I wrote a couple of weeks ago about the Soviet dream of defeating death. This belief that the battle against mankind’s cruellest and oldest enemy is winnable resurfaced in modern Russia a few years ago in the shape of Grigory Grabovoi, a Kazakh-born, self-proclaimed messiah.
Grabovoi and his “social and political organization” - the very Clockwork Orange sounding Drugg - made the headlines all over Russia in late 2004 after allegedly promising to bring back to life the 186 children killed when Chechen separatists seized School Number One in the North Caucasus town of Beslan. Miracles rarely come for free, though. According to widespread media reports, Grabovoi was demanding $1,500 a corpse for his resurrection services.
Public indignation, whipped up by the media, intensified and the Resurrection Man was eventually arrested in 2006 after a sting operation carried out by a Moscow journalist. Grabovoi was later sentenced to 11 years behind bars, reduced to eight on appeal. He was eventually released in 2010, his time behind bars cut short for “good behavior.” Little has been heard of him since.
In 2009, with Grabovoi reportedly still in jail, I got curious as to what kind of disciples the Resurrection Man had attracted, mystified as to why anyone would have taken up with him. Was it just for a share of the takings? Or were there people who really bought into his teachings, a hotchpotch of pseudo science and religion?
I gave this very Clockwork-Orange sounding Drugg – which, incidentally, would be the Russian for “friend” were it not for the extra “g” at the end – a call. They weren’t friendly at all, and didn’t want to meet me.
But I couldn’t forget them that easily. I became obsessed with the group, stalking them in the Internet, scouring news reports for any mention of their activities. And then, just as I was losing hope, I got lucky.
I was walking home from the local sushi bar, when I saw them. Gathered near the Kropotkinskaya subway station, in between the incongruous neighbors of a Soviet-era Friedrich Engels statue and the gigantic Christ the Savior Cathedral, was a gaggle of protestors holding placards. As I got closer, I made out the words on some of them.
“Salvation from the global crisis lies in the technology of Grigory Grabovoi” and “The trial of Grigory Grabovoi made a mockery of the Russian people and human rights!”
I chose to approach the women holding the “Salvation” and the “Mockery” signs. They looked friendly enough, if a little spaced out, and I figured they might be up for a chat. One of them reminded me a little of the creepy psychic in Nicolas Roeg’s classic 1973 horror film “Don’t Look Back,” but I didn’t let her vacant stare and sickly paleness put me off.
“Why do you want to see Grabovoi freed?” I asked, after, of course, introducing myself and wishing them “a good day.” Spooky sect members or no spooky sect members, you should never forget your manners.
“We believe in his teachings,” the creepy psychic said, smiling. Behind her, Engels looked on. Now, believe me, I had searched for wisdom in Grabovoi’s dense and tedious writings. And found none. Actually, I hadn’t really discovered anything that even made sense. His material was like the pamphlets that loons wandering around London’s Oxford Circus thrust on you. Long sentences that weave in and out of sanity and logic as sound as mist.
“He was tried unfairly,” said the creepy psychic’s friend.
“So, can he resurrect people?”
That was what I really wanted to know. Did they actually believe that Grabovoi could, as he had claimed on many occasions, bring the dead back to life? Could he make putrid flesh dance again and rotten eyes see once more?
“Don’t talk to him! Don’t talk to him!”
A small, black-haired woman in glasses with an official Drugg badge pinned to her chest had come up to us. Uh-huh, I thought, a leader.
“The media twist things. Don’t talk to him! You can read everything on the site,” she said.
The creepy psychic paid no attention. Drugg were obviously having cadre discipline problems.
“He scientifically explains the process of resurrection as described in the Bible,” she told me. “Only God can resurrect people,” she went on, as if explaining things to a cretin. “Grabovoi teaches people how to use their powers to resurrect their dead bodies.”
There were so many contradictions in her answer I was momentarily struck dumb. How could I respond to something so clearly lacking in logic?
“We are talking about a spiritual resurrection,” said a young protestor. Shaven-headed, faraway eyes, the Asian-looking newcomer to the discussion looked like an extra from a documentary about sects. He really wasn’t doing Drugg’s image any good at all.
A spiritual resurrection? How exactly did that fit in with Grabovoi’s words in the introduction to his collected teachings that “many people are not ready to accept the word ‘resurrection’ in its direct sense. This is something they must do.”
Shaven-Head considered this for a long time. Just when he seemed to have come up with an answer, the bossy woman butted in.
“Don’t talk to him. Read the site, young man, everything is there!”
I had to work hard to keep the attention of the Drugg members. They had, I tell you, the attention span of small children. Which made me wonder how they had managed to plough through Grabovoi’s less-than-captivating works. Or maybe they hadn’t bothered? Maybe they just needed something, anything to believe in?
“See you in 50 years!” said an elderly demonstrator as I headed off home.
In 50 years?
“The world is changing!” the pensioner explained, shooting me a goodbye smile of genuine joy.
When I got home, I examined the testimonies of miracles in Grabovoi’s teachings, a thick book with the snappy title: Resurrection and Eternal Life Is Our Reality Henceforth!
In one of the accounts, a witness speaks of how he has been “catching glimpses out of the corner of his eye” of a relative that Grabovoi has undertaken to bring back to life. “But when I turn my head there is no one there.”
His experience mirrors that of the nation. In a sense, Russia and the Russians have long been “catching glimpses” of a better day, brief moments of collective hope quickly deflated by the realization that their optimism was unfounded, that the men who promised something better were, at best, incompetent, at worst, heartless killers.
Grabovoi, with his notions of immortality, had offered yet another utopian dream to his followers. And, like millions of Russians before them, they had bought, uncritically and passionately, into his vision. I didn’t begrudge Grabovoi’s elderly believer his smiles. But how long would they last? When would the disappointment kick in? In 2011, with Grabovoi lying low and Drugg out of the headlines, does he still believe?
From lurid tales of oligarch excess to scare stories about Moscow’s stranglehold on Europe’s energy supplies, the land that gave us Roman Abramovich and Vladimir Putin is very rarely out of the news. But there is much more to modern Russia than billionaire tycoons and political conspiracy. Marc Bennetts’ weekly column, Deeper Than Oil, goes beyond the headlines to explore the hidden sides of the world’s largest, and often strangest, country.
Marc Bennetts is a journalist (The Guardian, The Observer, The Times, and more) and the author of Football Dynamo: Modern Russia and the People’s Game (Virgin Books). He is currently working on a book about Russia’s fascination with the occult.