Cave Collapse Sends 'Sign' to Cult

APA view on Tuesday of living quarters in a Penza cave where a cult holed up.
Fourteen members of a doomsday cult, including two children, emerged from their underground shelter in the Penza region on Tuesday morning, more than 5 months after they went in.

Seven women left the shelter on March 28. Another 14, including a girl who is just under 2 years old, remain underground in the cave where the cult members have been holed up since the end of October, a spokesman for the Emergency Situations Ministry said.

NTV showed women in headscarves and dark clothes and men with long beards climbing up a slope after leaving the cave. Emergency workers were supporting some of the women.

Penza Deputy Governor Oleg Melnichenko told NTV that the group's members had interpreted a cave-in that occurred Tuesday as a "sign from above" indicating that they should come out.

The group that came out Tuesday included two girls, aged 8 and 14, said Dmitry Yeskin, the press spokesman for the Emergency Situations Ministry in Penza.

Maria Orlova, the spokeswoman for the Investigative Committee in the region, said in an e-mailed statement that three men and nine women had come out Tuesday. She put the children's ages at 8 and 15.

"According to the information we have, the condition of the people who came to the surface is good," Orlova said.

The health of the seven women who came out earlier was "no cause for concern," Orlova added.

The unofficial leader of the group that came to the surface was Vitaly Nedogon, said Anton Sharonov, the press secretary for the Penza governor's office.

The emerging group brought with them three hunting rifles, which they voluntarily handed over to emergency workers, Yeskin said.

Photographs taken at the scene showed plastic sacks full of the members' possessions, which they brought out with them and took to Nedogon's house in the nearby village of Nikolskoye.

Two of the cells built by the cult members collapsed Tuesday, and the cave became divided into two parts. The 14 people who came out were in a different section from those who still remain, Sharonov said.

The abandoned section of the earth-walled cave included narrow sleeping cells with makeshift beds, a photograph showed. NTV showed chess set members had left behind.

Penza Deputy Governor Melnichenko held talks with Nedogon, after which he agreed to come out with the other people in that section of the cave at around 9 a.m., Sharonov said.

Emergency workers cleared an entrance to the part of the cave where the other 14 members are located, but no one else came out, Yeskin said Tuesday afternoon.

Two children remain in the underground shelter, including a girl who is only 1 year, 8 months old, Sharonov said.

The group was taken in a bus by emergency ministry workers to a house owned by Nedogon in the village of Nikolskoye, where they remained.

"They have closed themselves in there and they said that they will stay closed up until Orthodox Easter, which is April 27," Sharonov said.

The seven women who came out March 28 are now living in the house of Pyotr Kuznetsov, the group's leader, in the village of Nikolskoye. Kuznetsov, who had been confined to a mental hospital and subsequently found insane by a court, has been allowed to live with the women, one of the women's conditions for coming out. They have also, on their request, been provided with a cow by the Penza authorities.

Although the court decision means that Kuznetsov cannot be held legally responsible for his actions, two criminal cases initiated by the Prosecutor General's Office into the activities of the doomsday cult remain open. One, started in November, is for organizing a religious group associated with violence. The second, opened last week, concerns inciting religious hatred.

Sharonov said he talked to Kuznetsov on Tuesday. "He is, of course, a rather strange person, with certain mental problems," Sharonov said, "but he doesn't attack people and he doesn't try to incite hatred."