MOSCOW/KIEV — Andrei Iltchenko knows exactly what he is going to do when the world comes to an end on December 21.
"We are buying food and alcohol for the apocalypse. Then we will descend into our bunker and happily close the hatch door," says the Ukrainian student from Dnipropetrovsk, near Kiev.
He and his companions plan to celebrate the end of the world with a "last supper" complete with plenty of food and drink in a Soviet-era underground bunker.
The date has been earmarked by New Age prophets for the end of the world, based on the so-called Long Count in the Mayan calendar, which uses a cycle of more than 5,000 years. It marks the winter solstice this year.
A series of media reports on the pending end of the world has generated alarm among some Russians and Ukrainians.
Residents in the Russian town of Omutninsk swept shop shelves empty in a panic buying spree, following a report in the local newspaper on the anticipated "koniec sveta", as the end of the world is known in Russian.
The editors had neglected to make clear that the report was not intended to be taken seriously.
The frenzy has taken hold in Russia to such an extent that the government saw itself compelled to issue a statement to calm the population.
The authorities had reliable information that there would be no apocalypse on December 21, Emergencies Minister Vladimir Puchkov said.
"It has been proved conclusively that global catastrophes take place at intervals of between 10-million and 15-million years," Mr Puchkov told the nation in a statement published on the front page of the government’s Rossiyskaya Gazeta daily.
The Russian Orthodox Church also intervened. "The end of the world will come of course, and this could happen at any moment," the influential churchman Vsevolod Chaplin said — but he assured the faithful that December 21 was definitely not the day.
Nevertheless, scarcely a day passes without fresh media reports on the end of the world. A 19-year-old man in the city of Dolgoprudny near Moscow became so confused by them that he beat and seriously injured four people with a barbell. A three-year-old child was reported to be in a coma.
Such events prompted parliament to urge state television stations to show "greater responsibility" in dealing with people’s fears. Con artists and self-appointed seers would abuse the issue’s popular appeal to defraud the credulous, the legislators warned.
Business people have, in fact, begun to cash in on the end of the world frenzy. Emergency kits are on offer in the Siberian city of Tomsk. For about $30, buyers receive food that will keep for a long period, candles, matches and soap, as well as games to amuse themselves.
Subterranean bunkers are also in demand in Russia.
Some have resorted to irony to deal with the situation. "The end of the world has already started in some regions. There is not so much as a minute of daylight in Murmansk or Norilsk," remarked Roman Vilfand, head of the meteorological service in Moscow.
In these Russian cities to the north of the polar circle, the absence of daylight is normal at this time of the winter as the solstice approaches.
"The end of the world should be over in Norilsk on January 11, by our calculations, when there is light again," Mr Vilfand quipped.