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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Child Victimized by a Cult

Katya Shirayeva's world almost came to an end early last week. The gaunt, pale 13-year-old spent five days without food or water in Kiev in the name of a doomsday cult called the White Brotherhood which has predicted that the world will end a week from Sunday.


Weak and trembling after her ordeal, Shirayeva seemed relieved to be sitting in a Moscow juvenile detention center Thursday, her third day back on food. In five more days she would be sent home to her grandmother in St. Petersburg, and she could speak of nothing else.


"I do not believe in their ideas anymore, and I want to go to school and have friends and have a hobby like knitting, just like normal children", she said, clutching an oversized pink sweater around her neck. "I have not gone to school for a year and a half, and I am afraid I will not know how".


It will be the final stage of a journey that began more than a month ago, when the St. Petersburg leaders of the cult put her and her mother on separate trains to Kiev, to prepare for the death and subsequent resurrection of Maria Tsvygun, called "Maria Devy Khristos" by the members, who expect to be "transformed" with her. Katya said she has not seen or spoken to her mother since she left for Kiev.


The two are among an estimated 150, 000 followers of the White Brotherhood from Ukraine, Russia and Belarus. Moscow police estimate that 4, 000 or more live in the capital, pasting thousands of metro cars, buses, and buildings with Tsvygun's image, calling her "the living god, the mother of the world".


But according to police, the white-robed woman is actually a former Ukrainian journalist, in her 30s, divorced and remarried, and the mother of one son.


She now apparently believes herself to be the embodiment of both Christ and the Virgin Mary, sent to usher in the end of the world. The man believed to be her second husband, Russian-born Yury Krivonogov, has been called the cult's mastermind by Ukrainian authorities.


Amid intense police and media attention, the White Brotherhood has moved the date of the "end" from Nov. 24 to Nov. 14, and softened rhetoric about mass suicides and a public crucifixion.


Police in Kiev have been thrown into panic as about 30 of 150 members arrested for distributing literature in the city have gone on hunger strikes, and thousands more have poured into the city for the event.


"The White Brothers say it is forbidden to eat in police departments or detention centers", explained Katya. "They thought that at the end of this fast they would be transformed, but I do not think so".


The group's literature plays on fears and anxieties common to many former Soviet citizens, who have seen stability and a unifying ideology disappear with the collapse of communism.


Biblical warnings of the apocalypse are interspersed with anti-Soviet and Ukrainian nationalist "evidence".


"Lenin, Stalin, Brezhnev and the KGB are all servants of the Antichrist", says one poster dated October 1992. "After Yeltsin loses power, it will pass to fascists, with the Antichrist at the head".


Within seven years, the world would come to an end, it says.


"Only constant contact with me, the living god, will save you", Maria Devy Khristos says on the posters.


Teenagers and single mothers are most commonly attracted to the group, said Tatyana Sovativa, of the city police's juvenile crime prevention section.


The Moscow police have frequently been called by distraught parents whose children have disappeared, she said.


"We take this very seriously, but we do not have experience with this category of people", Sovativa said. "We usually deal just with problem teenagers, but this attracts teens from good families, the ones used to doing what they are told".


Tamara Seymina, is one of those frantic to find her child. She said she joined a network of parents throughout Moscow, Kiev and other cities, which is sharing information and attempting to rescue their children.


Seymina's son Alexander, 18, joined the group in September 1992 at a time when he was searching for answers to questions about his future, she said. He disappeared four months ago, saying he intended to be in Kiev in November.


Katya said her mother became involved with the cult after her husband drowned in an accident in 1991.


Her mother read some of the group's posters and attended some meetings. In September 1992 she decided to quit her job at a bank, pull her daughter out of school, and go to work for the White Brotherhood.


At one point the brothers ordered her mother to sell a room in their apartment and use the money to pay for leaflets, which she did, Katya said.


"I think it was a mistake", Katya said. "We were a good family before. I am worried about my grandmother. She was so upset when we joined the White Brotherhood".


"But I think on Nov. 15 my mother will be home, if not sooner", she said. "I think she will understand that it was not good to stay with them".