The cult that buried itself alive

Russian Raskolniki, or "Old Believers"

In 1896, a shocking tragedy took place in Russia that is little remembered today. It occurred in Liman, about twenty-eight miles from Tiraspol in the province of Kherson in modern-day Ukraine. At the time Liman was a small village, occupied primarily by members of a strange hermitlike religious cult who believed that salvation could only be obtained through the act of being buried alive. The leader of this bizarre cult convinced believers that the end of world would take place on January 1, 1897, when a great comet would destroy every trace of life on the planet.

On January 21, 1897, a census taker for the government visited the village and sensed that something wasn't quite right. Knocking on the door of the hermitage the census taker received no answer, but could distinguish faint voices coming from behind the door. Finally, though an opening, one of the voices told the visitor to leave. Outraged by this act of insubordination, the census taker returned to the hermitage with police, who arrested two families-- the Kowalews and the Fomins-- who were living inside the monastery. They were taken to the town hall.

The two families were jailed for their insubordination but once behind bars, they refused to eat or drink. During this time, word spread that 17 hermits, fearing the approach of the cursed comet, had fled from Liman and sought refuge in Romania. Russian authorities, determined to track down the hermits, were unable to find any trace of them. It was then that Fedon Kowalew, one of the men arrested, informed his captors that he had buried nine members of the cult-- alive.

"They longed for the crown of martyrdom," he explained, "and I could not refuse to comply with their wishes. If they had asked me to kill them I would have done so."

Not sure what to make of the prisoner's confession, authorities went to the hermitage to investigate the matter. The unfortunate cult members had indeed been buried alive in a pit at the bottom of a deep dirt cellar, and when Russian authorities unearthed the strange grave a ghastly sight presented itself-- a heap of mouldering corpses with agony of death etched upon their faces.

The Wilkes-Barre Semi-Weekly Record described the gruesome sight:

Corpses, corpses everywhere; corpses of young men, of old men, even of little children. Kowalew admitted he had buried nine persons, but there were far more than nine corpses in this hole. At first the rumor was that seventeen had been buried alive, but it is doubtful if the exact number will ever be known.

According to reports, a young member of the cult boasted that several "martyrs" had gone to the grave on December 23, 1896, but that they were not buried on hermitage grounds, leading many to wonder just how many deaths were linked to the religious fanatics. A 24-year-old cult member was questioned and admitted that he had dug the grave in which he later buried his wife and two children-- while they were still alive. Soon, reports of other horrors spread throughout Crimea.

A second cellar graveyard was found in Kowalew's home, along with the remains of 8 religious fanatics. Among the dead were Kowalew's mother, brother and sister. Partial remains, unidentified, indicated an unknown number of additional victims, or "martyrs". Four more bodies were found in the garden of Matvel Sukula, Kowalew's neighbor.

It was later learned that the leader of this strange sect was a Raskolniki, whose family had been persecuted over two centuries by the Russian crown. As a result of this ongoing persecution, the family became radicalized; they made up a creed, the chief doctrine being that salvation could only come through self-immolation.

Today, the Raskolniki is a name given to any member of a religious sect founded by dissenters who broke away from the Russian Orthodox church during the mid-17th century. By the 18th century, most of these religious zealots-- still referred to as "Old Believers"-- had gone underground due to Russian persecution. Among these underground religious sects were the strange hermits who buried themselves alive during the winter of 1896.

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