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.