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.