The Mystery of Terpeniye’s Buried Treasure

by Alexander A. Chukhraenko

In 1963, a Ukrainian workman discovered a large hoard of Imperial Russian coins buried on a hillside in the former Doukhobor village of Terpeniye in Zaporozhye province, Ukraine. Remarkably, all of the evidence – the range of dates of the coins, the size of the hoard, and its location – tantalizingly suggests that the coins were buried by a member of the Doukhobor sect – someone of immense wealth – shortly before the expulsion of the Doukhobors from the Molochnaya to the Caucasus in 1841-1845 – and never retrieved.  The following article by Ukrainian local historian Alexander A. Chukhraenko recounts the amazing discovery of Terpeniye’s buried treasure, and its significance as one of the few physical traces of the Doukhobor settlement at Molochnye Vody.  Originally published in Russian in the “Melitopol’skie Vesti” (June 13-19, 2002), it is made available for the first time in English translation in this Doukhobor Genealogy Website exclusive. Translation by Jack McIntosh.

It was June, 1963. For Viktor Nikolayevich Khomenko, aged 32, driver for Terpeniye’s Sel’khoztekhnika (the local agricultural technology supply centre), this fine day turned out to be especially lucky. In the first place, it was Saturday – not a “working Saturday”, but his day off. In the second place, that day his wife was getting out of hospital and he, along with his eight year old son Vitalik, was on his way to pick her up. In the third place…

Ah, yes, in the third place, fate had prepared one more gift for him. If Viktor had walked straight to the hospital without turning off, success would not have smiled on him. But he decided first to look in at the barbershop. So he turned off Sovetsky Street onto the footpath that bent around the east side of the cemetery in the direction of the springs.

About two days earlier, a rather heavy rain had fallen and washed out the path here and there. One of these gullies had formed on a steep slope not far from Reshetnyak’s kitchen garden (at one time the Sirotsky Dom, the main spiritual and administrative centre of the Doukhobors, was situated several tens of meters lower down). Here Viktor’s attention was attracted by a kind of regular circle seemingly imprinted in the ground. After he attempted to hook it out with his finger, it turned out to be a small circular disk of compacted clay concealing the small neck of some kind of vessel. Viktor picked out several handfuls of sand, and then extracted… large silver coins – rubles of tsarist coinage!

An 1816 silver ruble minted during the reign of Tsar Alexander, found in the hoard of coins unearthed at Terpeniye in 1963.

The lucky man at first tried to stuff them into his pockets, but there were too many coins. He decided to leave his son to guard the find and run to his workplace, the Sel’khoztekhnika – a good thing it was very close by. There Viktor grabbed the first thing he could lay his hands on – his overalls. He raked together all the coins into his overalls and carried them home. There were exactly one thousand of them. The rest of Saturday and all day Sunday the family carried on continuous consultations: what to do with the find? Finally they decided to hand it over to the state.

Monday morning, as Khomenko recalls, he carried the hoard to the rural area council. The chairman phoned the Melitopol Museum of Regional Studies. From there they dispatched a young woman staff member. She looked over the coins calmly enough, but one of them drew her special attention: “Do what you wish, but leave this one for me for research,” is how Viktor remembers her reaction. Truth to tell, nobody even objected.

And then this surprising proposal from the chairman of the rural council – a representative of state authority, mind you! – “Let’s give out some of the coins to Terpeniye folks (that is, those who at that moment were present at the rural council) as a memento of this remarkable event!” Evidently he had decided that the remaining coins, apart from that single one to which the museum staffer had taken a fancy, were not of special historical value. The distribution commenced. As a result only six hundred odd coins were documented; the rest were dispersed into people’s pockets and later supplemented private coin collections.

Viktor Khomenko was promised a reward: “Wait. We’ll call you.”

He waited patiently for a whole month, and then went to the museum himself. In the final analysis it turned out that to receive a reward for the treasure it would have been necessary to surrender it to the State Bank, whereas the impecunious museum could only accept such things as a gift. So he had to resort to the court. And only through the court did he receive the sum earned by the sweat of his brow – the ludicrous amount of… fifty-two rubles! “Twenty-five percent of the twenty-five percent I was supposed to receive,” Viktor Nikolayevich recalls bitterly.

I believe Viktor Khomenko has cause to be resentful. By no means do our laws defend the interests of a person who has found a treasure. They always appraise a discovery at minimal value and then pay out from that amount that notorious twenty-five percent. But in fact the valuation of silver coins is by no means a simple matter! If they are appraised by weight, mere kopecks will be received. If they are sold to people who buy them up, i.e. numismatic wholesalers, one thousand tsarist silver ruble coins will turn into 30,000-50,000 gryvnia [Ukrainian currency: 1 gryvnia = $0.20 US (approx. as of 2007.08)]. On the other hand, abroad they will “pull in” somewhere near $100,000! But selling the treasure into private hands is already a criminal act; engendered, by the way, by the very inadequacy of our legislation. Is this not why stories of treasures found and handed over to the state are so rare?

Viktor Nikolayevich Khomenko, discoverer of the Terpenie treasure hoard.

By the way, my conclusion is based on entirely real events. For example, relatively recently, almost as large a hoard as that found in Terpeniye was discovered in the village of Vodnoye (before the Revolution, German colonists lived there), not far from Starobogdanovka. A certain peasant, while tearing down an old German building, discovered a treasure consisting of 600 tsarist silver rubles. Among them were many coins from the period of Tsar Alexander I. The peasant immediately sold them for five to ten dollars a piece.

In lieu of a postscript:

One of the researchers into the Terpeniye treasure trove is pedagogical university lecturer A. Alexeyev, son of the famous Melitopol regional specialist N. A. Alexeyev. In his article published on a subsequent page of “Tavricheskaya Starina”  in the Melitopol’skie Vesti, January 8, 2002, he characterized the treasure as follows:

All the coins (591) were minted in a rather narrow time interval – the oldest in 1762, the most recent – in 1829. Their distribution over the years was uneven. So for example, the numbers of coins from the period of Tsar Alexander I issued in 1812, 1813, 1817, 1818 and 1819 were 25, 27, 58, 99, and 29 respectively, whereas coins of other years are represented in the treasure in much smaller quantities. Among the coins found, none proved to be especially rare. All this taken together signified that we are faced, not with some kind of collection secreted for future use, but precisely a buried treasure.

Careful analysis of the coins led to the following conclusions:

Firstly, judging by the years of issue of the bulk of the coins and the location of the treasure, one can affirm confidently enough that it was buried in the ground by some Doukhobor, a representative of the sect that founded the village of Terpeniye.

Secondly, the two hundred coins minted before the 1790s in all probability indicate that they had been accumulated by the owner back at his previous place of residence prior to resettlement in the Milky Waters area. Most likely these coins came from the sale of immovable property before their resettlement here.

Thirdly, the presence in the treasure of a large quantity of coins dated 1817-1818 (one hundred fifty-seven items) leads one to conjecture that among them are coins received from the hands, if not of the Tsar himself, then of his retinue. You see it is well known that in 1818 Tsar Alexander I made a side trip to Terpeniye. Certainly the Tsar’s retainers would have carried with them recently minted silver rubles.

Fourthly, 1000 silver rubles is a vast fortune. At that time a horse cost a little over one ruble, a cow – 60-80 kopecks, a pound of rye – one kopeck. Thus the person who buried the treasure was immensely wealthy. It cannot be ruled out that he belonged to the Doukhobor upper echelon.

Reverse of the 1816 silver ruble found in the hoard of coins unearthed at Terpeniye in 1963.

And fifthly, the “youngest” coins determine the upper limit of the treasure – the end of the 1830s to the beginning of the 1840s. This approximately coincides with the time of the expulsion of the Doukhobors from the Milky Waters (1841-1845). It is logical to assume that the owner of the treasure concealed it owing to his hasty departure. But why did he not take it with him? Perhaps he counted on returning after a certain length of time. Or sudden death prevented him. There is information about mysterious killings and disappearances of several of the Doukhobor elders. Is it possible that among them was also the owner of the treasure, found guilty of betraying the faith and executed by his own co-religionists (recall that the authorities were not persecuting anyone who converted to Russian Orthodoxy)?

Of course, if the hoard contained just one coin minted subsequent to 1845 (the final year of Doukhobor settlement in the Milky Waters area), then the theories of A.N. Alexeyev would be substantially disproved, and one would have to conclude that the treasure was buried at an entirely different time by someone other than the Doukhobors.  In this regard, one Terpeniye resident – the coin collector Vladimir T. – has in his collection an 1878 ruble minted during the reign of Alexander II, decades after the Doukhobor expulsion to the Caucasus.  According to Vladimir, he received this coin from the chairman of the rural council who reputedly received it, in turn, from Khomenko.  However, besides this hearsay, there is no further evidence linking the coin to the 1963 hoard; therefore this counter-theory must be treated with skepticism, and it can be said that the evidence tantalizingly suggests that the coin hoard is of Doukhobor origin.  

In sum, in spite of all V. N. Khomenko’s distress, his find served its purpose. And it is precisely owing to his unselfishness and law-abiding character that yet another most fascinating page in the history of our area has been opened.

About the Author

Alexander Anatolyevich Chukhraenko is a native of the former Doukhobor village of Terpeniye in the Melitopol district of Zaporozhye province, Ukraine.  He teaches history at the Terpeniye collegium “Zherelo” and also manages a local school museum.  He is a correspondent with the local newspaper “Melitopolskiye Vedomosty”.  He has researched, compiled and written a vast amount of information about the history of his village and surrounding area.  In 2007, he published the book, “Terpeniye: Pages of History”.  His discoveries are providing rare and invaluable insights into the Doukhobor period of settlement in the Molochnaya region.

For More Information

For more information on Doukhobor archaeological sites on the Molochnaya, see the articles The Doukhobor Monument to Alexander I in Terpeniye and Doukhobor Memorial Stone from the Village of Bogdanovka by Alexander A. Chukhraenko, The Cossack Cross of Spasskoye by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff with Alexander A. Chukhraenko and The Doukhobor Monuments of Efremovka and Rodionovka by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

The Doukhobor Monument to Alexander I in Terpeniye

by Alexander A. Chukhraenko

In 1818, Tsar Alexander I, while on a tour through Russia, visited the Doukhobor village of Terpeniye along the Molochnaya River in Tavria. He stayed overnight in the Sirotsky Dom (Orphan’s Home) and the next day attended a banquet and religious service. The Tsar was impressed by the orderliness and efficiency of the Doukhobor colony. For their part, the Doukhobors held Alexander in the highest esteem as their saviour and benefactor. To commemorate the Tsar’s historic visit, the Doukhobors erected a monument in his honour. The monument stood in the village for a century until Bolshevik agents identified it as “ideologically harmful”. In this Doukhobor Genealogy Website exclusive, local Ukrainian historian Alexander A. Chukhraenko describes the Doukhobor monument to Alexander I, its eventual fate, and its overall significance as one of the oldest historic and cultural monuments of the Doukhobors, and indeed, the whole of the Zaporozhye region. Translated into English from the original Russian by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

Portrait of Alexander I of Russia (1777-1825)

Many historians have noted that Tsar Alexander I was especially inclined towards the Doukhobors and even visited them at their place of settlement. The circumstances of the Imperial visit to the Doukhobors are widely known in the historical literature; indeed, some regional specialists even assert that there was not one, but two, such visits.

The Byelorussian academic N.M. Nikol’sky writes in his book Istoria Russkoi Tserkvi (“History of the Russian Church”) that “when Alexander I went to the Crimea near Molochnye Vody (“Milky Waters”) in 1818, the Doukhobor leadership invited him to their place and provided him lodging for the night (in the village of Terpeniye as it was the Doukhobor capital); there, they arranged a magnificent reception and sang to himthat he образует бытие Бога в России (“forms the being of God in Russia”). It is thought that the Tsar and the Doukhobors were mutually interested in each other: after all, Alexander I was the emperor who halted persecution against the Doukhobors and allocated lands for them to settle on the right bank of the Molochnaya River. Thus the Emperor was interested to meet the Doukhobors, of whom there had been so much discourse, and learn how the sectarians he sponsored had fared in their new place.

The Emperor’s visit to Terpeniye is described in more detail in the article Духоборы – Александру Первому (“To the Doukhobors – Alexander I”) by N.V. Krylov, Candidate of Geographical Sciences and Senior Lecturer, Melitopol Pedagogical University: “In November of 1818, Alexander I left the Crimea for Taganrog. He uses some archival records preserving a description of this visit.

“The Emperor arrived there in a carriage, which stopped at the crest of a ravine overlooking the estate. The inhabitants of the settlement – Doukhobors – were there, and after posting the horses, raised up the Sovereign’s carriage in their arms and brought it into the settlement to the porch of a two-storied house there [Sirotsky Dom]. After exiting the carriage, the Sovereign ascended to the top floor of the house, where a soft bed was prepared for him, which he ordered removed and fresh straw brought in its place.

The Doukhobor monument to Alexander I circa 1915.

“On the second day a breakfast was prepared for the Sovereign under great oak trees, of which two have survived until now [at the end of the 19th century – Krylov]; there, the Sovereign spent a long time talking with the Doukhobors and listening to their singing of psalms.

“In memory of this visit, a brick monument was erected at the site where the Emperor’s breakfast was held.

“In the 1902 archival record, Деле об охранении памятников древности в Таврической губернии (“File about the preservations of antique monuments in Tavria province”) the monument is thus described: it has the form of a quadrangular column, with a height of four arshins (a Russian imperial unit of measure equal to 71.12 centimeters) and a width at the square base of one arshin, with a vase above it.

“The date of the monument’s construction is not identified in the file. However, knowing that the Doukhobors were deported to the Caucasus in the early 1840’s, it is reasonable to presume that it was built in the 1820’s or 1830’s.”

It is possible to assert, writes Krylov, that the Doukhobor monument was the first historic monument built in the Zaporozhye region. However, this has not helped it to survive to the present…

Where is the monument and what is its fate?

According to popular belief, it stood in the central street of the village of Terpeniye near the modern offices of the “Druzhba” agricultural cooperative – a local government building before the Revolution – where there is today a monument to Lenin.

Monument to Lenin in Terpeniye, believed by some to be built from the Doukhobor monument to Alexander I.

The local historian S.K. Gulin stated that after the Revolution, the vase from the pedestal was dumped over, the pedestal was rebuilt, and on it was set up the bust of V.I. Lenin. There are other details as well.

According to the oldest inhabitant of the village, Anna Ivanovna Mezentseva (born 1912), when she was a child, she saw a monument, similar to the one described above, along the fencing of the old church (near the Sirotsky Dom site). Now it is the edge of the roadway connecting the village boarding school with the springs water park. And its far away from the central street – about 200 meters.

However, why speculate when there is a direct reference in the above-noted document that the monument was erected “at the site where the Emperor’s breakfast was held”; that is, under the great oaks. One of them has survived till today.

Therefore, this writer considers that the monument was located somewhere near the famous great Terpeniye oak – in the vicinity of the village kindergarten. Incidentally, the old church was located in the same area – a few tens of meters to the east. In general the first theory (proposed by S.K. Gulin) should be considered fanciful, dictated by the ideological motives of the time.

As we see, the monument to Alexander I is linked to very important events in the history of our village. Much to our regret, it was identified as “ideologically harmful” during the Bolshevik period and destroyed. Today, it could serve as a village ornament and an important historical and cultural tourist attraction. Hence there are valid reasons to restore the monument.

To this end, a description, dimensions and photo are available. The monument itself is not architecturally complex; structurally it resembles a simple memorial monument. It would be very simple to construct and would not require expensive experts and large financial investments. It is necessary only to have the approval of those in authority. But in my opinion, such a restoration of the monument is only viable with the assistance of the Doukhobor community abroad.

About the Author

Alexander Anatolyevich Chukhraenko is a native of the former Doukhobor village of Terpeniye in the Melitopol district of Zaporozhye province, Ukraine.  He teaches history at the Terpeniye collegium “Zherelo” and also manages a local school museum.  He is a correspondent with the local newspaper “Melitopolskiye Vedomosty”.  He has researched, compiled and written a vast amount of information about the history of his village and surrounding area.  In 2007, he published the book, “Terpeniye: Pages of History”.  His discoveries are providing rare and invaluable insights into the Doukhobor period of settlement in the Molochnaya region.

For More Information

For more information on Doukhobor archaeological sites on the Molochnaya, see the articles Doukhobor Memorial Stone from the Village of Bogdanovka and The Mystery of Terpeniye’s Buried Treasure by Alexander A. Chukhraenko, The Cossack Cross of Spasskoye by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff with Alexander A. Chukhraenko and The Doukhobor Monuments of Efremovka and Rodionovka by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.  

Doukhobor Memorial Stone from the Village of Bogdanovka

by Alexander A. Chukhraenko

In 1844, the Doukhobors of Bogdanovka village, in Tavria province, Russia were exiled for their faith to the Caucasus mountain region.  Prior to their expulsion, they erected a stone monument to commemorate their community in what they considered to be the “Promised Land”.  For almost a century, the stone sat in the village, its significance largely forgotten.  In the 1930’s, it was unearthed and brought to the Museum of Local Lore in Melitopol, Zaporozhye, Ukraine where it remains an exhibit to this day.  The following article by local Ukrainian historian, Alexander A. Chukhraenko, outlines the history of the Doukhobor Memorial Stone and its significance as one of the few remaining physical artifacts from the Molochnye Vody period of Doukhobor history.  Translation editing by Jack McIntosh.

Representatives of the sect known as Dukhobortsy (Doukhobors) founded nine settlements in our region, which exist to this day.  They made a large contribution to the development of the local economy and culture, which numerous written historical sources record.  However, concerning material traces of the Doukhobors’ sojourn in the Molochnye Vody (Milky Waters) affairs are much worse.  Practically nothing has been preserved, besides a single, priceless exhibit in the Melitopol Museum of Local Lore: a Doukhobor memorial stone.

Because of the massiveness and great weight of the stone, it is displayed right in the entrance foyer of a museum, at the beginning of the exposition.  Such a position can be considered in some way symbolic because historians connect the arrival of Doukhobors in the Melitopol area with its first colonization by European people.  Until the Doukhobors, the area was inhabited only by Nogaytsi (Nogai Tatars).

Memorial stone engraved by the Doukhobors of Bogdanovka on May 15, 1844 just prior to their exile to the Caucasus.  It is housed at the Museum of Local Lore, Melitopol, Zaporozhye, Ukraine.

Meanwhile, the history of the memorial stone as a museum piece is quite original too, and is closely connected to the tragic fate of the Melitopol local museum and its collections.  During the Second World War, the museum was practically ruined, and its holdings disappeared.  The Doukhobor memorial stone is one of the few exhibits preserved from pre-war times.  Today, it is registered in the inventory book under No. 811.  The column “Date of receipt” reads “old holdings” because the documentation of this exhibit, including the passport, disappeared during the war.  It is only with great effort that I managed to learn that the stone was delivered to the local museum from the village of Bogdanovka (present-day village of Starobogdanovka, Mikhailovsky district), sometime during the 1930’s by then-director of the museum, Illarion Kurilo-Krymchak.  Inhabitants of Starobogdanovka remember nothing about the stone and (an incredible fact!) have no idea that their village was founded by Doukhobors.  This is the consequence of the total censorship under which historical science worked during the Soviet period .

Kurilo-Krymchak is known not only for his positive contributions.  He is also considered responsible for the disappearance of the museum’s collections.  He was the Burgomeister (German occupation term for principal magistrate, comparable to mayor) of Melitopol during the German-fascist occupation and disposed of the museum’s treasures.  After the liberation of Melitopol by Soviet troops, the former Burgomeister disappeared to the Crimea, but was seized in 1947 and shot for collaboration.

Interpretive panel providing a translation of the stone’s text into modern Russian from the exhibit at the Museum of Local Lore, Melitopol, Zaporozhye, Ukraine.

Now, back to the actual exhibit.  The stone plate is a rough oval, almost hexagonal in shape, with a diameter of about 1.2 meters; both of its flat surfaces are carved with poorly distinguishable letters, but the word “Doukhobors” is legible.  Pieces are broken off from the stone’s bottom right and left sides, with the consequence that some words are missing letters.  The stone is made of yellow sandstone, most likely brought from the Kamennaya Mogila (literally “Stone Mound”, a Mesolithic monumentlocated nearby the village of Bogdanovka). The inscription is in the common Russian of the mid-19th century, with borrowings from Church Slavonic that make it difficult to interpret.  It can be read as follows: 

Eternal memory to our upright forebears, named Dukhobortsy; [these] buried ones were saving and saved souls through their meekness, humility and love. It pleased God and Tsar to send us to the promised land in Tavria Province in 1802, and in 1844 to resettle in Transcaucasia. May 15, Bogdanovka.

It is interesting, that in the old museum building, a smaller Doukhobor stone was stored in addition to the larger one.  When and where it disappeared remain mysteries until this day.

About the Author

Alexander Anatolyevich Chukhraenko is a native of the former Doukhobor village of Terpeniye in the Melitopol district of Zaporozhye province, Ukraine.  He teaches history at the Terpeniye collegium “Zherelo” and also manages a local school museum.  He is a correspondent with the local newspaper “Melitopolskiye Vedomosty”.  He has researched, compiled and written a vast amount of information about the history of his village and surrounding area.  In 2007, he published the book, “Terpeniye: Pages of History”.  His discoveries are providing rare and invaluable insights into the Doukhobor period of settlement in the Molochnaya region.

For More Information

For more information on Doukhobor archaeological sites on the Molochnaya, see the articles The Doukhobor Monument to Alexander I in Terpeniye and The Mystery of Terpeniye’s Buried Treasure by Alexander A. Chukhraenko, The Cossack Cross of Spasskoye by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff with Alexander A. Chukhraenko and The Doukhobor Monuments of Efremovka and Rodionovka by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff. 

The Doukhobor Monuments of Efremovka and Rodionovka

by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff

In 1845, the Doukhobors of Efremovka and Rodionovka villages in Tavria province, Russia were exiled for their faith to the Caucasus mountain region. Upon their departure, they erected stone monuments in their villages to commemorate this momentous event. Although the existence of the monuments is documented in two 19th century Russian texts, no trace of them remains today. The following article examines what is known about the Efremovka and Rodionovka monuments, and their significance to the archaeology of the Molochnaya Doukhobors. Translations by Jack McIntosh.

In 2006, a local historian in Zaporiz’ka oblast, Ukraine discovered an ancient stone monument erected by the Doukhobors of Bogdanovka upon their exile from the village in 1844. The find was historically and culturally significant, as it was the only Doukhobor relic of its kind known to have been found anywhere in the Molochnaya region.

Now, a recent study of Russian historical records by the writer reveals not one but two other monuments raised by Doukhobors during the same era. Memorial stones similar to the one at Bogdanovka were left by the Doukhobors of Efremovka and Rodionovka upon their departure from these villages in 1845. This latest discovery sheds new light on the archeology of the Molochnaya Doukhobors.

The existence of the Efremovka and Rodionovka monuments is attested to in two 19th century Russian texts: Mikhail Rodionov’s 1872 work, Statistiko-khronologiko-istoricheskoe opisanie Tavricheskoi eparkhii: obshchii i chastnyi obzor” (Simferopol’: v tipografii S. Spiro, 1872), and Bishop Germogen’s 1887 work, Tavricheskaya Eparkhiya (Pskov: Tipografiya Gubernskago Pravleniya, 1887). Both authors were Orthodox clerics who conducted detailed statistical analyses of the villages, towns and parishes of the Orthodox diocese of Tavria province. In doing so, they compiled a rich collection of invaluable local historical information not recorded anywhere else.

The inscription of the Efremovka monument is preserved in its entirety in both Rodionov’s and Germogen’s texts. The original Russian inscription reads:

“Вечное память родителей праведныхь именованныхь духоборцевь погребенныхь спасали и спасались души своихь кротостью и смиренностью и благоуродно Богу и Государю собрать нась на обетованную землю вь Таврическую губернию вь 1805 году. Вь 1845 году переселены на Кавказь 15 мая изь села Ефремовки Духоборець Б-ий.”

The English translation of the Efremovka memorial inscription may be read as follows:

“Eternal memory of buried upright forebears named Dukhobortsy; they were saving their souls and were saved through meekness and humility, and it pleased God and the Sovereign to gather us to the promised land in Tavria Province in 1805. On May 15, 1845 we were resettled in the Caucasus from the village of Efremovka.

B-iy – a Dukhoborets.”

The Rodionovka memorial inscription is not reproduced in either text; however, Rodionov states that it had the same kind of inscription as the Efremovka monument. The Bogdanovka memorial inscription, reproduced in Germogen, is virtually identical to that of the Efremovka monument, save for references to villages and dates.

As noted by Jack McIntosh, former UBC Slavic languages bibliographer, these inscriptions are shorter versions of the Doukhobor psalm, “Vechnaya pamyat’…” as published in Sbornik dukhoborcheskikh psalmov, stikhov i pesen (Grand Forks: U.S.C.C., 1978) and as engraved on a stone monument that stands at the site of the former Sirotsky Dom in the village of Gorelovka, Georgia. The psalm, orally transmitted over the generations, references significant events in the history of the Doukhobor people.

Interestingly, the name of the Doukhobor who inscribed the Efremovka monument is partially preserved in the 19th century Russian texts. The partial name “B-iy” may refer to any of several Russian men’s names (i.e. Barfoniy, Bonifatiy, etc.) or it may reference the surname of the inscriber (i.e. Barovskiy, Bazilevskiy, Bykovskiy, etc.). It is therefore impossible to ascertain the name of the Doukhobor inscriber.

The sites where the Efremovka and Rodionovka monuments once stood are also identified in the historic texts. Both Rodionov and Germogen note that the monuments were left in the Doukhobor cemeteries in each village. Unfortunately, however, neither cemetery exists today, nor is its location known.

While it is apparent that the Efremovka and Rodionovka monuments still existed at the time Rodionov and Germogen wrote their texts in 1872 and 1887, their subsequent fate is unknown. According to Alexander A. Chukhraenko, discoverer of the Bogdanovka memorial, they are no longer found in these villages, and the present inhabitants have no knowledge or memory of their existence.

It is possible that the Doukhobor memorials have not survived the past century and a half. Perhaps they were destroyed during the wars and revolution that ravaged the region in the twentieth century. Or perhaps the monuments were removed by local inhabitants and reused as building materials. This is certainly known to have occurred with some Tsarist-era monuments. It is also possible that the stone memorials still survive, but have been looted and plundered and now lay in private hands. Or perhaps they fell over and now lay buried under several inches of soil. If this were the case, then they might still await discovery, somewhere below the surface of the villages.

Whatever their fate, the discovery of the existence of the Efremovka and Rodionovka monuments highlights that the archeology of the Molochnaya Doukhobors remains an area ripe for further attention.

For More Information

For more information on Doukhobor archaeological sites on the Molochnaya, see the articles Doukhobor Memorial Stone from the Village of BogdanovkaThe Doukhobor Monument to Alexander I in Terpeniye and The Mystery of Terpeniye’s Buried Treasure by Alexander A. Chukhraenko and The Cossack Cross of Spasskoye by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff with Alexander A. Chukhraenko.  

This article was reproduced by permission in ISKRA No.2026 (Grand Forks: Union of Spiritual Communities in Christ, January 1, 2010).

The Cossack Cross of Spasskoye

by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff with Alexander A. Chukhraenko

In 2007, an ancient cross was discovered in the Spasskoye village cemetery in Zaporiz’ka oblast, Ukraine. Its location, inscribed date and style all confirmed that it marked one of the oldest graves in the cemetery. Even more remarkable, there was compelling evidence to suggest that the grave belonged to a Doukhobor – one of the original residents of the village! Read all of the details of this exciting discovery; follow the step-by-step analysis and interpretation of the research results; and learn about what may be a find of significant historical importance, offering new insights into the burial practices of early Doukhobors. 

An Exciting Discovery

It was early August 2007 when I received Alexander’s rousing e-mail. “I have some exciting news!” he wrote. “I may have located a Doukhobor cemetery at Spasskoye! I will travel next week to see it and shall write to you after and tell you everything about it.”

The larger of two ancient crosses at the Spasskoye village cemetery, Zaporiz’ka oblast, Ukraine.

Alexander Anatolyevich Chukhraenko – my friend and correspondent – is a history teacher in Zaporiz’ka oblast, Ukraine in the village of Terpeniye, founded by the Doukhobors over two centuries ago. An avid local historian, Alexander maintains the school museum and has written a book about the history of his village from earliest times to present. He has acquired a genuine interest in the Doukhobors who originally lived in Terpeniye and surrounding villages until their expulsion to the Caucasus in the 1840’s. Of late, he has documented many of the remaining physical artifacts from the Doukhobor period, and the results of his research have been translated and published on the Doukhobor Genealogy Website.

I was elated with Alexander’s news. Over the past several years, I had led a project to document the Doukhobor cemeteries in Canada, and I had long dreamt of undertaking a similar project in the areas where the Doukhobors had lived in Russia and the Former Soviet Republics. What a tremendous opportunity it would be to locate and record a cemetery dating back to the Molochnaya! Such a find might yield information of immense historical and genealogical importance to Doukhobors today.

Virtually nothing is known about the burial practices of the Molochnaya Doukhobors. Did they mark their graves with headstones and monuments as their Orthodox neighbours did? Or did they take a more ascetic approach and lay their dead to rest, without ceremony, in unmarked graves, returning them to the bosom of the earth from whence they came? Did their burial sites still exist? Where were they located? And in what condition?

According to one historical account, when Peter “Lordly” Verigin and his entourage visited the Molochnaya during a trip from Canada to Russia in 1907, they found the Doukhobor cemeteries there in an abandoned state. When asked by the local Orthodox peasants what they should do with them, the practical-minded Doukhobor leader advised them to plant orchards in those places. A century later, when I had first inquired with Alexander about Molochnaya Doukhobor cemeteries, he indicated that there was nothing left to attest to their existence in the villages he had visited. Hence, I had little reason to believe that there were any cemeteries left to find.

Now, it seemed that a Doukhobor cemetery, or a portion thereof, might have survived in at least one of the nine villages they had founded on the Molochnaya. Perhaps I would find answers to my questions after all. I hastily typed an email response to Alexander. “This is very exciting!” I wrote. “I can’t wait to hear more about it from you!” I pressed <send> and anxiously waited for his response.

Visiting the Site

In the meantime, in Zaporiz’ka, Ukraine, Alexander was busily making arrangements to investigate the cemetery. He had contacted Galina Zherely, the schoolteacher in the village of Spasskoye who first reported that there were ancient headstones in their rural cemetery that must surely be “Doukhobor”. She agreed to meet and show him the place.

(l-r) Alexander Chukhraenko, Vladimir Gritsenko and Alexander Zherely behind the small cross at the Spasskoye village cemetery.

At the end of August, he, accompanied by his relative Vladimir Gritsenko, a pediatric doctor from Melitopol and Artyom Stikhin, an eleventh-grade student from the Terpeniye collegium interested in local history, travelled by car to Spasskoye.

Today, Spasskoye is a moderately-sized agricultural village located twenty kilometres north of the regional centre of Melitopol. It consists of 842 people living in 300 households. It was founded in 1802 by Doukhobors who settled there from across the Russian Empire. They established a thriving agricultural village until their banishment under Tsar Nicholas I in 1842-1843. Thereafter, the village was reoccupied by Ukrainian and Russian Orthodox peasants. Like other villages, it had witnessed the modernization, reforms and social change of the late nineteenth century, weathered the wars, revolution and communism of the twentieth, and was now forging onward into the twenty-first.

When Alexander’s research team arrived in Spasskoye, they were disappointed to find out that their local contact, Galina Zherely, was not at home. Fortunately, her husband, Alexander Vasilyevich Zherely, good-naturedly agreed to accompany them to the cemetery located at the far edge of their backyard garden.

Ambling down the garden path to the cemetery, Alexander Vasilyevich led them to the oldest section of the cemetery, the north end, where there were many graves dating from the nineteenth century. Interestingly, this section also contained a kurgan – an ancient burial mound dating back over a thousand years to the Scythians.

Alexander Vasilyevich showed them the oldest graves in the north section – the so-called “Doukhobor” graves. Disappointingly, there were only two such headstones – a small one near the kurgan, and a second, larger one fifty meters to the south. They were ancient-looking, with badly-worn inscriptions that could scarcely be made out.

With great care for detail, Alexander Anatolyevich and his companions documented the inscriptions, measured the markers and photographed them. It was evident that the larger of the two headstones did not stand in its original place. The smaller one near the kurgan had to be partially dug out in order to be read. Once they had completed their fieldwork, the party thanked their host and prepared to return to their native village of Terpeniye.

A peculiar incident occurred just prior to their departure. Alexander Vasilyevich, learning of Alexander Anatolyevich’s interest in history, cheerfully gave him an anti-tank shell as a memento; it was a remnant of the munitions from a nearby artillery warehouse that had rocked Spasskoye in a series of powerful explosions in 2004-2006. Alexander Anatolyevich graciously, if somewhat uneasily, accepted it. It appeared to still be live and capable of exploding at any time! The true dilemma of this ‘gift’ only became apparent afterwards, as its new owner struggled to decide where to keep it. To bring it to the museum at Terpeniye was far too dangerous; on the other hand to hand it over to the Ukrainian authorities would only invite unnecessary and unwelcome questioning. To date, Alexander is still unsure what to do with it…

The anti-tank shell – a dangerous memento from Alexander’s fieldtrip to Spasskoye – at his home in Terpeniye.

Preliminary Results

Several days later, I received Alexander’s email with the results of his investigation. “Now about Spasskoye…” he wrote. “Recently I visited the village together with my relative and a pupil. I am afraid that I cannot please you with news of any sensational finds. It appears that the history teacher at Spasskoye gave me incomplete information. Really, there are only two ancient grave monuments in the cemetery; and it is not at all clear that they are Doukhobor. I’m sending photos of them to you. You can study them and draw conclusions yourself.”

My heart sank at this discouraging news. My hope of finding an intact Doukhobor cemetery on the Molochnaya, dating back two hundred years, complete with headstones inscribed with names and dates had seemed too good to be true. Still, I consoled myself, it was a historical lead that needed to be followed up on, and had been. I knew from my own historical fieldwork on the Doukhobors that not all leads yield the hoped-for results. Reconciled in this knowledge, I read on as Alexander physically described the monuments.

“Both monuments are cross-shaped,” Alexander noted. “The material that was used was evidently limestone from the vicinity of Terpeniye, where it is found in great abundance. Both monuments are inscribed on one side only.”

Large Cross Inscription

On the large cross, which measured over ninety centimeters high, it was possible to decipher the following Russian inscription: Раб Бож., Никифор Шуш, 1809-1888 (“the Christian, Nikifor Shush, 1809-1888”).

I paused to consider this inscription. The dates “1809” and “1888” were clearly the dates of birth and death, respectively. While the date of birth occurred within the Doukhobor period of settlement, the date of death occurred forty-five years after the Doukhobors had left Spasskoye. Based on these dates, Nikifor Shush was either a Doukhobor who had converted to Orthodoxy in 1842-1843 in order to remain on the Molochnaya rather than follow his brethren into Caucasian exile, or else he was an Orthodox peasant who settled in Spasskoye from elsewhere after the Doukhobors were deported. In either case, the Doukhobors had long since left Spasskoye by the time he died and was buried there.

The answer to this question lay in the name. The Ukrainian surname Shush was not one that I had come across in my study of the Molochnaya Doukhobors. It did not appear in any of the nineteenth century Russian archival records I had acquired about the Doukhobors living on the Molochnaya in the 1840’s – either those exiled to the Caucasus or those who remained as Orthodox converts.

Therefore, based on the late date of death and unfamiliar name contained in the inscription, I concluded that Nikifor Shush was an Orthodox peasant from one of the Ukrainian provinces of the Russian Empire who, as a man in his thirties, resettled in Spasskoye following the Doukhobor expulsion.

Large cross at Spasskoye village cemetery belonging to Nikifor Shush (1809-1888).

Small Cross Inscription

Having dismissed the first headstone as having no Doukhobor connection, I next turned my attention to Alexander’s description of the smaller cross, which measured about thirty centimeters high. “On the small cross – at the top is located numerous illegible markings,” observed Alexander. “Further down, however, it reads in Russian: 1816 Оля [Оая] 26 (“1816 Olya [or Oaya] 26”).” Deciphering this second inscription would prove to be considerably more challenging than the first.

Deciphering the Inscription

First, the decipherment of the term “Oaya” was problematic as this term did not exist in any modern or historic Russian or Ukrainian dictionary. The alternate decipherment, “Olya” on the other hand, was recognizable as a diminutive form of any of several Russian names, including Alexander, Olga, etc. It was also possible that “Olya” was a surname. But in either case, why was it inscribed between the numbers “1816” and “26”?

The numerical inscriptions also gave me pause for thought. Unlike the larger cross, there was only one recognizable date here – 1816. This date clearly occurred within the period of Doukhobor settlement, which was promising. But what did it mean? Was it a birth date? A date of death? Some other reference? And what did the number ’26” mean? Was it an age?

I considered these possibilities further. If 1816 was the date of death and 26 the age at death, then the person – this “Olya” – would have been born in 1790. This would have placed Olya squarely within the Doukhobor period. It would be tempting, based on this, to conclude that Olya was a Doukhobor who lived and died in Spasskoye, as it was prohibited for Orthodox Russians to live among the Doukhobors settled there.

On the other hand, I also had to consider the possibility that 1816 was the date of birth and 26 the age at death, in which case, “Olya” would have died in 1842. This created an interesting issue, as archival records reveal that the Doukhobors were banished from Spasskoye in precisely the years 1842-1843. Therefore, if “Olya” died in 1842, he or she might have been a Doukhobor, but could just as easily have been an Orthodox peasant who, like Nikifor Shush above, resettled the village even as the Doukhobors were departing.

As I considered these two possible interpretations of the decipherment, I wondered why someone, in 1816 or 1842, as the case may be, would have undertaken the considerable time and expense to have a headstone cut and inscribed with a first name – but no last name, or vice-versa. And what was the relationship between the number 26 and the date 1816? Was there a further inscription on the cross that might explain this?

I re-examined the digital photo of the cross that Alexander had sent me. Sure enough, there were signs of an upper inscription which was badly worn. It was this portion of the cross which had remained exposed to the elements all these many years. This had taken its toll on the upper inscription, rendering it largely indecipherable aside from a few letters. In contrast, the lower inscription (“1816 Olya [or Oaya] 26”) had been buried for some time, leaving it much better preserved. Lower still, the face of the cross was blank with no evidence of an inscription. Despite my efforts to digitally magnify and enhance the photo, I could not make out anything else besides the lower inscription, as Alexander had prior.

Negative image of the small cross at Spasskoye village cemetery. Note the upper inscription (letters) followed by the lower date inscription below.

In a last-ditch effort, I digitally created a negative image of the photo, reversing the colour spectrum to reveal details not visible to the naked eye under ordinary viewing. As I studied the inscription from this perspective, I caught something which Alexander and I hadn’t previously. What we had previously deciphered as “Oaya” or “Olya” was in fact Юля (“Iyulya”) meaning “July” in Russian. Suddenly the oddly-structured inscription made complete sense! It was not a year, followed by a first or last name, and then an age. Rather, it was a full date – 1816 July 26. One piece of the puzzle had fallen into place!

I re-examined the badly-worn upper inscription, hoping that the negative imaging might reveal its secrets to me, but to no avail; it was simply too badly deteriorated. What I was able to reasonably conclude was that this upper inscription – based on its placement and size – did not contain a full date like the lower inscription. Indeed, it did not appear to contain numbers at all – only letters. Their arrangement suggested that they formed no more than two words; likely a name.

Interpreting the Inscription

What, then, could I conclude from the inscriptions on the small cross? For one thing, there were only two inscription lines. The upper inscription, while largely indecipherable, contained letters and was probably a name. The lower inscription contained a full date – the only one on the cross. But was it the date of birth or the date of death? Most historians and genealogists presume that when a single date appears on a headstone, it is the latter. I had no reason to dispute this presumption.

Practically speaking, it would have made little sense for someone to undertake the significant time and expense to have a headstone cut and inscribed with a date of birth only. After all, there would be no point of reference as to the date of death. It would be impossible to know from the headstone whether the person died at age 2 in 1818, age 22 in 1834, or, indeed, age 102 in 1918! A date of death, on the other hand, provided a definite reference point. It was a date that would have been known at the time the headstone was made, even if the deceased’s age or date of birth were not.

This interpretation of the inscriptions was enormously significant, as it led me to deduce that while we did not know the name of the person to whom the cross belonged, that person most probably died during the Doukhobor period of settlement. And since Spasskoye and surrounding villages were occupied exclusively by the Doukhobors – it was prohibited for Orthodox peasants to live among them – then this person was, in all probability, a Doukhobor!

I anxiously emailed Alexander my interpretation of the inscriptions on the two crosses. A day or two later, I received his reply. Alexander wholly agreed with my analysis, namely that the larger cross could not be Doukhobor while the smaller cross could be placed squarely within the Doukhobor period. He also pondered whether the smaller cross might have belonged to an infant who died at birth, as this would also explain why there was only one date.

A Cossack Cross

At this point, Alexander made another remarkable observation in his email. “Today we were on an excursion to the island of Khortitsa in Zaporozhye where there is a museum of Ukrainian Cossack history.” he wrote. “In the museum there were several examples of Cossack grave crosses. Many were of the Maltese type, similar to the small cross from Spasskoye. I would guess, therefore, that the person to whom the cross belonged was a Cossack who arrived in Spasskoye during the Doukhobor period.”

The small Cossack cross at Spasskoye village cemetery.

I pondered Alexander’s latest news. Until now, I hadn’t made the connection between the small cross from Spasskoye and the Maltese style of cross, known in Imperial Russia as the Cossack cross. Upon further study, I learned that headstones of this type were predominantly used by Cossacks in the service of the Russian Empire. They were not typically found among the graves of ordinary Russian and Ukrainian peasants. But if the small cross at Spasskoye had belonged to a Cossack, how did this mesh with my theory that the person was a Doukhobor?

Once again, the answer lay in the nineteenth century Russian archival records I had. The Molochnaya-era records revealed that the village of Spasskoye was founded in 1802 primarily by Doukhobors from Sloboda-Ukraine (Kharkov) and Ekaterinoslav (Dnepropetrovsk) provinces. Many of these settlers had belonged to the peasant class; however a significant number were Ukrainian Cossacks. As well, between 1810 and 1821, additional groups of Don Cossack and Kuban Cossack Doukhobors had settled in the village. Thus, there were a considerable number of Cossack Doukhobors living in Spasskoye at the time the cross was presumably made in 1816.

Rather than disprove the theory that the small cross belonged to a Doukhobor, the news that it was a Cossack cross lent further support to it. Given the demographic makeup of Spasskoye in the Doukhobor period, it could easily have belonged to a Doukhobor of Cossack origin. The Cossack tradition also served to explain why a Doukhobor would have had a cross-shaped headstone, since religious imagery was rare among them.

It should be noted that the cross belonging to Nikifor Shush was of a broadly similar style, however, it was much larger and longer, and had finer and more intricately detailed features. The small cross, in contrast, was more crudely made. That, and its more weathered appearance, suggested it was considerably older than the large cross.

Cross Location

Having studied the cross dimensions, style and inscriptions, I next turned my attention to its location. According to Alexander, the graves in the Spasskoye cemetery were arranged with the oldest located in the north section, and progressively newer graves located to the south. The most modern graves did not follow any pattern and were interspersed throughout. The Cossack cross, in particular, was located at the north edge of the cemetery near the kurgan. There was fifty meters of empty space between it and the next-oldest headstones to the south, such as that of Nikifor Shush, which dated from the later nineteenth century.

Based on its location at the north edge, it was clear that the Cossack cross marked one of the oldest graves in the cemetery. Moreover, Alexander was confident that he had found it in its original place. This, and the considerable distance between it and the later nineteenth century headstones, definitely supported the Doukhobor theory. Had the cross been found among those graves, the theory would be cast into doubt.

It also suggested that the area around the Cossack cross formed part of the original Doukhobor cemetery. Its original size and boundaries were unknown. However, it appeared that the Orthodox cemetery was subsequently established on land adjacent to the south of it. The empty space between the Cossack cross and the later nineteenth century headstones, then, may have been the dividing line between the Doukhobor and Orthodox sections of the cemetery. It might also contain unmarked Doukhobor burials.

Other Doukhobor Headstones

By now, only one question remained in my mind about the Cossack cross. If all the evidence pointed to it belonging to a Doukhobor – and there was no evidence to the contrary – then why was it the only one? The complete absence of other Doukhobor headstones was puzzling. I considered several explanations for this apparent paradox.

It was possible that other Doukhobor graves originally had headstones but that they had not survived the past two centuries. Perhaps they were destroyed during the wars and revolution that ravaged the region in the twentieth century. It is known, for instance, that many cemeteries were devastated by German troops during the Second World War. Others were destroyed by Soviet authorities for political reasons. Or perhaps the headstones were removed over the years and reused as building materials. This is also known to have occurred in some Tsarist-era cemeteries. If the headstones were made of limestone, then perhaps they simply weathered and disintegrated over time, as was common. And if they were made of wood, they would have rotted and disappeared after only a few decades.

It was also possible that other Doukhobor headstones had survived, but had fallen over and now lay buried under several inches of soil. The Cossack cross, after all, had been partially buried. If this were the case, then some Doukhobor headstones might still await discovery just below the surface of the Spasskoye cemetery.

Another distinct possibility was that the Doukhobors on the Molochnaya did not typically use headstones to mark their graves. It would have been in keeping with their simple, egalitarian faith to reject vain and superfluous memorials to the dead. If this was the case, then the Cossack cross was atypical of Molochnaya Doukhobor burial practices. Why then was it made? Perhaps it marked the grave of a Doukhobor of great status and wealth. Or perhaps it belonged to a Doukhobor, a recent arrival to the Molochnaya, who had adhered to the traditional Orthodox custom of marking graves.

Whatever the explanation, the fact remained that no other Doukhobor headstones or markers have been discovered on the Molochnaya. For this reason, the Cossack cross of Spasskoye might well be unique.


Did the Cossack cross of Spasskoye belong to a Doukhobor? It was impossible to prove conclusively. However, there was compelling evidence to suggest that it did, based on its relative location, single inscribed date, style and appearance. Had there been an inscription bearing a name or second date, its provenance might have been established with some certainty. However, in the absence of any contrary evidence, it was tempting to consider a Doukhobor connection, and to speculate on what other Doukhobor archeological artifacts might still await discovery at Spasskoye.

For More Information

For more information on Doukhobor archaeological sites on the Molochnaya, see the articles Doukhobor Memorial Stone from the Village of BogdanovkaThe Doukhobor Monument to Alexander I in Terpeniye and The Mystery of Terpeniye’s Buried Treasure by Alexander A. Chukhraenko and The Doukhobor Monuments of Efremovka and Rodionovka by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.