Popular Science Monthly/Volume 60/March 1902/Suicidal Fanaticism in Russia


By Professor W. G. SUMNER,


IN 1897 reports ran through the newspapers of the civilized world that a religious sect in southern Russia had begun to practise suicide from religious motives. In June of that year Mr. I. A. Sigorski, professor of psychiatry and nerve diseases in the university at Kieff, visited the scene of the transactions in order to make a psychological investigation of them. The following account is derived from his book.[1]

The scene was in the rich valley of the Dniester, in a cluster of farmsteads near the village of Ternova, three or three and a half English miles from Tiraspol. The family of Kovaleff and its connections owned several of these farmsteads. The one at which the events occurred was a valuable estate which belonged to a family of that name who were Old Believers (Raskolniks=schismatics). On the estate was a building which presented, on the outside, the appearance of a carriage shed with large doors. In fact there was no opening at all on that side. On the inside a pile of straw and reeds masked the entire exterior of the building and joined the roof, so that it looked like a solid store of those commodities, but behind this pile was a corridor which gave entrance to the building. There was another corridor inside by which connection was established with the main residence. This building was a refuge and more or less permanent residence for Old Believers of both sexes when on a journey, or old, or ill or persecuted. The name of it is a 'skeet.' It had been so used for a century, and the construction shows that the inmates lived in gloom and secrecy, apprehending danger and violence, and prepared to flee through the concealed passages in one direction or the other. They went out only by night, or singly, and as secretly as possible. Their favorite occupations were prayer, reading the books of their sect and religious conversation. In these observances the Kovaleff family joined with great interest.

In the autumn of 1896, for some reason which is not definitely known, the inmates of the skeet were thrown into excitement. Relics of a Russian saint having been found, the whole state church underwent a revival of religious enthusiasm, in which the schismatics did not share, and which they had nothing to offset. One explanation of the later proceedings is that there was a desire to create a 'holy place' for the Old Believers. The head of the estate at that time was Madame Kovaleff, and the head of the skeet was a woman named Vitalia. The former was an elderly lady, in easy circumstances, simple-minded and benevolent. The latter was 35 or 40 years old, energetic, decided, fanatical, narrow-minded and bigoted. She led and ruled the whole establishment. She practised austerities (or pretended to), read religious books, and interpreted what little she heard of the outside world by the absurdly ignorant and wrong-headed notions of the sect. These facts about her account for her influence. She and one or two of her intimates began to talk of persecution, war, enforced military service and the end of the world. The Old Believers were to be exiled or imprisoned. It was agreed, in this community, that, if they were imprisoned, they would starve themselves. Then, however, a new cause of anxiety arose; what would become of their children? They thought that these would be forcibly baptized in the state church, and such a consequence filled them with dismay.

After Christmas there were rumors that a new national census was to be taken with registration for military service. Vitalia declared that war was imminent, that Anti-Christ was about to appear. Registration was the seal of Anti-Christ and damnation. It would be far better to die at once by voluntary starvation and so escape all these terrors and persecutions. A girl of thirteen years, acting no doubt on suggestion from Vitalia, first spoke of voluntary interment. She said: 'In prison they will torture and kill us. It would be better to bury ourselves.' Her mother replied: 'Your idea is good. I agree with you.' The only able-bodied man who could dig a large hole was Theodore Kovaleff, son of the Madame Kovaleff above mentioned. His wife took up the idea of voluntary burial, referring to the fear that children, if left behind, would be educated in the state church, she pressed her babe to her breast and said: 'I cannot give him up to damnation. I would rather go into the burial pit with him.' Vitalia warmly approved this sentiment. Theodore opposed the project, but his mother favored it, partly on his account, lest he should lose his faith under torture in prison. Vitalia taught that as many drops as there are in the rain so many years of torture are there in hell for the unfaithful, but the faithful would suffer only two or three days in the burial-pit, and then enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.

There was some scruple about suicide in the minds of some members of the group. Voluntary death they considered different. The traditions of the sect for two hundred years contain tales of self-immolation by burning, drowning, burying, sometimes by hundreds at once, as forms of voluntary death, to escape from persecution or the coercion of the state whose laws they resisted. When the census agents came to the door of the skeet a document in archaic form and language was handed out as the sole reply. It read as follows: "We are Christians. We are not allowed to adopt any new things, and we cannot consent to register our names and places of abode over and over again. Christ takes the place to us of all things; therefore of name and country. Your new institution and your census list would alienate us from Christ, and from true Christian faith, and would lead us to the renunciation of our fatherland, for our fatherland is Christ. Our Lord speaks to us by his Holy Gospel. Our Lord says to His disciples: 'Every one who confesses me before men will I confess before my Father in Heaven, but every one who denies me before men will I deny before my Father in Heaven.' Therefore we answer you briefly but decidedly that we will not deny our Lord Jesus Christ, and that we are not willing to forsake the orthodox faith, or the Holy Synods, or the Apostolic Church. What the Holy Fathers accepted in the Holy Synods that we also accept, but what the Holy Fathers and the Holy Apostles rejected and anathematized that we also reject and anathematize. We can never consent to sin as we should by obeying your new laws. We prefer to die for Christ."

The first interment took place in the night of December 23, in a cellar or subterranean vault adjoining the farmhouse of one member of the sect. A 'mine' was dug to connect it with the cellar of the building. The vault was about 13 feet square and 5½ feet high in the middle. After religious services, those who were to be buried put on the grave clothes of the sect. Nine persons entered the vault, a man of 45, his wife of 40, his daughter aged 13, the wife of Theodore Kovaleff, aged 23, and her two children, one aged three years, the other an infant, a woman of 35, and an old man of 70. The first named man inside and Theodore Kovaleff outside closed the entrance with earth and stones. The buried persons had with them candles, sacred books and sacred image-pictures.

The second burial was made on the night of December 27. About a mile from the place of the first burial there was an excavation which had been made for a house. At one corner of this a horizontal 'bottle-shaped' hole was made by Theodore. Six were entombed here, of whom three were children, seven, four and two years old. One man and his wife disagreed about joining the party. He took their two-year-old daughter and went in. His wife became a mother again immediately afterwards. Another man in this party was a disreputable and abandoned drunkard and loafer. He was led to enter by the will of his mother and sister, not by his own. It appears almost certain that the second party did not know of the interment of the first party. Vitalia enforced strict secrecy.

On the 5th of February Vitalia and six others were arrested on a formal charge of not having passports, in connection with their refusal to comply with the census and registration. When imprisoned they all refused to eat or drink. They refused all gifts of food, saying that their religion required them to earn their subsistence entirely by the labor of their own hands. They persisted in this course for four days, and it appears that they would have committed suicide in this way, but

PSM V60 D453 Theodore Kovaleff.png
Theodore Kovaleff.

they were released and put under house arrest with police supervision.

Some rumor of the interments got out and the excitement in the sect grew more intense, being mixed with doubt and some uncertainty as to the right of what had been done. On the night of February 12 the third party was buried. It consisted of four women who entreated Theodore to dig the grave for them. He did so and lifted his sister down into it, she being too weak from the recent prison starvation to descend into it. This was a large grave. The women lay close together at the bottom. Theodore threw the earth first on their feet, then on their bodies, and at last on their heads, and trampled it down. He stated afterwards that he heard no sound from them during the operation.

The misgivings at what had been done affected Madame Kovaleff and Vitalia differently. The former was sad and doubtful, and felt the responsibility. The latter felt that she must die, and she wanted to die with glory. She was anxious to persuade Madame Kovaleff to die with her. She feared all forms of death except the slow death of starvation. She set the fourth and last act of interment to include

PSM V60 D454 Theodore Kovaleff.png
Theodore Kovaleff.

herself, for February 21st. The refusal of one old man in the skeet caused a postponement until the 28th. At that time the estate was surrounded by water on account of the spring rise of the Dniester. The police guard left, taking the boats with them, since the people could not escape. An opportunity was thus offered for the fourth interment. Theodore and his half-witted brother, Dimitri, dug a kind of niche in the cellar wall of the house in which the first interment took place. It was 412 feet long, 8 feet wide, and not over 2 feet high. Madame Kovaleff, her son Dimitri, Vitalia, and two of the latter's most intimate confidants crept into this space, bending their heads and drawing up their feet. Theodore replaced the cellar wall. All were in great terror and confusion of mind. The total number who met death was 25.

Great interest attaches to Theodore Kovaleff. He was the most responsible person in the whole party. He never assented to or believed in any of the ideas and plans. He was the agent of the whole transaction. By his hands his wife, children, sister, mother and brother died. He did what he was told to do. Vitalia's final orders to him were not to eat or drink, but to await the end of the world which would come in a day or two. He held out four days; then as there was no war, as no one came to take him to prison, and the world did not end, he began to eat. When the facts became known and he was questioned, he said that they did not think they could go wrong in obeying Vitalia, because she fasted, prayed, read good books, etc., and he repeated the question: 'Why was there no one to set us right?' His portraits, which are here reproduced, show that he is a stupid and ignorant but harmless peasant. The face portrait shows an expression of anxiety and distress, as of a man who finds himself in a situation which he can not understand. In the full-length picture which represents him in the costume of a monk of the Old Believers, his face shows more of the mild melancholy which, as Sigorski tells us, was one of the traits of his character.

The reports of the existence of a sect, one of whose religious principles is suicide, prove to be unfounded. The religious element in the affair was small and remote. The Old Believers have fallen into an attitude towards society and the state which is traditional and false, although not without some historical explanation and excuse. They are under the dominion of fixed ideas and live in a seclusion and ignorance which cause them to take a false position towards all their surroundings. They fear imaginary enemies and unreal dangers. Their extreme ignorance of the world causes them to adopt crazy projects for meeting enemies and dangers. All this nourishes fanaticism and bigotry up to the stage of insanity. Then there are traditions of the extravagant behavior of their ancestors in the sect to suggest for imitation models of right and noble action. When a man is at hand of feeble character and stupid submissiveness to act as the agent of the half-insane fanatics all the elements and conditions of the tragedy are provided.

  1. 'The Epidemic of Voluntary Death and Suicide in the Farmsteads of Ternova'; republished from the journal 'Problems of Nervo-Psychic Medicine.' Kieff, 1897. 99 pp. (In Russ.)