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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Great White Brotherhood: Down but Not Out

The Great White Brotherhood, the religious sect that claims that its leader, Maria Devi Khristos, is the new Messiah, was forcefully scattered by the police after the violent debacle that followed a mass gathering in Kiev to witness a no-show apocalypse on Nov. 10, 1993. But by no means was the sect stamped out.

The Moscow "Church" of Maria Devi Khristos is attracting new followers daily, according to its Apostle, or head, Yury Ustinovsky, a 27-year-old former hydroacoustic technician. Ustinovsky said the church is gaining back old followers in the buildup to a new -- this time unspecified -- apocalypse.

Over 700 cult followers were arrested in connection with the first promised Day of the Apocalypse, when Maria Devi Khristos allegedly claimed she would be "crucified" and then resurrected, signaling the end of the world. Ukrainian police were concerned that the cult followers would commit mass suicide and swamped the area of the promised resurrection with OMON troops.

After clashes with the police in Kiev's St. Sophia Cathedral, one of the most ancient and holy shrines of Orthodoxy, many followers were committed to psychiatric hospitals. Maria Devi Khristos herself was arrested along with her second husband, Yury Krivonogov, who is widely suspected of being the mastermind behind the cult. She and Krivonogov were sentenced Feb. 9 to four and seven years in prison, respectively, for inciting mass disorder, "infringing on the health of the citizens for religious rites," injuring four police officers and illegally seizing state property.

In Moscow last week near the Sokolniki metro station, five members of the White Brotherhood stood singing hymns to Maria Devi Khristos. Dressed in white robes with votive ropes around their heads and photographs of Maria Devi Khristos around their necks, the young cult members -- all aged between 17 and 24 -- seemed to be painfully naive rather than dangerously fanatic.

"The media has surrounded us with lies," said Svyatoslav Yashchenko, 21, from the Crimea, who described himself as a monk. He joined the Brotherhood in 1992 and now lives in the White Brotherhood's "monastery" apartment at an undisclosed location in Moscow. Soft-spoken and earnest, Yashchenko strenuously denied the accusations of brainwashing and suicide that have surrounded the cult.

"Maria Devi Khristos is a living God; those who follow her do so because they believe that salvation lies in her, not because they have drunk a drug or been hypnotized," he said.

The White Brotherhood has been accused by the Ukrainian Interior Ministry of brainwashing its followers by giving them "water from the River Jordan" at initiation ceremonies. Krivonogov, known in the cult as "John the Baptist," was a military scientific researcher responsible for developing mind-altering drugs for psychological warfare, according to the Interior Ministry.

"When people were detained, they were in a state of extreme hypnosis," said Interior Ministry spokesman Alexander Naumov. "They are zombies."

Ukrainian television carried pictures of cult members refusing to acknowledge their parents and refusing to answer psychiatrists' questions, hugging themselves and singing hymns to Maria Devi Khristos.

"It is not the cult members but the journalists and psychiatrists who are under deep hypnosis," said Ustinovsky, one of the White Brotherhood's inner circle of 12 Apostles. He was committed to a psychiatric hospital by his mother after his arrest at St. Sophia's cathedral in November 1993. "The water of Jordan was brought back from the Holy Land by Maria Devi Khristos; it is not drugged. That is a lie. Even former cult members who denounced Maria Devi Khristos in court confirm that these stories are untrue. Maria Devi Khristos never taught us to renounce our parents, even if they want to be our enemies and do not understand us."

Maria Devi Khristos, 36, known in her "former life" as Maria Tsvigun, is a native of Donetsk, Eastern Ukraine, and worked as a journalist, Komsomol apparatchik and waitress before "dying" on April 10, 1990, to be "reborn" as the latest incarnation of Christ. She claimed she had spent the three hours and 50 minutes of her "death" in heaven, the equivalent, she said, of three years and three months in heavenly time. Her followers believe that her death will signal the start of the apocalypse.

Filaret, the self-proclaimed Patriarch of the Orthodox Church of Kiev and all-Ukraine, pronounced an anathema on Maria Devi Khristos at the beginning of 1992, describing her as "the Antichrist that is described in the Bible."

The young prophets at Sokolniki attracted similar vilification from passing Orthodox believers. "I'm calling the police! Get out of here immediately before you get arrested like the rest of your gang," screamed a bearded, middle-aged man, who identified himself only as "a true believer." "They are the children of Satan! Don't listen to them!" he shouted at passersby. He then ran to the metro to fetch the police. None appeared.

All the members of the Moscow sect claimed to have been attacked frequently by drunks and Orthodox believers, but, unlike their Ukrainian brothers who risk immediate arrest, they did not complain of police harassment.

The five adherents of the White Brotherhood at the Sokolniki meeting included several former members of other sects and cults.

"I used to worship a teacher who died 9,000 years ago. Now my teacher is alive and walking the earth," said 22-year-old "Omega," whose "earthly name" is Olga Kisilyova. Omega had been a follower of the Hare Krishna sect until her conversion to the faith of Maria Devi Khristos in 1992. Omega said she had seen her mother only once in the previous year, because she lived in the "monastery" with her "brethren."

"I don't believe in Krishna any more," Omega said, "but I will believe in Maria Devi Khristos forever. I think."

White Brotherhood members live, they claim, purely on the donations of passersby, whose attitude, with the exception of the angry "true believer," ranged mostly from the mildly benign to the ambivalent. But with the imprisonment of their leaders and the massive police crackdown, the cult is still far from regaining the momentum of 1993.

"I cannot conceal the fact that there are fewer brothers and sisters than in 1993," said Ustinovsky. "But everything that Maria Devi Khristos has said has come true; she is being crucified now in prison, because the modern crucifix is the prison cell. Soon she will be killed and resurrected. Very soon. Remember, Christ had thousands of followers during his life, but all but a few deserted him at the end."