The man they call Jesus of Siberia came to Britain looking for disciples to follow him up a mountainside. Candida Crewe was intrigued.
A 41-year-old man dressed in a coarse, red velvet robe with scratchy gold braid takes his seat on a fine purple banquette in the Groucho Club. He wears thick socks under his sandals and carefully combs his long flowing hair before sitting down.
He smiles beatifically and speaks very slowly and quietly, in Russian. Even by the Groucho's standards, he looks unusual. Asked how he would like to be addressed, he insists, calmly, that he doesn't mind.
The man sitting opposite me is known variously as Vissarion, the Teacher, and Jesus of Siberia, and is indeed a dead ringer for the iconic images of Christ - beard and all. He claims to have around 80,000 devoted followers worldwide, all of whom believe that he really is the Messiah, so, despite my natural scepticism, it seems important not to make a faux pas, just in case. His profound expression, serene body language - lots of holy hand gestures - and his very long pauses before answering questions demand that he be taken seriously.
There are beads of sweat on his brow. Asked if he is finding London too warm, he replies, solemnly: "Just because there is lots of snow, it doesn't mean it's cold back home in Siberia."
Vissarion is in England for a week, staying in a chintzy B&B in north London, doing a bit of sightseeing, giving a talk at the London School of Economics, and meeting contacts in Glastonbury - all in the hope of attracting British disciples who might be open to his particular form of enlightenment. "I go where people are waiting to hear me," he explains.
A Bulgarian banker in London, who is giving up his job to live close to Vissarion, has paid for the trip, and Channel 4 are making a film about it. But the English, it seems, are proving difficult nuts to crack. He has been greeted not by crowds of people wanting to be saved, but by cynics who want answers to such questions as: when will the next comet hit the Earth? (Vissarion doesn't know, but acknowledges, with a smile, that such an apocalypse is inevitable)
Despite the lukewarm reception, Vissarion, born Sergei Torop in 1961, is determined to spread his gospel. In a nutshell, this appears to mix some elements from the Orthodox Church with a little Buddhism here, Taoism there, plus a large chunk of 21st-century environmentalism. One observer has described the teachings as an unholy blend of cosmology, Christianity and yoga and others have voiced fears for the safety of Vissarion's most devoted followers. Many religious sects have flourished in Russia in recent years, but the Vissarionites are notable for their arduous way of life and their utter dedication to the leader. Outsiders remain sceptical and find him, at best, an enigmatic new-age charmer, at worst, a sinister nutcase (although, according to the Russian Orthodox Church, he isn't siphoning off his followers' money), but the man must have something.
Vissarion lives 4,000ft and a four-hour walk up an icy mountain in Siberia. This is reached along a cratered dirt track and is a six-hour drive from the town of Abakan - which is itself a three-day, 2,300-mile train ride from Moscow. Five thousand of his most ardent followers (including his mother, who initially considered sending him to a psychiatrist when he told her he was the son of God) have joined him in what he has described as an "experimental ecological settlement" in 250 hectares of woodland. Among Vissarion's disciples, he claims, there are Germans, Italians, Russians, Bulgarians, Cubans and Swedes; many of them former teachers, doctors and educated urban professionals who have sold their homes and given up the comfortable city life to be close to their leader and live the peculiar existence that he expounds.
This is not a choice any person would make lightly. Temperatures in Siberia are often in the minus twenties or thirties; homes in the settlement are made of wood, with no central heating, electricity, or any means of communication with the outside world. The followers eat a strict vegan diet, which consists mainly of bread, berries and mushrooms. Breast-feeding mothers and infants are allowed sour milk products. Alcohol is permitted only in strict moderation.
"The way it is consumed in today's society is not welcome," Vissarion says, sipping a glass of water. "But there's not an absolute prohibition among my followers. It is used for medical reasons. If someone has huge psychological pressure and their nervous system is suffering, then it's possible to recommend the use of some dry and clean wine."
He does not deny that he enjoyed a glass of beer on the plane from Moscow to London. Does he not miss such pleasures at home? "Only at times when there's a certain inner feeling for that particular vitamin," he says.
Although never a regular churchgoer, nor familiar with the Bible, Vissarion says he realised he was the son of God and chose his current way of life at the age of 29. His parents (who separated when he was a child) worked in the building trade. He had always been a solitary figure, even at school, and studied engineering before joining the army, where he "learnt a lot about stupidity". Later, he worked in various factories and as a policeman in Minusinsk, Siberia.
"A lot of my colleagues wondered how on earth I ended up becoming a policeman," he says. "My behaviour was very different to other officers: I was often pensive and I wanted to forgive people and free them too easily. But it was an amazing experience. It taught me a lot of things I would never have learnt otherwise.
"I couldn't believe such things were possible in people. Alcoholism, for example. But after five years, I felt I couldn't go on as a policeman. I knew I had to stop, even if it meant I couldn't feed my children."
In the spring of 1990, Vissarion had what he calls "an awakening".
"I saw a programme on television that showed lots of destroyed churches and headstones, and this prompted me into action. Everything in me came out like a storm; I had this great thirst to transform everything in the world so that there wasn't so much grief. My understanding was that humankind really must start to live in a different way. A person must lose the capability to think about bad things, and I know how to teach people to do this. So people who follow my word are able to live for the better.
"I know the entire law of human development and the root of mistakes in human society. People are very, very scared of each other and in order to unite them, we have to think up a system that must do away with any egotistical thoughts. I'm the one who needs to form the future of mankind."
Such immodest aspirations became firmly fixed in his mind, and he worked tirelessly to set up his own self-sufficient society on a mountain in Petropavlovka, Siberia. Money is not used in his settlement; schools have been established; wood from the forest is chopped down for building houses; his followers grow vegetables and bake their own bread. Vissarion's wife and the mother of his six children, Luba, makes all of his clothes. The man is well looked after.
He met Luba, a kindergarten teacher, when he was 23, and realised that he wanted to spend his life with her. Despite his long study of human nature, the one area he hadn't explored, he says, was women.
"She was the one woman who would open the whole world of women to me," he says. "Through her, I knew I could understand all women; what women's weaknesses are. There are now lots of women in love with me."
When women fall in love with him, it is, he says, "more complex for me to help them. I feel more responsible in my communication with them. If there are demands made upon me, then I feel, within me, the necessity to distance myself in accordance with the law of harmony.
"For me, all people are equally close and I carry large responsibility for them all. So it is, I need to be free. My wife is now learning how correctly to see and regard me, to understand she's not the only woman in my life. There are a thousand others!"
After another sip of water, Jesus of Siberia is on his way, to spread his gospel elsewhere. So far, it's unclear whether he has managed to find any new followers in Britain who are willing to up sticks to the freezing mountains of Siberia for a diet of berries, mushrooms and quasi-religious mumbo-jumbo. But he remains characteristically unfazed, smiling to the last. Asked if he has enjoyed visiting London, he replies, "I don't have such answers to life. I could be anywhere."