CCNet 63/2002 - 24 May 2002

"The idea of making this speech has been in my mind for some time.
The final prompt for it came, curiously enough, when I was in
Bangalore in January. I met a group of academics, who were also in
business in the biotech field. They said to me bluntly: Europe has gone soft
on science; we are going to leapfrog you and you will miss out. They
regarded the debate on GM here and elsewhere in Europe as utterly
astonishing. They saw us as completely overrun by protestors and pressure
groups who used emotion to drive out reason. And they didn't think we had
the political will to stand up for proper science."
--Tony Blair, 23 May 2002

"The prime minister is regurgitating chemical industry propaganda".
--Lord Melchett, BBC, 23 May 2002

"The mood is cheerfully apocalyptic. "Have you not heard?" laughs
Igor as he guides us through the swamp. "A comet is going to smash into
the earth next year."
--Ian Traynor, The Guardian 24 May 2002

    CNN, 23 May 2002

    Bob Kobres <>

    Tony Blair, PM, 23 May 2002

    BBC, 23 May 2002

    Kelly Beatty <>

    S. Fred Singer <>

    Michael Paine <>

    Melfyn Thomas < >
    The Guardian, 24 May 2002


>From CNN, 23 May 2002
By Marsha Walton
CNN Sci-Tech

Washington (CNN) -- It was a rock that rocked the scientific world six years
ago. Scientists using sophisticated geo-chemical dating techniques said they
had evidence that life on Earth emerged at least 3.86 billion years ago.

But a new look at those rocks found on a remote Greenland island now
suggests a non-biological origin.

In this week's edition of Science magazine, researchers from The George
Washington University and the Swedish Museum of Natural History say there is
more to establishing signs of life in rocks than just interpreting the
behavior of the carbon within them.

In 1996, scientists from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and other
universities reported a rock formation on the Greenland island of Akilia
showed carbon residues with a chemical fingerprint believed to come only
from a living organism. Carbon is the principal element of life, and it was
thought these fingerprints showed evidence of simple organisms such as

"My scientific intuition told me the story was not completely solved yet,"
said Christopher Fedo, a George Washington University professor and
co-author of the Science paper.

Fedo, who spent several weeks on the remote, uninhabited island of Akilia,
does not challenge the carbon analysis done by geo-chemists in that 1996
study published in Nature magazine. That study focused on a green and white
layered rock known as a banded iron formation, thought to be layers of
sediment that were deposited on a long lost sea floor.

But Fedo has a different explanation of the rock's makeup, which he says has
been influenced by a lot of complex events over billions of years that have
caused the rocks to be stressed, stretched and deformed.

"We interpret the rock as having formed from molten rock, something like the
rock that would form from lava in a volcano. Temperatures that would form
that type of rock are far, far hotter than anything that could sustain a
life form as we know it," said Fedo. A chemical study of the rocks shows
their composition to be similar to a primitive type of rock called
komatiite, related to basalt, which forms when molten rock solidifies.

Basalt-like rocks can interact with water to form carbon compounds that
resemble those left by life forms, which could explain the "life-like"
carbon fingerprints detailed in the 1996 studies.

Fedo says there may never be definitive evidence of when and where life on
Earth began. That's because the early history of the planet is filled with
violent asteroid impacts. Some of those could have resulted in boiling off
all the water on the planet, including the oceans, and wiping out any forms
of life that may have existed. So life may have originated, then been
obliterated, several times before the last major asteroid impact.

"When looking at rocks this old, we have to remember that lots of events,
meltings and collisions, are superimposed on top, and we'll never know all
the events that took place," said Fedo.

The oldest actual fossils yet identified are bacteria and algae, a sort of
pond slime discovered in Northwest Australia and thought to be about 3.5
billion years old.

Greenland, Australia, Canada and parts of Southern Africa have the best
known examples of the oldest rock formations on Earth, according to
scientists. Research in all those areas is "quite robust," says Fedo, and
all could provide clues about how the Earth evolved over time.

Copyright 2002, CNN


>From Bob Kobres <>

An interesting account (excerpts below) of ball lightning during an
exceptional dust storm:

A recent photograph of BL during a lightning storm last February with
accounts from witnesses:

The November 12th 1902
Dust and Fireball Storms of Victoria.

See below for news clippings.
The Melbourne Leader, P.26 November 15th 1902.

"From the accounts to hand it would seem that Wednesday , in its way, was
perhaps one of the very worst days experienced in the State since first any
record or scientific notice has been taken of our weather. From all parts of
the State the same tale is coming in ; a tale of a 'Black Wednesday', full
of gales, fires, storms, darkness and disaster."

...."At Boort, in addition to a dust storm of unheard of fierceness, great
balls of fire fell in the paddocks and on the streets, throwing up showers
of sparks as they struck the earth. At Wycheproof "the whole air seemed on
fire." and people were terrified thinking that the "end of the world" was at
hand. It grew very dark, and lanterns had to be used and the wind blew so
fiercely that timbers, hoardings and bows of trees were "wafted through the
air like feathers." At Allendale a house was set on fire and destroyed by
the fireballs. At Sea Lake the Presbytarian Church was so badly injured by
the wind that it will have to be pulled down".

" From Chiltern comes a sensational message, that huge fire balls burst on
the poppet heads of the New Barambogie mine, and set fire to them, while
others set fire to the timber of the shaft and had to be extinguished at
great risk. Bush fires are reported in every direction, no doubt caused by
the fire balls. At Deiliquin "red flames" were seen in the air and the fire
balls destroyed a stable. At Numurkah a house was apparently destroyed
through the same agency to "a loud roaring noise" ; and indeed if our
weather does not "reform and economise" it will be safer to go to the wars
than live in the country ".

"The report of our Boort correspondent that during the storm on Wednesday
balls of fire fell in the street and sparks were distinctly seen where the
balls came in contact with the earth, was brought under the notice of Mr
Baracchi on Thursday. He explained that "fireballs" are in reality forms of
electrical discharge known scientifically "Globular Lightning," a rare
phenomenon which has not yet been explained. Globular Lightning he said,
usually manifests itself as a luminous sphere, astronomical text books
stating that the globes are of a diameter varying from a few inches to even
two or three feet. It moves very slowly, and remains visible for several
seconds or sometimes minutes, generally at last exploding with great
violence. In the first two particulars it contrasts very strongly with
ordinary lightning. Arago, in his Meteorological Essays, mentions an
instance which occured in Milan in 1841, when one of these globes moved
along a street so slowly that spectators walked after it to watch it. The narrator
saw it from a window, and then ran downstairs and saw it for three minutes
before it struck a cross on a church steeple and disappeared. Again, it is
recorded that a Madame Espert, of Paris, saw a ball or globe of fire descend
from the sky. It was very like a moon "when it appears augmented in size."
While she was watching it "with a terrible explosion it burst asunder, and
there darted from it ten or twelve zig-zag lightnings, which shot forth in
all directions, one of these struck a neighbouring house where it made a
whole in the wall as a cannon ball might have done."The event lasted about a
minute ".

Globular lightning has been seen and recorded on several other occasions, so
that its occurence is well established, although some physicists deny the
possibilty of its existence. Mr Baracchi added that the condition of the
atmosphere all over the State on Wednesday was highly favourable for the
occurence of electrical phenomena such as that described".

Bob Kobres
Main Library
University of Georgia
Athens, GA  30602


>From Tony Blair, PM, 23 May 2002
When 12 men founded the Royal Society in 1660, it was possible for an
educated person to encompass all of scientific knowledge. In fact, that was
probably true for more than half of this body's existence. It was only in
1847 that the Royal Society decided to restrict its membership to working

But in the last century, and in particular in the last 50 years, such has
been the pace of scientific advance that even the best scientists cannot
keep up with discoveries at frontiers outside their own field. More science
is being done, it's more global and it's faster to impact on our lives.

Given the great advances of recent years, it would be easy for
non-scientists to think that the great scientific problems have been solved,
that today's work is filling in minor gaps. But we stand on the verge of
further leaps forward in scientific endeavour and discovery.

Now I know there are scientists here who can explain with far more insight
than I the challenges and wonders that are emerging. But there are three
main reasons why I want to address the potential of this new age of

First, science is vital to our country's continued future prosperity.

Second, science is posing hard questions of moral judgement and of practical
concern, which, if addressed in the wrong way, can lead to prejudice against
science, which I believe would be profoundly damaging.

Third, as a result, the benefits of science will only be exploited through a
renewed compact between science and society, based on a proper understanding
of what science is trying to achieve.

The idea of making this speech has been in my mind for some time. The final
prompt for it came, curiously enough, when I was in Bangalore in January. I
met a group of academics, who were also in business in the biotech field.
They said to me bluntly: Europe has gone soft on science; we are going to
leapfrog you and you will miss out. They regarded the debate on GM here and
elsewhere in Europe as utterly astonishing. They saw us as completely
overrun by protestors and pressure groups who used emotion to drive out
reason. And they didn't think we had the political will to stand up for
proper science.

I believe that if we don't get a better understanding of science and its
role, they may be proved right.

Let us start with the hardest thing of all to achieve in politics: a sense
of balance. Already some of the pre-speech criticism suggests that by
supporting science, we want the world run by Dr Strangelove, with all
morality eclipsed by a cold, heartless test-tube ideology with scientists as
its leaders.

Science is just knowledge. And knowledge can be used by evil people for evil
ends. Science doesn't replace moral judgement. It just extends the context
of knowledge within which moral judgements are made. It allows us to do
more, but it doesn't tell us whether doing more is right or wrong.

Science is also fallible. Theories change. Knowledge expands and can
contradict earlier thinking.
Mr Blair's full speech at the Royal Society at:


>From the BBC, 23 May 2002

Britain risks being overtaken by other countries if it lets unjustified
protests stifle vital scientific advances, Tony Blair has warned.

In a speech on Thursday, the prime minister told the Royal Society in London
that science was crucial to the UK's economic success.

His speech included attacks on protests against animal experiments and GM
crops, as he urged people to judge new ideas on the scientific facts.

But Charles Secrett, director of Friends of the Earth, said ministers seemed
willing to accept scientific argument when it backed business but was less
open when evidence suggested dangers and difficulties.

And Lord Melchett, the Soil Association's policy director, accused the prime
minister of "regurgitating chemical industry propaganda".

'Simple plea'

Mr Blair said he understood that people were worried by some scientific
advances but he pressed for a more mature debate which needed science to
establish the facts.

"My plea is really very simple," he said. "It is: let the debate be won
between open minds, not a retreat into the culture of unreason."

The prime minister said ideas that scientists were developing some kind of
"Dr Strangelove" were based on misunderstanding.

GM protests are partly blamed for the poor image of science
A new "robust, engaging dialogue" with the public was needed to restore
confidence in science, which had been damaged by episodes such as the BSE

The prime minister told how a group of scientists in Bangalore, India, had
told him: "Europe has gone soft on science; we are going to leapfrog you and
you will miss out."

Mr Blair continued: "I believe that if we don't get a better understanding
of science and its role, they may be proved right."

Britain was at a crossroads where it could choose timidity or a confident
approach to the modern world, he added.

Scientists worried

Although many scientists applauded Labour's 2bn investment in science after
it came to power, others believe salaries are still too low and more must be
done to bolster the profession.

In a letter on Wednesday, 29 top scientists called for more investment so
schools and universities could recruit and keep good teachers and

They said the country's science, engineering and medical research base had
been crucial to the social, economic and environmental success of the UK.

But its future depended on science education in schools and universities,
they said.

Mr Blair said getting bright youngsters interested in scientific careers was
a "clear challenge for Britain in the next 10 years".

On Wednesday, the government's Chief Scientist told the BBC that funding
would be found for a new laboratory in Cambridge researching neural

The local authority had said it couldn't afford security for the centre,
which will use monkeys for testing.

GM protests

The government has previously backed Huntingdon Life Sciences, the medical
research company repeatedly targeted by violent animal rights protests.

But Michelle Thew, of the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection,
said: "I am shocked by Tony Blair's defence at all costs of the interests of
the animal-testing industry and his complete dismissal of the fears and
concerns of an increasingly anxious public."

And Greenpeace Chief Scientist Dr Doug Parr said: "The British are not
anti-science but simply pro-democracy. All of the new technologies that Mr
Blair promotes are entirely controlled by private enterprise and released
into the world without any form of democratic mandate or public

"Even after the recent tornado of criticism over GM food, Mr Blair is still
trying to stop genetically engineered food from being labelled for
consumers. He just doesn't learn."

Mr Blair's comments have, however, gone down very well in the UK's major
scientific institutions.

Professor Sir Brian Heap, Master of St Edmunds College, Cambridge, said:
"Thank goodness the Prime Minister is taking the initiative in seeking to
reverse the potentially dangerous trend that has developed against
responsible science."

And Professor Philip Dale, from the John Innes Centre, said: "The
pro-science comments by the Prime Minister are very welcome. The
anti-science campaigns propagated by some organisations seriously risk
paralysing innovation in UK science.

"The recent destruction of field crop experiments, which were designed to
generate knowledge on which sound decisions can be made, has parallels with
book-burning in supposedly less enlightened times."

Copyright 2002, BBC



>From Kelly Beatty <>


>From David Grinspoon <> (CCNet 23 May 2002):
>Do you know if anyone has determined a crystallization age for this

The original paper (Yamaguchi et al, Science, 12 April 2002) gives an Ar-Ar
age of 2.0 +/- 0.3 billion years, and a cosmic-ray-exposure age of 30
million years (typical for eucrites but longer by factors of 2 and 3 than
the CRE ages for Martian and lunar meteorites, respectively). It's worth
noting that there's no mention of Mercury as a possible source in the paper,
only in Herbert Palme's accompanying Perspective -- Yamaguchi told me,
pointedly, "I don't think that NWA011 came from Mercury." NWA 011 is rather
iron-rich, whereas meteorites derived from the regolith of Mercury are
expected to be iron poor (Love and Keil, Meteoritics, 1995).

Kelly Beatty

Executive Editor
Sky Publishing Corp.
617-864-7360 x 148 (phone)
617-576-0336 (fax)


>From S. Fred Singer <>

Dear Benny

Terraforming Mars is a neat idea but releasing CF4 may not be the way to
proceed. While CF4 is a strong greenhouse gas in the Earth's troposphere,
Mars' thin atmosphere could not protect the molecules from Photolysis by
solar UV radiation. End of greenhouse.

But it may still be a good idea to conduct an experiment by releasing a
small quantity of CF4 (or SF6) and then trace  its decay over time to see if
it agrees with theory.



>From Michael Paine <>

Dear Benny

CCNet of 17 May included my estimate of the odds of fatal impacts of certain
magnitudes. One outcome of the simulation was that the odds of an event with
one million fatalities or more is about 1 in 5000 per year.
The obvious question from these results is where are all the craters? The
answer is that most fatal events do not leave a crater - they result from an
ocean impact (with many of the fatalities due to tsunami) or Tunguska-like
fragmentation over land. The proportion of fatal events that involve a land
impact (li) gradually increases from less than 1% for events with around 100
fatalities to 16% for events with around 1 million fatalities (see table

In the case of this simulation it was just chance that 3 of the 4 events
resulting in 1 billion plus fatalities occurred over land and would have
left 3 large craters. Severe but transient global climate disturbance
WITHOUT A CRATER can occur with large ocean impacts like Eltanin (2.2
Ma) or, perhaps, Indochina 800 Ka (Australasian tektite event).

On 21 May Jens Kieffer-Olsen asked do I have an estimate of the number of
badly injured? Using road accidents as a rough guide, there are about 10
serious injuries for every traumatic death. In the case of a major impact
however, emergency and medical services would be devastated. John
Lewis (who wrote the simulation software) mentions this in his book but I am
not sure how much it is taken into account in the simulation. I think his
reaction would be that the uncertainty about the many factors involved in
the simulation (due mostly to a LACK OF KNOWLEDGE about the number and
characteristics of impacting objects and the environmental consequences of
impacts) makes such "refinement" meaningless.

Michael Paine

One million year simulation - count of fatal events

Fatalities lf li of oi ALL %Crater
100 149 2 91 9 251 0.8%
1000 594 21 19 111 745 2.8%
10000 856 72 1 295 1224 5.9%
100000 494 110 0 181 785 14.0%
1 M 139 35 0 48 222 15.8%
10 M 25 13 0 37 75 17.3%
100 M 3 9 0 8 20 45.0%
1 B 0 3 0 1 4 75.0%
2260 265 111 690 3326 8.0%

lf fragmentation over land
li land impact (crater)
of fragmentation over ocean
oi ocean impact (tsunami)

Average interval between fatal events that leave a crater: 3774 years
Average interval between fatal events:301 years

>From Melfyn Thomas < >
Dear Benny,

Your contributor, Alastair McBeath (CCNet 45/2002 - 8 April 2002) asks
whether or not we are familiar with the book "History of the Red Dragon" by
Lofmark, and suggests that "It is pointless to look for, or assume, a
single, simple explanation for the dragon and its origins".

I am sure that my colleague, John Michael (CCNet 39/2002 - 22 March) had no
intention of claiming that there is "a single, simple, explanation", rather
he simply pointed our that the 'common usage 'of the word 'Draig' in Wales
can be used to describe a variety of meteorological phenomena.

As my colleague clearly pointed out, in "Y Geiriadur Cymraeg Prifysgol
Cymru", the "University of Wales Welsh Dictionary", (Cardiff, University of
Wales Press, 1967, p. 1082) there are given translations for the various
uses of the word 'Draig'. Your correspondent should be aware of this as
these various uses are given on page 45 of Lofmark.

Although it is generally taken just to mean a 'dragon', and even though it
has also been used in the past to refer to 'Mellt Distaw' - (sheet
lightning), and also 'Mellt Didaranau' - (lightning unaccompanied by
thunder), even today in the 21st century, in common usage in the Gwynedd
dialect of Cymraeg (Welsh), is the word "Dreigiau" (dragons) to describe
Mellt Didaranau (lightning unaccompanied by thunder).

It is also interesting that Alastair McBeath gives the date 537 as referring
to a siting of a celestial object (probably a comet) as having a bearing on
the origin of some dragon- related myths. In 'Decline and Fall of the Roman
Empire', Gibbon (Pelican abridgement, Low. D.M., 1960, p. 580) refers to
this very date as one where a comet was sighted widely in Europe and was
considered to have brought pestilence and crop failures in the following

This is also the date given generally to the year of birth of the poet
Myrddyn (Merlin of Arthurian myth). Admittedly Myrddyn has more mythological
importance than historical - but the co-incidence of the dates are
revealing. As you know the prophecy of Myrddin is famously concerned with
dragons, so the date could have a deeper resonance to an actual event - i.e.
the tradition of a comet seen in the skies over northwest Europe.

I also agree that the idea of the conical kite-banners of the Imperial
legions is appealing and quite feasible as the origin of the Welsh Dragon
banner - however the question remains - 'Why a Dragon?'. If the early Welsh
wanted to convey a quasi-authoritarian legacy linked to the old Roman Empire
then why not an eagle, which would have had a stronger resonance with the
British than a mythical creature.

Surely there must have been a stronger and more emotive link to the Dragon
for it to have been of any special import - the obvious link I would suggest
is that there must have been a more obvious reason why this mythological
emblem was kept and not others.

I would further suggest that the 537 siting must have had a bearing on this
and could in fact be the origin of the importance of the dragon as an emblem
for the Welsh. As Alastair McBeath points out, there is precious little
other reason for it to have become such an important symbol otherwise - and
it plays a very minor role in the rest of Celtic mythology.

It is obvious by the term Pendraon (translated correctly as 'chief-dragon')
that this was a term used to describe a powerful, if not the most powerful,
warlord in the land, and again this honorific term has no precedent before
the mid-sixth century (according to Nennius & Geoffrey of Monmouth).

The main point I am making is that the dragon had a great symbolic meaning
for the early Welsh and that this can conceivably be traced back to
originating in the sixth century, and ultimately to the siting of a comet in
the early half of that century in Britain.

This is true for the Welsh dragon in particular, and if this is the case,
then it may also be generally the origin of dragon myths in other cultures
around the world as well.

Recently four Morien Institute members attended an excellent lecture at the
University of Wales at Bangor by Prof. Mike Baillie, of Queens University,
Belfast. As well as focussing on the abrupt climatic disturbances evident in
the tree-ring record for these dates, he also stressed the importance of
local research being undertaken in Wales in the light of this.

This is exactly what we have been doing, and nothing highlights the
recording of the mid-sixth century 'event' better than the many references
from Welsh folklore and literature.

With regard to Myrddin (who was known as Lailoken in Scotland), in Geoffrey
of Monmouth's "Vita Merlini" (Cardiff, University of Wales Press, 1973, p.
227) we have this interesting piece about the Battle of Arfderydd:

"In that fight the sky began to split above me, and I heard a tremendous
din, a voice from the sky saying to me, 'Lailochen, Lailochen, because you
alone are responsible for the blood of all these dead men, you alone will
bear the punishment for the misdeeds of all. For you will be given over to
the angels of Satan, and until the day of your death you will have communion
with the creatures of the wood.' But when I directed my gaze towards the
voice I heard, I saw a brightness too great for human senses to endure. I
saw, too, numberless martial battalions in the heaven like flashing
lightning, holding in their hands fiery lances and glittering spears which
they shook most fiercely at me."

While in the great medieval Welsh Romances of 'The Mabinogion' in the tale
of 'Manawydan fab Llyr' there are also references to events which could
easily be described as the after-event of a comet passing close to earth or
a meteorite strike (The Dragon's Pen, 1986, Jones. B. & Thomas. G., Gomer
Press, p. 23):

"And as they sat thus, lo, a thundering, and so great was that thundering
that behold a shower of mist came down upon them so that they could not
perceive each other. And following the mist, there was a lighting up of
everywhere. And when they looked in the direction where previously they had
seen flocks and herds and habitation, they saw nothing of any kind, nor
houses nor animal, nor smoke, nor fire, nor men, nor dwelling..."

Both these references from the same time-frame could point to an event that
had been observed and had left its mark on folk-memory and described in ways
that made sense to the people at the time. One of the obvious explanations
that would neatly fit in, given all the references considered above, is that
the Welsh people of that time were interpreting this event in terms
described as a 'dragon' - either literally or metaphorically so.

But it is in the riddle-poem "Hanes Taliesin" (History of Taliesin) that we
have the most direct references not just to the sky, but to events in
specific areas of the sky.

As you will be aware, the Welsh word Taliesin can be translated as 'radiant
brow', and CCNet readers are no doubt familiar with the work of Mike Baillie
in this regard ("Exodus to Arthur" p.p. 247/48).

These early Welsh riddle-poems are believed to have been deliberately
constructed in such a way that lines and verses were juxtaposed, with
apparent nonsense added, so that only the 'initiated' could 'decode' and
fully understand them. There are many references to various celestial
phenomena in the "Hanes Taliesin". Here are some of the lines that refer to
areas of the night sky in this context:

"I was in the Hall of Dn

Before Gwydion was born"

The Hall of Dn is Llys Dn in the original Welsh poem, and Llys Dn is the
Old Welsh name for the constellation Cassiopeia."I have been three times

In the Castle of Arianrhod."

The Castle of Arianrhod is Caer Arianrhod in the original Welsh poem, and
Caer Arianrhod is the Old Welsh name for the constellation Corona Borealis.

"I have been in an uneasy chair

Above Caer Sidin

And the whirling round without motion"

Caer Sidin is synonymous with Caer Sidi. Sidi comes from the Old Welsh word
'Sidydd' meaning the ecliptic, making Caer Sidi the castle of the ecliptic.
The ancient Welsh bards and druids referred to both the zodiacal
constellations and their sacred temples by the same name - Caer Sidi. As
with many ancient cultures it was the terrestrial counterpart to a celestial

The generally accepted English translation of Caer Sidi is "revolving
castle", and what better way to poetically describe the illusion of apparent
'risings' and 'settings' of the zodiacal stars than " the whirling round
without motion".

This could suggest that the bardo-druidic 'initiates' understood that it is
the Earth itself which revolves on it's axis, not the sky or the stars, and
that they were much more oriented in time and space than has been generally

Other astronomical references in the poem include "I was with my Lord in the
highest sphere, when Lucifer fell.."; "I know the names of the stars from
the North to the South"; "I was in the Firmament with Mary Magdalene"; - all
in the D.W. Nash translation.

While in the Lady Guest translation we find "my original country is the
region of the summer stars" and "I have been on the Galaxy at the throne of
the Distributor".

The distributor of what? Comets? Meteors? Thunderbolts? Fireballs? I feel
that with so many astronomical references in the poem they must have been
intended by the composer, and most importantly, also understood by many of
those listening at the time - even if this were only so for the
bardo-druidic initiates.

We feel at the Morien Institute that all the above references in Welsh
folklore and literature suggests a definite celestial origin for the common
usage, and acceptance as a banner symbol, of Y Ddraig Goch in Wales.

Melfyn Thomas


>From The Guardian, 24 May 2002,3604,721088,00.html

Sergei Torop was a traffic cop in the small Russian town of Minusinsk until
1989, when he announced that he was the son of God. Now he commands a
following of thousands and rules over a large swath of the Siberian
mountains. Ian Traynor makes a pilgrimage

Friday May 24, 2002
The Guardian

Four thousand feet up a mountain deep in the Siberian taiga, the middle-aged
man appears in a velvet crimson robe, long brown hair framing a beatific
smile. He sits down in a log cabin perched on the brow of the hill. It is a
room with a stunning view. The snowy Sayan mountains sparkle in the
distance. The silver and pink of the birch forests shimmer in the clear
sunlight. Down to the right, the pure blue water of Lake Tiberkul
mesmerises. Behind the cabin, for much further than the eye can see - a
thousand kilometres - the Siberian wilderness stretches, bereft of human

"It's all very complicated," he starts quietly. "But to keep things simple,
yes, I am Jesus Christ. That which was promised must come to pass. And it
was promised in Israel 2,000 years ago that I would return, that I would
come back to finish what was started. I am not God. And it is a mistake to
see Jesus as God. But I am the living word of God the Father. Everything
that God wants to say, he says through me."

Meet the Messiah of Siberia, Vissarion Christ - the Teacher, as he is known
to his thousands of disciples, who are convinced that he is the
reincarnation of Jesus of Nazareth, come back to earth to save the world.

"He radiates incredible love," sighs Hermann, 57, a Bavarian engineer who is
now selling his home in Germany to join the self-proclaimed messiah of the
taiga. "I met Vissarion last August. He told me we had to follow two laws.
It was like an electric shock, like bells ringing."

To find Vissarion, you fly 3,700km east from Moscow to the southern Siberian
town of Abakan, north of the Mongolian border, then drive for six hours
along rutted roads through a string of villages. Where the road ends in a
rollercoaster of craters, the bog begins, and you trudge knee-deep in mud
and ice for three hours before the final ascent to the "saviour", a steep
hour's climb up a mountain path.

To witness the lives of these New Age dropouts in the hamlets of Kuragino,
Imisskoye, Petropavlovka and Cheremshanka is to get an inkling of how things
must have been in 17th-century New England for the pilgrim fathers toiling
away at their new Jerusalem.

"Life is so hard here," says Denis, a 21-year-old Russian emigre who arrived
last week from Brisbane to see if Vissarion really was the answer to his
questions. "No doubt about it, mate," he affirms. "Definitely the Son of

To his critics in the established churches who accuse him of brainwashing
and embezzling his followers, Vissarion is a charlatan deluding the devotees
of "a destructive, totalitarian sect". More prosaically, he is Sergei Torop,
a 41-year-old former traffic cop and factory worker from Krasnodar in
southern Russia, who moved to Siberia as a youth, experienced his awakening
a decade ago, and now leads one of the biggest and most remote religious
communes on the planet.

Combining new age eclecticism with medieval monasticism, the
"Vissarionites", clustered in around 30 rural settlements in southern
Siberia, now number around 4,000. They are unquestioningly dedicated to
their guru. They utter his name in hushed tones. They decorate their homes,
temples and workplaces with his image. They reverentially swap tales of the
Teacher's every act or word. They pore over his four fat volumes of musings.
His aphorisms are learned by rote and regurgitated daily.

Vissarion - like all the followers of his "Church of the Last Testament", he
goes by his adopted first name only - is untroubled by this cult of
personality and its sinister resonance in Russian history. "It depends how a
person uses my image," he explains. "Man has to bow down to the Father. But
it is a mystery and the image enables a person to connect with me. The image
can help in that sense, strengthen his efforts."

Vissarion's commune is governed by arcane rituals, laws, symbols, prayers,
hymns, and a new calendar. A strict code of conduct is enforced: no vices
are permitted. Veganism is compulsory for all, though exceptions can be made
for infants and lactating mothers, who are allowed sour milk products (if
they can find them). There is no animal husbandry. Monetary exchange is
banned within the commune, and only reluctantly allowed with the outside

"We're not allowed to smoke, or swear, or drink," laughs Larissa, a glowing
28-year-old mother of three who arrived here from Moscow with her mother as
an 18-year-old. "Everything is banned here. We're not allowed to do anything
except fall in love."

The devotees include Russian musicians, actresses, teachers, doctors, former
Red Army colonels, an ex-deputy railways minister of Belarus, as well as a
growing band of adherents from western Europe. They drink the sap of the
birch trees that they fell for housing, tools and furniture. They live off
berries, nuts and mushrooms gathered in the forest. They scratch potatoes,
cabbage and Jerusalem artichokes from the unyielding soil. They barter
handicrafts and vegetables for buckwheat and barley from nearby villages.
"Man can live in any extreme conditions," Vissarion pronounces, a permanent
Mona Lisa smile playing on his lips. "Of course it is hard, especially for
intellectuals and those used to working in the towns. But it is important
for people to see themselves and to see one another. That is easier when the
toil is hard. There is salvation in hardship."

On an adjacent peak, a large bell has been mounted by the believers. It
tolls across the valley three times a day. On hearing it, the faithful drop
to their knees to pray. The bell weighs 270kg. The followers carried it on
foot for 50km in torrential rain from the village where the metal was cast,
and then hauled it up to the summit. Vissarion himself is spared much of the
physical toil. While teams of young men dig irrigation trenches beside his
chalet, he whiles away the long days on the mountaintop painting oil

At the age of 18 Sergei Torop enlisted, starting his compulsory two-year
stint in the Red Army and finishing as a sergeant on construction sites in
Mongolia before working for three years as a metal worker in a factory in
the Siberian town of Minusinsk. From there, the self-proclaimed saviour
embarked on a career as a traffic policeman, also in Minusinsk, winning nine
commendations during five years' service. Job cuts in 1989 left him
unemployed just as the Soviet Union was descending into chaos. Millions of
Russians were bewildered and craving answers. The advent of the new era also
coincided with Sergei's rebirth as Vissarion.

Thousands of people, the majority of them educated professionals from cities
in European Russia, abandoned wives, husbands and children to flock to the
Church of the Last Testament, replicating the flight of the schismatics to
Siberia from European Russia 350 years ago to escape persecution by the
Orthodox church. The schismatics' descendants now share some of the same
villages with the Vissarionites, who have assimilated many elements of
Orthodox ritual but whose belief system also embraces an eclectic, some say
incoherent, mish-mash of Buddhist, Taoist and green values.

For centuries, the wide-open spaces of Siberia have drawn the sectarian, the
wacky and the nonconformist. The post-Soviet decade has revived that
tradition, bringing a boom in evangelism and new age cults. Of 140 religious
organisations registered in the republic of Khakassia, says Nikolai Volkov,
the chief local government official dealing with religious affairs, 28 are
"new religious movements", as new age sects are dubbed.

For the Church of the Last Testament, it is now year 42 of the new era,
which the believers date from Vissarion's birth in 1961. Christmas has been
abolished and replaced by a feast day on January 14, the Teacher's birthday.
The biggest holiday of the year falls on August 18, the anniversary of
Vissarion's first sermon in 1991, when the "saviour" descends from the
mountain on horseback to join thousands of revellers cavorting in the river
running by the hamlet of Petropavlovka.

To the east lies Sun City. It is here, at the foot of the mountain where
their saviour lives with his wife and six children (including a little girl
adopted from a single mother in the commune), that the hardcore faithful,
the most committed of the Vissarionites, congregate. On a patch of taiga
peat bog that they have cleared of birch and cedar, 41 families live in
timber cabins and felt yurts. The men sport ponytails and beards, the women
long hair and long skirts. Most of them are in their mid-30s. The giggling
of children is all around. There is a school and a kindergarten. The birth
rate here is much higher than in the average Russian village.

The mood is cheerfully apocalyptic. "Have you not heard?" laughs Igor as he
guides us through the swamp. "A comet is going to smash into the earth next
year." With his beard, birch stick, tunic and pointy Uzbek felt hat, the
48-year-old recovered alcoholic from St Petersburg looks like he has walked
off the set of Lord of the Rings.

If the looming comet imperils most of humanity, Sun City is Noah's Ark.
Russia's mission, in the best Orthodox tradition of "Third Rome" messianism,
is to redeem the rest of us. "This central part of Siberia is the part of
the world that can survive best," explains Vissarion. "And this is a society
that can endure big changes and be more receptive to a better understanding
of the truth."

For now, though, the apocalypse can wait. There's work to do and word to
spread. In recent years Vissarion has been to New York, to Germany, the
Netherlands, France, and Italy seeking converts. For the first time he has
just been "invited" to Britain, where he hopes to preach "soon".

Such international jetsetting feeds suspicions that he is living at their
expense of his disciples. He insists that neither he nor his church has any
"regular income", that his foreign travels are "sponsored" by his hosts. His
chalet, powered by solar batteries and a small windmill, is modest, if more
comfortable than the homes of his followers. It is also more remote, a steep
hour's climb up a path from Sun City.

"I've been with him 10 years, I know him," says Vadim, a former drummer in a
Russian rock band and Vissarion's right-hand man. "He's the only person I
know who lives what he preaches. They say he's a liar and a cheat, taking
the money. They're only describing the way they behave themselves."

At 7am, the menfolk and a few women emerge from their cabins to stream
towards the "city" centre, marked by a mud circle ringed by stones, at the
centre of which stands a carved wooden angel, wings outstretched, and capped
by the Vissarionites' symbol - a cross inside a circle. This is a daily
ritual. The faithful kneel on short wooden planks, murmur prayers and sing
hymns, led by a man with a rich baritone. Then they join hands in a circle
around the stones, raise their heads to the mountain, from where they
believe Vissarion is watching, and sing paeans to "our tender father".

"Immortality is the unique quality of the human soul, but mankind has to
learn how to achieve it, how to live eternally," Vissarion says quietly
before shrouding his head in a white shawl and shuffling away.

"There's a place in the New Testament where Jesus says the time will come
when I will no longer speak in parables. That time has come: the time for
people to see the aim of life."

Copyright 2002, The Guardian

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