The road to redemption is never an easy path but for a shadowy cult in a small Russian village, the way was particularly difficult. To achieve salvation, they had to die. But not only did they have to perish, they had to depart life in a most horrific way. For these unfortunate believers, in order to reach paradise, they had to be buried alive.
Liman, Russia – 1896
The tiny village of Liman is located twenty-eight miles from Tiraspol in the province of Kherson in what is now modern-day Ukraine. It was a small village of about thirty people, most of who belonged to a cult known as Raskol Niki (or Raskoinki). Raskol Niki was a vague subsect of a religious division known as the Old Believers (or Benuni), an ancient Eastern Orthodox branch who maintained the religious practices of the church as they existed around 1600 AD. Their beliefs were strange by modern standards, which left them alienated from surrounding villages.
The leader of the Raskol cult was a 42-year-old woman, Vera Makaveyeva. Church members called her Vitalia for short. Described as a tall, slender woman with “pleasant features of the fair Little Russian type with wonderfully lustrous and expressive eyes”, she was the well-educated daughter of a prominent and respectable family from the nearby city of Balta. Historical accounts recall church members bragging that she was well-spoken, congenial, but could be vicious if circumstances warranted. Like most cult leaders, she was persuasive and demanded blind, unquestioned obedience. Vitalia told her followers the world would end on January 1, 1897. According to her, a comet would destroy the earth. With little time to spare, she said, it was time for members to abandon earth and make their way to heaven.
The village census
Twenty-one days after the forecasted day of doom, a census taker visited the village. It was January 21, 1897, a brutally cold, overcast day. As the census taker walked through the village, he noticed the streets were unusually empty and quiet. He knocked on the door of each home but received no answer. At one home, he was sure he could hear the sound of someone inside. He banged on the door and called out several times. Finally, a voice responded, “Go away!”
The disrespectful slight angered the census taker. Responding to a census was not voluntary, it was the law. He travelled to the closest village and reported the incident to the authorities who quickly accompanied the census taker back to the village to ensure the census could be taken.
Like the census taker, the police noticed the streets were empty, as if everyone had suddenly picked up their belongings and left. After some consultation, they gained entry to the suspect’s home. Inside were members of the Kowalew (or Kovaloff) and Sukhoff (or Sukula) families. Family members admitted to the police that they were members of a cult and pointed out that they lived inside the village monastery. They were arrested and jailed.
Feodore Kowalew reveals horror
In a single, cramped cell, the Kowalew and Sukhoff families were quiet, withdrawn, and surly. They refused to eat or drink until they became so emaciated that the governor feared they would die. He released them noting that “they were scarcely able to stand”.
Jailers told the governor that one of the men, Feodore (or Fedon) Kowalew had told them he had buried some members of his family in his yard. He told the police, “They longed for the crown of martyrdom”.
The truth emerges
Initially authorities believed the man might be crazy, but they recalled the village was eerily quiet. They searched the village and found a peaked-dirt mound that appeared to be freshly dug.
Police detained 24-year-old Feodore and questioned him hard. Eventually the man began to talk. He told police that the burial of church members had begun on December 23, 1896 in preparation for the end of the world. Cult members drew lots to see who would remain to bury the others. The lucky ones, they were told, would be guided to salvation by being buried alive. Vitalia, the cult’s leader, was one of the cult members chosen in the random draw to be buried alive.
As instructed by Vitalia, cult members put on their best clothes and donned identical black robes. They laid together tightly in the freshly dug holes, each on his or her right side, alternating head to feet. Feodore described how he had dug a grave in his yard. His wife climbed into the grave and Feodore handed her his 4-month-old son and 4-year-old son. Feodore recalled they did not utter a sound, no moan, no cry for help, and moved not a hand or foot as he shoveled the earth over their bodies. This was confirmed by authorities who noted that each body lay perfectly aligned with no sign of movement.
Authorities searched Feodore’s cellar and found an area of disturbed dirt on the floor. Authorities dug out the floor and found a heap of corpses wearing black overcoats and serene looks of accomplishment on their faces. Later that day, three more mass burial sites were discovered – one in Feodore’s garden and two more sites at another home. A local newspaper reported:
“Corpses, corpses everywhere; corpses of young men, of old men, even of little children. Kowalew admitted he had buried nine persons, but there were far more than nine corpses in this hole. It is doubtful if the exact number will ever be known.”
The bodies of nine people were exhumed from the burial site in Feodore’s cellar. The grave in his yard contained six bodies – his wife, mother, two sons, and two of his neighbors.
Police continued searching the village and found another gravesite containing several more bodies in the backyard garden of Matvel Sukhoff. They searched her cellar and found another burial site containing six more bodies including two children aged 10 and 17.
The final count
In total, twenty-five people were buried alive. Nine were found in Kowalew’s cellar, six in his garden, six in the Sukhoff cellar, and four in Sukhoff’s garden.
The arrest and incarceration of Feodore Kowalew
Feodore was arrested and placed in the Odessa Penitentiary. He was downtrodden and depressed. He told prison officials that he longed to be buried alive so he could join the others. He pleaded with authorities to let him kill himself. Ultimately, Feodore was not convicted. The judge found that the victims had willingly allowed themselves to be buried alive.
Timing of events
The timing of the events is unclear. Various reports and newspaper accounts of the even provide slightly different dates. One report says the burials did not take place at the same time but rather, at intervals over the course of two months. According to this account:
Nine buried on December 23.
Six buried on December 27.
Six buried on February 9.
The last four buried on February 28.
Local newspaper account
The Chief Actor in the Tragedy at Tirespol to Be Tried for Burying Many Persons Alive.
ODESSA, Russia, June 3. — Feodore Kovaloff, chief actor in the immuring tragedy at Tirespol, has arrived here for trial.
On his premises were recently discovered six bodies of persons who had been buried alive, and he confessed that he walled up in his cellar nine living persons, including his wife and two children. They all belonged to a fanatical sect known as Raskol Niki and sought salvation by self-immolation.
Kovaloff declared that all the victims dies voluntarily. He drew lots with a co-fanatic to decide who should actually bury the victims. He earnestly desired to be buried alive himself, and is still impelled by a fanatic desire to commit suicide. For this reason the officials are keeping a strict watch on him.
Australian newspaper account
Russian Religious Fanatics. A Terrible Discovery.
A terrible discovery has been made of religious fanaticism among the Beguine sect, in the village of Ternofke, in Russia.
Twenty-five persons, including five women and four children, voluntarily submitted to be buried alive. Nine of those were entombed in the wall of a cellar and the rest were interred in a garden.
Kovaleff, the chief agent, who buried in the town his mother, wife, and to children, has been arrested. It is evident that the victims of this strange procedure made no resistance to being buried alive.