I adored CS Lewis’ books as a child. It was my dream to live in Narnia like Lucy Pevensey, so much in harmony with nature that I could talk to the animals; I wanted a wise, benign, lovable if occasionally terrifying lion to answer all my questions, to be my inspiration and my final word.
Then I grew up.
And then, a few days ago, I met Aslan.
I was in Obitel Rassveta, Abode of Dawn, more commonly known as City of the Sun, or, to believers living in surrounding villages, The Mountain. This remote community in the deepest taiga is inspired by Vissarion, a former Russian policeman turned spiritual leader who attracted a large following after the Soviet Union’s collapse, and took the most dedicated with him to central Siberia to build a new world.
Vissarion teaches that his followers should never have a negative thought. They should live in absolute harmony with nature and with each other as part of a single family, rejecting any state system or government and relying instead on perfect spiritual understanding and his own absolute authority. Fifteen years on, his united family still lives on The Mountain with their Teacher, still building, still positive, still dreaming.
It’s quite a journey to The Mountain, along the roughest of roads, and then an hour-long climb on foot through thick forest to a plateau ringed by mountains. The entrance to the settlement is a huge wooden gateway hung with new-agey stained-glass lanterns and bearing the legend ‘Take hope, all ye who enter here’.
When Vissarion’s new world settlers arrived, there was nothing but forest. They have replaced the moss-draped Siberian pines and birches with dinky wooden houses, with lawns and marigolds, with a stone bridge that wouldn’t look out of place in a suburban garden and fountains and lanterns straight out of a garden centre. For people who have turned their backs on society as we know it, their taste is surprisingly bourgeois.
Or perhaps it’s not surprising. The members of the single family are former teachers and lawyers, army colonels and dentists. They are, almost exclusively, people who fifteen years ago knew nothing first hand about living off the land.
The names of the streets – a grand name for what are really little more than paths – are a good indicator of their reading matter: Milky Way, Crystal Gate, Eternal Search (the children living on this last one can see the joke when they’re looking for socks and pencil cases in the morning before school). Aesthetically as well as philosophically, Abode of Dawn’s inspiration seems to be not the fairy tales believers tend to go on about, but the lands of early 20th century children’s fantasy literature: Middle Earth, Mooninvalley, Narnia.
“You’re going to meet Aslan,” Adrian said, when my request for a personal meeting with Vissarion was granted. He was so respectfully pleased for me. I’d chatted about children’s literature with Adrian and Anya, the couple I stayed with. They talk about their Teacher with a sort of matter-of-fact awe. According to his followers (I didn’t quite have the courage to ask Vissarion if he also holds this view) Vissarion is the second coming of Christ.
It must be extraordinary to be living alongside your God, to help build his house, to have his telephone number, to teach his children. Terrifying and reassuring at once, I should think. Tanya, my friend who used to live on The Mountain, describes him as a kind of celestial hotline. One that actually answers.
So off I went up the hill. Vissarion lives apart from his followers, half way up the holy mountain (he used to live right at the top but has moved down – for convenience?) in a brick house his followers have built for him. Brick, when there is no road and the only building material for miles and miles around is wood. I was sort of expecting a cave.
I was nervous and excited; the awed delight and faint (but positive!) envy of the believers was catching. I entered the house, I climbed the stairs; I was Lucy Pevensey from Finchley.