NIKOLSKOYE, Russia – Priests tried unsuccessfully to coax members of a doomsday cult from the underground hideout in snowy central Russia where they remained barricaded Sunday.
Twenty-nine people — including four children, the youngest 18 months — retreated to the bunker near the village of Nikolskoye, about 640 kilometers (400 miles) southeast of Moscow, earlier this month and have threatened to blow themselves up if forced to leave.
However, their leader — self-declared prophet Pyotr Kuznetsov — was not among them Sunday. Kuznetsov was charged last week with setting up a religious organization associated with violence and underwent psychiatric evaluation Friday.
On Thursday, Russian Orthodox monks tried to make contact with the cult but members refused to speak with them.
Priests went again Sunday, but the followers refused to listen to their arguments, according to a security official monitoring the crisis. He refused to be named because he was not authorized to speak to reporters.
Yevgeny Guseynov, a spokesman for the regional government, said officials would try to find experienced negotiators. "There is no talk whatsoever of any sort of storming" the site, he said.
The followers — reportedly mostly women — vowed to stay in the bunker until doomsday, claiming to have stockpiled 100 gallons of gasoline that they threatened to ignite if officers on guard near the ravine try to force them out. They remained in written contact with Kuznetsov.
Kuznetsov, 43, an engineer from a devout family, declared himself a prophet several years ago. He left his family and the Russian Orthodox Church, and established the True Russian Orthodox Church. He began writing books, borrowing from a mixture of established beliefs, and visited monasteries in Russia and Belarus, recruiting followers, Guseynov said.
He reportedly told followers that in the afterlife, they would be judging whether others deserved heaven or hell. Followers were not allowed to watch television, listen to the radio or handle money, reports say.
Anna Vabishchevich said her 41-year-old son, Alexander, his wife and their two teenage daughters were followers. She said she was sending two relatives from Belarus to try to persuade him to at least send the girls home.
She said her son, a railroad worker, came under Kuznetsov's influence several years ago. He stopped eating food packaged with the universal product code, which the cult regards as the mark of the Antichrist, she said.
"My son was kind and now he is mentally ill, it's like he is hypnotized," she said tearfully.