Kiev waits for day after The End

IF, by the end of today the world has not ended, thanks should go to the vigilant cranks and distraught parents who have spent the past week shivering under a row of leafless maple trees outside St Sophia's Cathedral in the centre of old Kiev - among them a sun worshipper in a pink coat, an ESP buff, and a tubby Ukrainian babushka with rotting teeth, a battered Bible and sharp lawyer's eye for textual minutiae.

A fair portion of Kiev's security apparatus was also there, including dozens of plainclothes police - a calling pursued with particular zeal in Ukraine since the Soviet era. Television crews staked out the site. Burly riot police stood ready to fight back Armageddon with metal shields and clubs. But they had it easy, snugly billeted in shops and offices around the cathedral, centre of Slav Christianity since Yaroslav the Wise built it in 1037 and, more recently, focus of a doomsday cult called the Great White Brotherhood.

The sect, one of more than 100 to have found fertile ground in blighted lands of the former Soviet Union, has held Kiev in thrall since 1 November, the start of what countless posters and four tons of leaflets billed as the countdown to Konets Cveta: The End of Light, a final cataclysm to separate sinners from the saved. Thousands of converts, mostly teenagers, signed up for salvation. Some 800 have now been bundled into police vans and driven off to clinics and detention centres.

'His eyes turned to glass. I thought he was taking drugs,' said Valentina Tomstika, who had travelled from western Ukraine in the hope that her missing 18-year-old son might show up for The End. A doctor herself, she checked his arms for needle marks. 'There was nothing. It was all in his head. He was a zombie.' Three sessions with an extra-sensory healer did not help. He ran away four months ago. Mrs Tomstika now shuffles outside St Sophia's, weeping and parading his black and white passport photograph like an icon.

The cult's power extends far beyond Ukraine. 'I don't know what kind of influence she was under, it was so strong,' remembers Valentina Serebrikova, searching for a 19-year-old sister who ran away from home eight time zones away in the Russian town of Nakhodka on the Pacific. She worries about falling under the same mysterious spell.

The end of the world itself is something of a movable feast, fixed for 24 November and then rescheduled for today. Someone miscounted the requisite 1,265 days from the Brotherhood's birth. Then there was a further mishap: God was arrested and charged with hooliganism. She is Marina Tsvygun, mousy-haired former journalist, people's deputy for Leninsky district on the Donetsk city council, part-time waitress and, since a bungled abortion in 1990, occult messiah who prefers to go by the name Maria Devi Khristos. She is 33 - Jesus's age when he was crucified. Police picked her up after a brawl in St Sophia's Cathedral on Wednesday, but realised she was their Most Wanted Deity only when people started kissing her feet. Also seized was the sect's principal prophet, Yuri Krivonogov. A student of yoga and Indian mysticism, he is said to be a talented hypnotist who helped the Soviet military develop mind-altering weapons.

No time has been lost in trying to demystify the cult. 'Supposedly you can't imprison God, but here God is in jail,' scoffed the Interior Ministry spokesman. Maria's mother, Svetlana Matsko, has said her daughter was changed by an incompetent anaesthetist, not divinity. She slipped into clinical death during an abortion and came to, claiming to be God: 'Specialists have only one answer: she is crazy.'

Police add that while unhinged, God is eating heartily. A video shown on Ukrainian television shows her cursing her soft-spoken Interior Ministry interrogator in a high-pitched squeal. 'Should I call you Maria?' asks the official politely. 'My name is God,' she snaps back, her claims of omnipotence clashing with a modest taste in fashion: a conservative wool sweater over a white shirt with a dainty lace collar and cuffs. 'Okay, God . . .'

Metropolitan Filaret of the Orthodox Church condemns her as the Antichrist. Nationalists suspect a demonic Russian plot to revive the Soviet Union at a time when Ukraine faces disaster, its currency debauched, its industry collapsing, its nuclear weapons falling apart.

Outside St Sophia's, an old lady conducted a seminar examining dicrepancies between White Brotherhood texts and the Bible. Attacks on President Leonid Kravchuk as Pontius Pilate and claims that he and other politicians were servants of Satan contravened Romans xiii, 4, she explained.

The sect's cooky theology, though, has struck a chord. The end of Communism has not only left a void but also discredited professions that might have helped to fill it: the Ukrainian church is riven by feuds and factions; psychiatry is still recovering from Soviet abuses; politics has lost the idealism that accompanied independence, and, poisoned by corruption, it is brushed aside with contempt.

The List, page 28

(Photograph omitted)