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The Merchants Of Paradise

Side by side with these flourishing sects whose followers could be
numbered by millions, there existed other communities, founded upon
na´ve and child-like superstitions, strange fruits of the tree of
faith. The members of one of these believed that it was only necessary
to climb upon the roofs in order to take flight to heaven. The
deceptions practised on them by charlatans, the relentless persecution
of the government, even the loss of reason, all counted for nothing if
only they might enjoy some few moments of supreme felicity and live in
harmony with the divine! To experience such ecstasy they despoiled
themselves of their worldly goods, and gave away their money to
impostors in exchange for pardon for their sins.

The famous sect called the "Merchants of Paradise" was founded by a
peasant, Athanasius Konovaloff. Together with his son Andrew, he
preached at Osikovka, from 1885 to 1892, the absolution of sins in
return for offerings "in kind." There was need for haste, he declared.
Time was flying, and there were but few vacant places left in Paradise.
These places were of two kinds--those of the first class, at ten
roubles each, which enabled the purchaser to repose upon a celestial
sofa; and those of the second class, at five roubles, whose occupiers
had to spend eternity seated upon footstools. The credulous peasants
actually deprived themselves of food in order to procure their places.

In 1887, a man who was much respected in the village sold his crops,
and went to buy himself one of the first-class places. His son heard
of it, and was in despair over this lavish expenditure of ten roubles.
Why, he demanded, could not his father be content with a second-class
place, like so many of their neighbours?

The dispute was brought into the courts, and the old man loudly
lamented the criminal indifference of his son.

"In my poor old age," he cried, "after having worked so hard, am I to
be condemned to sit for ever on a footstool for the sake of five

Then, addressing his offspring--"And you, my son, are you not ashamed
so to disregard the future life of your parent, who maintained you
throughout your childhood? It is a great sin with which you are
burdening your soul."

Places in Paradise were promised not only to the living, but also to
those who had omitted to secure them before departing on their eternal
journey. The relatives would apply to the prophet, who fixed the price
according to the fortune left by the deceased.

A curious ceremonial always accompanied the payment of money to
Konovaloff. It was first placed upon the ground; Konovaloff would lift
it with his teeth and lay it on the table; and it was finally put in
his pocket by his son, Andrew. He was also assisted in his operations
by two old women.

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