traced back to him. On top of this, he was guarded by some guys who used to work in the ninth."
"The KGB unit responsible for protecting the Soviet leadership."
Undeterred by Grabovoi's impressive defenses, Vladimir set about laying a trap.
"I went to see them, and asked them to resurrect my non-existent brother. They told me it was possible and would cost 1000 euros. They had an office in the centre, a secretary, a bookkeeping department, as well as stamps, documents, the lot. They even gave me a receipt! I went to pay the money at a branch of Sberbank [a Russian state-run bank]."
"After that, they gave me a plan of action. I had to go to the Cosmos hotel in north Moscow one evening, around 11 pm. There were around 40-50 people there, including some of the Mothers of Beslan. You can imagine the turnover - 50 people at 1000 euros, once or twice a week. They had minimal expenses as well. They just took a room, and saw everyone there."
"Anyway," Vladimir went on, "I had to sit there until morning. I was like, 'look, maybe I can go home and come home later.' 'No' they told me, 'you are being helped even as you sit here.'"
Vladimir stayed on until the crack of dawn, and, as the sun came up over the nearby rocket-shaped monument to Soviet cosmonauts, he was finally ushered in to see Grabovoi. The guru, the journalist recalled, looked shattered, "but then again, he had been resurrecting people all night."
"I switched on my Dictaphone and said "I want someone resurrected.'" 'Ok, it's done,' Grabovoi replied, without even glancing at me. 'He's living to the south of St. Petersburg.'"
Even though Vladimir had gone to the hotel with the intention of setting Grabovoi up, he still felt cheated ("1000 euros for two minutes!") and asked the Second Coming if he could have a chat as well.
"How can you do all this? Are you God?" he asked, getting in the big question first.
"Yes, I am Lord God."
"Do you know everything?"
"Yes, I see everything."
"Nice one," Vladimir said, and left.
Had he perhaps been worried that Grabovoi's followers might take revenge?
"At first, yes, I was freaked out," he confessed. "But then, you know, I realised that the rank and file who follow Grabovoi's teachings, they are basically kind at heart. They are all very educated, but like a lot of people in Russia they are looking for something. You know, we banished God in the Soviet era and now people need something more."
During my research into why some of the Mothers of Beslan trusted so completely in Grabovoi, I came across a book published by Drugg for the use of its members at seminars. Modestly titled, Resurrection And Eternal Life Is Our Reality From Henceforth!, the bible-sized tome contains pages and pages of documents confirming Grabovoi's "powers".
Given the Russians' Soviet-inherited respect for paperwork and official stamps, an examination of some of the documents made it slightly easier to understand exactly why so many people were taken in. Flicking through the pages, the names of the organisations and officials willing to testify caused me to do a double-take.
Some of the more impressive highlights were the Russian Space Flight centre officials who stated that Grabovoi's performances in tests designed to evaluate his powers proved that "psychics should be used to prevent and correct errors in aviation and space systems" and a contract with Uzbek National airlines to protect flights carrying the Uzbek president. Professors at Rostov State University (in Russia's south) also had no qualms about verifying Grabovoi's paranormal abilities.
"You have to remember when these documents were signed and stamped. We are talking about the late 1990s," Roman Shleinov, head of the investigation department at the Novaya Gazeta paper, told me. "Things were extremely tough financially back then in Russia. It wouldn't have cost much to buy this kind of proof."
"The Russian Space flight centre stuff doesn't really surprise me," Roman went on. "But when you see a professor at a state university testify that Grabovoi could influence events at a sub-molecular level..." He shook his head.
But what about their professional reputations? Did they not care that by lending some official credence to Grabovoi's bizarre claims they risked destroying their professional standing?
"They didn't give a damn about that!" Roman said. "Who knew what tomorrow would bring? Better to get paid today."
While the Grabovoi affair may seem like a one-off aberration, the meeting of the complex nature of Russian politics and the country's fondness for the supernatural, the concept of the physical resurrection of the dead through science has strong roots in Russian 19th and 20th century history.
Nikolai Fedorov, 1828-1903, was a Moscow-based ascetic philosopher who, despite not publishing anything in his lifetime, was cited by both Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevsky as a major influence. Fedorov, who preferred to disseminate his ideas orally, was convinced that the resurrection of the dead was scientifically possible, and that it was also humanity's moral duty to undertake this task. Mankind, the celibate thinker maintained, was the tool nature had chosen to resolve its greatest flaw, i.e. death.
While it would be easy to dismiss Fedorov as at best a well-meaning eccentric, his ideas continued to thrive after his death, and were taken up by a number of respected figures in Soviet society. One of the most notable people to take an interest in the philosopher's work was Maxim Gorky, the Order of Lenin-winning writer who reportedly had the ear of Stalin.
"We shall all rise from the dead," Gorky stated in his "On Knowledge." In a state where God had been exiled, it goes without saying that Gorky was not speaking of the Christian promise of eternal life.
Fedorov was also the inspiration for the 1920's Biocosmists-Immortalists, a pro-Bolshevik group that aimed to extend the October 1917 Revolution into the realms of time and space, and who claimed that humanity had two basic rights - the right to immortality and to unimpeded movement throughout the universe. "Dead of all countries, unite!" proclaimed a 1920 manifesto released by the group, whose members included high-up Soviet scientists and philosophers.
An official Soviet manifesto released the year before Lenin's death in 1924 had declared with typical revolutionary fervor that, "Mankind will be eternal!" After Lenin's death, the Biocosmists-Immortalists also published a statement in the state-run Izvestiya newspaper that consoled the bereaved nation with the thought that the workers of the world "would not be reconciled" with the passing away of the father of the Revolution and would not rest until he was resurrected in all his glory.
The Soviet-era slogan "Lenin lived, Lenin Lives, Lenin Will Live!" suddenly takes on quite a different meaning.
Representatives of Grabovoi's Drugg organization declined to be interviewed for this article.