'She hurt her credibility when she changed the dates for the end of the world,' he explained, ruminating on the latest false prophet to smite Ukraine. There have been many others: a Weimar republic national currency, that trades at 25,000 to one dollar; a nuclear shield that risks seeding Europe's richest farm land with plutonium; a political elite that gushes about independence with the same gusto once devoted to declarations of loyalty to the Soviet Union.
But no one created quite the stir of Maria Devi Khristos - previously called Marina Tsvygun - a journalism graduate from Kiev State University, sometime waitress, occasional newspaper reporter, former Komsomol apparatchik, and, for the past three years Saviour of the Universe, Jesus Christ incarnate, Beloved Leader of the Great White Brotherhood. And, as of Wednesday, inmate of a Kiev jail.
Thirty-three years old, the same age as Jesus when he was crucified, she promised the end of the world. And thousands of people believed her. 'But people need to know such things exactly,' said Colonel Kostetski, a disciplined professional, offended that Armageddon could not be punctual. 'Something must have gone wrong,' he suggested, his desk scattered with Great White Brotherhood tracts, newspaper clippings of the woman who has made his life a misery for the past two weeks.
The big event was originally fixed for 24 November, but then she moved it forward to this Sunday. Now in one final warning to the world, delivered courtesy of a police video, she has let it be known the exact date is still negotiable: 'My name is God and upon God's death comes Doomsday.'
An earnest official from the Ministry of Internal Affairs asked when this might be. 'When my body is emptied of light, when the last drop of blood has been drained, when I am full of darkness.' The official nodded and tried to change the subject. He asked about her 13-year-old son. 'Go away, devil]' screamed Maria. She is very touchy about the boy, abandoned when she left her first husband and took up with Yuri Krivogonov, the Rasputin, and, according to police, evil genius of the Great White Brotherhood.
He too has been arrested and interviewed by police on video. He was picked up with Maria and two dozen other cult members after they attacked icons in St Sophia's Cathedral on Wednesday with fire extinguishers. He looked worse for wear in the video, shown yesterday by gleeful police: his hair greasy, his Rasputin-like beard hacked to a scruffy goatee, his forehead scarred from the fight in the cathedral. He is unbowed: 'I have come to help you as Jesus Christ did 2,000 years ago. No one believed him either. No one believes me now. The only real authority in this world, though, is Maria Devi Khristos.'
Whatever their theology, their PR has been remarkable. Not even Michael Jackson got such a promotional blitzkrieg as the end of the world promised by the cult: flyers went up on lamp-posts and walls in every major city in the former Soviet Union and an army of zealots handed out leaflets telling people to gather in Kiev, starting on 1 November, in preparation for The End.
The message found an eager audience, and police worried about mass suicide have arrested some 700 people since the beginning of the week. She did after all claim to be Jesus Christ and to have died once already in April 1990, spending three hours and 50 minutes in Heaven. (The equivalent, she would tell sceptics doubtful of her expertise after such a short visit, of three years and five months in heavenly time.)
Still more effective and more troubling to the authorities were the skills of her partner. Mr Krivogonov used to work at the Institute of Cybernetics and the Institute of Psychology, both involved in secret Soviet projects to develop mind-scrambling weapons. Police see him as the real culprit.
'He is a sex maniac. He is crazy for power. He is a coward. He is cruel,' says Colonel Kostetski. Maria began thinking she was Jesus Christ, the police say, after a sixth abortion. Former friends of the guru are harsher still: 'He's a black magician, a dark power who uses evil forces from the east and far corners of the galaxy,' said Alexander Materov, an ESP expert and one-time cult follower.
He works with police trying to break what he calls the 'zombie code' that has filled Kiev hospitals with sect members, led frightened parents to keep their children indoors after dark and teachers to lecture their students on the dangers of contact with the cult.
The real source of these dark powers may be found nearer to home. According to Grigory Kutsenko, an official with the Religious Affairs Commission, Stalin and Brezhnev are far more to blame than the cult's leaders. 'Only in our type of society can such a sect work. The Orthodox Church was closed for so long people lost their way. Young people are attracted by the false but very bright light of the White Brotherhood.'
As a former dissident who was thrown out of the Red Army and sent to a prison camp for four years for reading Solzhenitsyn he worries that police are not the best people to handle the cult. 'The same people who were going after dissidents a few years ago now go after the White Brotherhood.'
Maria doesn't seem too bothered. 'You are all servants of the devil. I will triumph. The danger point comes when my body perishes, my God's blood flows. Then you will see. Your devil's world will end.'
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