At least 11 mothers of children who perished in last year's Beslan school attack have turned to a cult that promises to resurrect the dead for money.
Some Beslan families fear that the mothers' quest will discredit their efforts to establish the truth about the attack, which killed 331 people, including 186 children.
Police say their hands are tied because no one has filed a complaint.
Susanna Dudiyeva and Anneta Gadiyeva, who complained to President Vladimir Putin at a Sept. 2 meeting about the handling of the hostage-taking crisis, joined nine other mothers at the Kosmos hotel last Saturday for a gathering of 400 followers of Grigory Grabovoi.
"I believe in the miracle of resurrection," Dudiyeva said, her voice trembling, as she stood next to Grabovoi on the podium.
"I used to read fairy tales to my children. I told them to believe in them and to believe in God," she said, in footage shown on NTV television. "We will follow this path until the very end for the sake of our children."
Grabovoi, who covered the mothers' travel expenses, called the meeting the sixth congress of the "DRUGG political party." DRUGG, which sounds like the Russian word for "friend," is the Russian acronym for the Voluntary Dissemination of Grigory Grabovoi Teaching.
Grabovoi promised attendees that Beslan children would be resurrected in October, Izvestia reported.
According to DRUGG literature and previous lectures by Grabovoi, he offers people the chance to learn how to resurrect their loved ones on their own. Grabovoi, however, does not accept responsibility for failure, saying the dead sometimes refuse to be resurrected, or are resurrected in other parts of the world or in the bodies of other people.
But Zalina Guburova, who lost her 9-year-old son in the attack, was ready to accept his terms. "I want my child back, and I will believe in anything to get him," she told NTV.
At Saturday's gathering, a woman stood up and loudly accused Grabovoi of being a charlatan. She was led away by two of his guards.
"Many people told us that we would be cheated and drawn into something here," Dudiyeva then said, Komsomolskaya Pravda reported. "But we are just mothers whose souls are in pain."
Representatives of various cults started surfacing in Beslan shortly after the Sept. 1-3 tragedy to offer their counsel, local residents said. Grabovoi's group, which bluntly offers to resurrect dead children, seems to have made the biggest impact on the grieving parents.
"Many cults remain low-profile until a suitable moment suddenly comes and people in the cult say the needed words," said Alexander Dvorkin, the country's leading expert on cults.
Fascination in the supernatural, of course, goes back centuries in Russia. Interest flourished when religion was officially banned in Soviet times, and it skyrocketed after the demise of the Soviet Union, when an ideological vacuum became filled with whatever was on offer. During the 1990s, psychics were even allowed on national television to cast spells at millions of viewers.
Repeated attempts to contact Grabovoi this week were unsuccessful. A secretary at his office said Grabovoi had never visited the building. The office arranges meetings with him at a cost of 1,000 rubles ($35) per person for a group meeting and up to 40,000 rubles ($1,350) for an individual interview.
Before the Beslan tragedy, Grabovoi, 40, was one of many self-proclaimed miracle workers who offered a standard list of paranormal services, including promises to heal cancer and "optimize events."
He was first mentioned in the national media in late 2002, when he offered to resurrect those who died in Moscow's Dubrovka theater hostage-taking.
His web site makes no mention of any successful Dubrovka resurrections, but it does include a statement by Grabovoi that if he became president in 2008, his first decree would be to ban death and criminally punish violators.
The web site also features dozens of scanned images of Grabovoi's diplomas and other credentials, including a presidential administration identification card.
Many organizations named on the web site denied ever dealing with Grabovoi, according to media reports.
The Emergency Situations Ministry acknowledged, however, that it had asked Grabovoi to examine airplanes for hidden defects as part of a government-financed study into the paranormal in the mid-1990s. At the time, the government sponsored several studies of the paranormal, most of them related to whether the supernatural could be harnessed to control public behavior.
Dudiyeva, who heads the Beslan Mothers' Committee, could not be reached for comment this week.
But Ella Kesayeva, an activist with the committee, suggested that her peers had been drawn to the cult because the authorities hoped to discredit the committee, which is widely respected for its tireless efforts to learn what really happened at the school.
"Most of us do not share those ravings about resurrection, and we believe that this filthy story was invented to cast our committee in a bad light," she said by telephone. "We believe in God. We don't need charlatans. We are past the most painful times, and we don't want to turn into zombies."
Kesayeva accused Grabovoi of taking advantage of the mothers and said he should be punished.
Moscow City Prosecutor's Office spokesman Sergei Marchenko said Thursday that prosecutors had tried to investigate Grabovoi's activities in the past and were now reviewing their records of those attempts. However, no action has been taken against Grabovoi because no one has filed a complaint, he said.
Yana Voitova, a North Ossetia-based journalist, said she knew of at least two Beslan mothers who were collecting the 40,000 ruble fee in hope of seeing their children again.
Mairbek Tuayev, a Beslan resident who lost his daughter, said several Grabovoi representatives came to the town late last year to distribute literature. "They are hitting at the most painful spots," he said. "They told my wife that it would be easier to bring back my daughter because her twin sister was alive."
Tuayev said one father whose daughter died was telling friends that a way had been invented to pass between the worlds of the dead and the living but that the government was hiding it from people.
Dvorkin said cults preyed on people in emotional shock. "Then it is easier to make them believe in anything," he said.
Many people, regardless of their intelligence, struggle with an internal debate about life and death when they face the excruciating pain of losing a loved one, said Natalya Kolmanovskaya, a psychologist with Nasha Zhizn, or Our Life, a charity assisting Beslan families.
She noted that Beslan mothers who had jobs and felt socially responsible recovered from the shock much better than housewives in affluent families.
Without help the women may end up mentally ill and only countless hours of therapy could help them put aside their hope for resurrections, she said.