In the mid-1600s, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Nixon, introduced a number of revisions to church practice and beliefs in hopes that he could unify Russian and Greek Orthodoxy. These changes were minor in the grand scheme of things and were considered to be clerical errors on account of poor translations from the original Slavic texts. Not everyone saw things that way, and in making these minor changes in church rituals Nixon spawned dissenters.
Known as the “Old Believers” or the Raskolniki, they believed that Nixon, as well as the Russian dynasty, were the Antichrist. The Old Believers would go on to form several groups, most believing not only that Russia had been under the rule of the Antichrist, but that doomsday was coming. Persecution against these groups did little to help matters.
The ideas held by the Old Believers would go on to merge with larger issues of social dissent and would spawn a movement of spiritual and political discord. Harsh punishments against those found practicing the old ways of the church would be imposed and many were tortured to death or forced into exile.
This setting would set the stage for several doomsday cults to sprout up, but there had been one particular cult that would rock the entire movement.
Living in a small town in modern-day Ukraine, a group of Raskolniki hermits believed that the quickest way to salvation was mass suicide. Their practices were first learned of in 1897, when a government census taker reported to the village. The census taker knocked on the door of one home, but no one answered. Knocking again, the census taker heard the distinct sound of muffled voices from within, but still there was no answer.
Outraged that the home’s inhabitants had refused to allow him entry, the census taker went to the closest police station and demanded to have the homeowners arrested. Two families were taken into custody for obstructing a government official.
While in custody, the Raskolnikis went on a hunger strike. Some of the group who had not been arrested were believed to have sought refuge in Romania. Word of this traveled back to Russian authorities who demanded that these exiles be tracked down. One of the men in custody, Fedon Kowalew, informed them that their efforts would be of little use and that these dissenters were likely dead.
Kowalew told authorities that he had personally buried nine of them alive. Unsure what to make of this confession, officials returned to the town to investigate Kowalew’s claims further. Inside of a dirt cellar, multiple corpses of men, women, and even young children were unearthed.
According to Kowalew, these unfortunate souls had longed for the “crown of martyrdom” and he was not permitted to refuse to their request. Though Kowalew only admitted to burying nine members of the mysterious group, at least 17 bodies were reported to have been found.
Additional bodies would be found in mass graves around the area, including Kowalew’s own wife and children. All of the people who could be identified were found with a contorted look of terror on their face, while others were only partial remains.
Word of the cult spread throughout the region, making its way back to the empress Catherine the Great. Horrified by this discovery, Catherine declared that the Raskolnikis, considered by the Crown to be dangerous heretics, would be protected. Biographer Henri Troya wrote that even coming under her personal protection would be of little use.
“… But they had taken a liking to collective suicide. They continued to give themselves up to the flames, no longer in order to escape justice but in order to enter the Kingdom of God as quickly as possible. A ukase was promulgated authorizing the Raskolniki to live according to their beliefs. They felt no gratitude to the empress. Making it easier for them to exercise their faith would only diminish their mystic zeal, they thought. The paths that led to Heaven must be paths of suffering. Tolerance which softened souls, was a snare of the Devil.”
Most of these Old Believers practiced in secret and it is unclear how many other groups may have participated in mass suicide, but it is known that the Raskolniki carried on. In 1971, the church formally apologized to the known remaining sects of Old Believers and restoration efforts of Raskolniki churches were planned. While their numbers are small, modern communities have been discovered all over the world including China, Siberia, Austrailia, and even in the United States.