A hor­ror story from the Cos­sack Het­manate

The crimes and ex­e­cu­tion of Pavlo Mat­sa­pura’s gang that in­spired an 18th-cen­tury word for vil­lain

The Ukrainian Week - - HISTORY - Yaroslav Hyrych

Peter the Great’s re­ac­tion to Ivan Mazepa’s geopo­lit­i­cal turn to­wards Swe­den in 1708 was the plun­der­ing of Batu­ryn, the cap­i­tal of the Cos­sack Het­manate. The het­man’s res­i­dence moved to Hlukhiv, a town in Sumy Re­gion, to be staffed with peo­ple au­tho­rized by St. Peters­burg. Cen­tral govern­ment bod­ies of the left-bank Ukraine, in­clud­ing courts, ad­min­is­tra­tive and mil­i­tary au­thor­i­ties, moved to this bor­der­line town as well.

Courts tend to be a re­flec­tion of so­ci­ety at all times, their ar­chives of­ten help­ing his­to­ri­ans un­der­stand daily life and so­cial de­vi­a­tions of the pe­riod they re­search. The most wide­spread cases set­tled in Ukraine’s courts of that time in­cluded con­flicts over land, fam­ily, daily mat­ters, thefts, as well as over ac­cu­sa­tions of witch­craft or magic. In 1740, how­ever, the new cap­i­tal of the Cos­sack Het­manate saw a process that star­tled the na­tion: the cen­tral court in Hlukhiv is­sued a death sen­tence and ex­e­cuted Pavlo Mishchenko, bet­ter known as Mat­sa­pura, one of the most cruel ma­ni­acs of the 18th cen­tury.

The case started with a let­ter the Gen­eral Mil­i­tary Court in Hlukhiv re­ceived from the chan­cellery of Lubny, to­day’s Poltava Re­gion, in the sum­mer of 1740. The let­ter said that the town’s au­thor­i­ties were afraid to ex­e­cute four crim­i­nals and asked the higher author­ity to deal with this. There was no het­man in Hlukhiv in 1740 while the Za­por­izhzhian Army was com­manded by the Het­man Govern­ment Com­mand, a col­le­gial body com­prised of three Rus­sians and three Ukraini­ans. The cen­tral au­thor­i­ties, in­clud­ing the Gen­eral Mil­i­tary Chan­cellery and the Gen­eral Court, thus had to is­sue the fi­nal verdict in the high-pro­file case. What was the ad­min­is­tra­tion in Lubny so afraid of?

Of­fi­cially, the Lubny au­thor­i­ties said that they could not en­sure proper guard for the pris­on­ers as their se­cu­rity staff was busy with a har­vest­ing cam­paign. With­out proper se­cu­rity, the hor­ri­fy­ing crimes com­mit­ted by the in­mates could have pro­voked ri­ots in the town and led to street jus­tice. A de­ci­sion was taken to send the con­victs to Hlukhiv with­out de­lay.


Pavlo Shulzhenko was the lead vil­lain. Bet­ter known as Mat­sa­pura, this ban­dit was orig­i­nally from Kolis­nyky, a vil­lage in Pry­luky re­gion su­per­vised by the Pry­luky Gar­ri­son. Shulzhenko did not have a fam­ily and of­ten won­dered to other vil­lages look­ing for work. A file from the 1740 case de­scribed Pavlo’s ap­pear­ance: “tall, with light brown hair, grey eyes, long nose, shaved beard, wide shoul­dered, with traces of flog­ging.”

The old­est mem­ber of the gang was Mykhailo Mishchenko oth­er­wise known as The Great. He was about 40 years old. Orig­i­nally from the vil­lage of Ru­di­vka un­der Pry­luky Gar­ri­son, he was a wid­ower.

The gang en­rolled two young men – Yakym Piv­nenko, 20, and

An­driy Pashchenko, 15. All four came from bro­ken fam­i­lies and had no sta­ble in­come, so they were forced to work for other landown­ers. Piv­nenko was an or­phan, while Mat­sa­pura, Mishchenko and Pashchenko missed one of the par­ents.

Pavlo Shulzhenko-Mat­sa­pura, the gang’s leader and mas­ter­mind, be­gan his crim­i­nal ca­reer with small theft and horse theft. He served his first term in the Pry­luky Gar­ri­son jail af­ter reach­ing for the prop­erty of flag sergeant Do­moratsky, a low-level com­mand po­si­tion in the Cos­sack mil­i­tary hi­er­ar­chy. That’s where Mat­sa­pura was flogged and re­leased af­ter the horses he had stolen were found. He then moved to the ham­let of Kan­takuzivka in Pereyaslav area and car­ried on with his usual horse theft and petty theft for an­other three years. He ended up in jail in 1738 again af­ter steal­ing from An­driy Hor­lenko, an of­fi­cer in Sta­sivshchyna ham­let near Pry­luky: Mat­sa­pura was caught for steal­ing four horses from this high of­fi­cial and jailed at the Pry­luky Gar­ri­son Jail.

Re­leased af­ter a year in prison, Shulzhenko re­turned to his usual craft while grow­ing cru­eler. In Au­gust 1739, he and his com­pan­ion killed ho­rilka traders around the vil­lage of Losynivka near Nizhyn, steal­ing nearly one ton of the booze and hid­ing the bod­ies in the reeds.

At the end of Novem­ber 1739, Mat­sa­pura was caught again and jailed at the Pry­luky Prison, a usual des­ti­na­tion for a se­ri­ous crim­i­nal. But the in­ves­ti­ga­tors failed to prove his mur­ders. For the theft he was as­signed to some spe­cial “com­mu­nity work” which none of the in­mates were will­ing to do: he be­came an ex­e­cu­tioner at the Pry­luky Prison. Mat­sa­pura served about three months in that ca­pac­ity be­fore es­cap­ing in Fe­bru­ary 1740 to join six com­pan­ions in a gang that went to plun­der and steal horses around the ham­let of Ro­manykha.

The first vic­tims of the new gang were ho­rilka traders: three out of ten man­aged to flee dur­ing one at­tack while seven were killed and buried in the snow. The vil­lains then went home to hide their traces. Shulzhenko stayed in Ro­manykha un­til Easter on April 6, 1740, then moved to the vil­lage owned by Count Tol­stykh near Pyr­i­atyn. Shortly be­fore, some new lo­cal ban­dits had joined his gang.

Their names were even­tu­ally es­tab­lished thanks to the tes­ti­mony of some crim­i­nals: Ivan Chornyi, Panas Piven, Ivan Kochubei and shep­herd Pavlo. Four more from around Za­por­izhzhia Host, in­clud­ing Ivan Taran, Mykhailo Makarenko, Denys Hryt­senko and Martyn Revyt­skyi, joined their ranks soon – pos­si­bly haidamaky, the im­pov­er­ished rebels of the right-bank Ukraine. Revyt­skyi’s brother Va­syl also joined the gang. Un­like his col­leagues, he knew how to write and read. The crim­i­nals were rack­e­teer­ing the lo­cals in Tol­stykh’s vil­lage us­ing burn­ing sticks to tor­ture their vic­tims.


Af­ter the in­flow of new mem­bers, the gang moved to Telepen, a Scythian kur­gan, a burial mound tow­er­ing over Lemeshivka, a vil­lage on the Hnyla Orzhyt­sia river at the in­ter­sec­tion of Ch­erni­hiv, Poltava and Kyiv re­gions. Once the ban­dits set­tled down, they be­gan to ter­ror­ize the sur­round­ing area. First, they killed three mer­chants who stayed for the night near the vil­lage of Mokiyivka. Two oth­ers were luck­ier: they paid for their lives with vir­tu­ally all the mer­chan­dise, in­clud­ing about 1,700 liters of ho­rilka and as many goods. The ban­dits sold ho­rilka through trusted pubs and stolen horses at the mar­kets. They hid the jew­elry and spent part of the money on booze.

Apart from that, Mat­sa­pura’s gang killed wit­nesses. Near the vil­lage of Biloshapky, the vil­lains killed a shep­herd who rec­og­nized their leader as they re­turned from one of their raids. A sim­i­lar mur­der took place near the vil­lage of Zhurivka where they beat two shep­herds to death so that they wouldn’t re­port on the gang’s crimes.

More was com­ing. Soon enough the ban­dits kid­napped, raped and killed a woman from Zhurivka, then three more women. At one point, they even killed a preg­nant woman near the vil­lage of An­driyivka. One of the ban­dits, Ivan Taran, sug­gested us­ing the em­bryo for “magic”, so he cut it out and put it in his bag to later use in a hor­ri­fy­ing rit­ual. They raped and killed an­other woman on the way close to the Valkivka vil­lage – Ivan cut the vic­tim’s feet and put it in his bag, too.

That sadism cli­maxed with a magic rit­ual at Telepen: each of the 16 ban­dits had to toss and catch the heart Ivan cut out from the em­bryo. He said that who­ever man­aged to do that would avoid any pun­ish­ment for their crimes. The gang com­pleted the bloody rit­ual and ate the heart and the body of the un­born girl.

The next day the young mem­bers of the gang, Piv­nenko and Pashchenko, caught a woman and cut her breasts out – she bled to death in an at­tempt to es­cape. A few days later, a girl was caught near Telepen – each of the 16 sadists took part in a gang rape. They then cut her feet off and buried her body. One of them ad­mit­ted at an in­ter­ro­ga­tion that they com­mit­ted an­other act of can­ni­bal­ism af­ter that by eat­ing body parts of their vic­tims.

At the end of May, Mat­sa­pura left most of his al­lies at Telepen and moved to the vil­lage of Mykhailivka in Poltava Re­gion to join an old ac­quain­tance, Klym Za­porozhets. They killed two traders near Mokiyivka and stole their ho­rilka. Af­ter that the two gangs joined forces and moved to­wards Lubny. As they ap­proached Kruh­lyk, a town on the way, they at­tacked two mer­chants. One es­caped while the other one was mur­dered.

Ob­vi­ously, they could not have con­tin­ued these mas­sacres for much longer. For al­most three months, the vil­lains kept the whole Poltava area ter­ri­fied. Even­tu­ally, the au­thor­i­ties had to do some­thing.

In May 1740, the Gar­ri­son Ad­min­is­tra­tion in Pyr­i­atyn re­ceived a com­plaint from the res­i­dents of Smotryky, a small vil­lage in the area, re­port­ing that a gang of ban­dits was ter­ror­iz­ing the neigh­bor­hood. The lo­cal mil­i­tary squadron com­man­der Dorosh Bozhko per­son­ally hunted down and caught three of the gang, in­clud­ing Mishchenko, Piv­nenko and Pashchenko. Ivan Kucherevskiy, the mas­ter of sta­bles for Gen­eral Trea­surer An­driy Markovych, caught the gang leader, Mat­sa­pura him­self, for a petty theft. They were all ar­rested and im­me­di­ately sent from Pyr­i­atyn to Lubny where gar­ri­son au­thor­i­ties con­ducted an in­ves­ti­ga­tion and de­liv­ered ver­dicts on July 24, 1740: for mur­ders and can­ni­bal­ism the four crim­i­nals would be ex­e­cuted by “pulling their ribs out with hot tongs, horse-draw­ing and break­ing wheel.”

Given how scan­dalous the case was, the Lubny Chan­cellery soon asked higher au­thor­i­ties in Hlukhiv, the Het­manate’s cap­i­tal, to take over the in­mates and ex­e­cute the verdict. On Au­gust 3, 1740, the Gen­eral Mil­i­tary Chan­cellery ap­proved the re­quest. The Het­manate’s cen­tral govern­ment body took over the case and or­dered a trans­fer of the crim­i­nals to Hlukhiv Gar­ri­son Prison. They spent Au­gust in­ter­ro­gat­ing the in­mates with tor­ture and beat­ing, while search­ing for the rest of the gang across all of the Cos­sack Het­manate’s prov­inces. Three re­spec­tive re­quests from the mil­i­tary chan­cellery and search groups of the Het­man’s cavalry guard were in vain. Even­tu­ally, the crim­i­nal cases on Mat­sa­pura from 1735 and 1738 were sent to Hlukhiv from Pry­luky Mil­i­tary Chan­cellery. The in­ves­ti­ga­tors man­aged to find his one­time com­pan­ions in­volved in those episodes.


On Septem­ber 30, 1740, the Gen­eral Mil­i­tary Court in Hlukhiv con­firmed the verdict from Lubny. The four crim­i­nals were to be ex­e­cuted at the Telepen Kur­gan where they had com­mit­ted their most hideous crimes. Soon enough, on Oc­to­ber 4, 1740, a spe­cial as­sem­bly of the Gen­eral Mil­i­tary Chan­cellery chaired by James (Ja­cob) Keith1 con­firmed the ex­e­cu­tion mea­sures but changed the lo­ca­tion – the in­ten­tion was to make the ex­e­cu­tion as pub­lic and demon­stra­tive as pos­si­ble. Telepen, a burial mound out­side of any city or town, was not good for this. The verdict against two youngest crim­i­nals was ex­e­cuted with­out de­lay: Piv­nenko was ex­e­cuted dur­ing a fair in Pry­luky on Oc­to­ber 26, while Pashchenko faced death at Telepen the fol­low­ing day. Both had their legs and arms cut off, their bod­ies placed on wheels and limbs spiked on sticks.

In­ter­ro­ga­tions of two older vil­lains car­ried on. The in­ter­roga­tors tor­tured Mat­sa­pura and Mishchenko into re­veal­ing new hor­ren­dous de­tails of their crimes: 9 out of 16 ban­dits par­tic­i­pated in can­ni­bal­is­tic rit­u­als, en­cour­aged by their com­pan­ion Ivan Taran. He pre­sented him­self as ma­gi­cian from his time as haidamaka and told his al­lies that his rit­u­als would help them avoid pun­ish­ment. In fact, 12 ban­dits from the gang were never caught. More­over, their leader man­aged to es­cape from the Hlukhiv prison on Novem­ber 30. When his guardian fell asleep, Mat­sa­pura got out of his jail cell. He used a horse bone and a piece of wood to open his chains on the way and reached the vil­lage Oblozhky where he spent some time hid­ing in a barn be­fore the vil­lagers caught him and handed him over to the au­thor­i­ties.

Af­ter the in­ves­ti­ga­tors learned all pos­si­ble de­tails of the gang’s crimes, an or­der came on De­cem­ber 18 to pre­pare for ex­e­cu­tion of the two ban­dits. On De­cem­ber 22, 1740, one of the first ma­ni­acs in the na­tion’s his­tory was ex­e­cuted in Hlukhiv. The ex­e­cu­tioner cut off Mat­sa­pura’s fin­gers, toes, nose and ears and spiked him. His com­pan­ion, Mykhailo Mishchenko, was quar­tered and wheeled at an­other lo­ca­tion.


Pro­fes­sor Mykhailo Slabchenko, a re­searcher of Cos­sack his­tory, claimed that Mat­sa­pura’s ex­e­cu­tion was ex­cep­tional: it was rare in the Het­manate that sim­i­lar crimes were not pun­ished by death on a break­ing wheel.

Later, Gen­eral Deputy Trea­surer Jakiv Markovych wrote in his Home Pro­to­col of an­other mem­ber of the can­ni­bal gang ex­e­cuted in Hlukhiv. Va­syl Malchenko, a pro­fes­sor at the Hlukhiv Gym­na­sium in the early 20th cen­tury, spec­i­fied that the sadist was burnt alive, burn­ing metal poured into his throat. He wrote in his me­moirs that the lo­cals around the for­mer Het­manate cap­i­tal used mat­sa­pura as a swear­word for a long time af­ter that.


The hor­ror story of ma­niac Mat­sa­pura had ev­ery chance to be for­got­ten if it had not been for Ivan Kotliarevskiy, the pi­o­neer of mod­ern Ukrainian lit­er­a­ture who men­tioned him in his best-known par­ody poem Eneyida. Kotliarevskiy used the word mat­sa­pura for Maksym Parpura, a phi­lan­thropist from Konotop who pub­lished Kotliarevskiy’s poem in St. Peters­burg in 1798 with­out the au­thor’s con­sent. Even­tu­ally, the poem be­came a canon of mod­ern Ukrainian lan­guage. In the new edi­tion of the poem 11 years later (1809), Kotliarevskiy placed

Parpura in hell for “pub­lish­ing some­thing he does not own”:

A cer­tain mat­sa­pura per­son Was roast­ing, skew­ered on a spit.

Hot cop­per pour­ing over,

They cru­ci­fied him on a stick. He twisted all his soul for prof­its,

Send­ing to print what he didn’t own –

With­out shame or God in mind, Obliv­i­ous of Eighth Com­mand­ment,

He went on prof­i­teer­ing from oth­ers.

In 1901, Kyivska Starovyna, a jour­nal of Kyiv and Ukrainian his­tory, pub­lished a short note ex­plain­ing the ori­gin of the strange word mat­sa­pura used by Kotliarevskiy in his poem.

Kharkiv his­to­rian Mykola Hor­ban looked at the case from an aca­demic per­spec­tive and pub­lished a his­tor­i­cal es­say ti­tled Ban­dit Mat­sa­pura in 1926. As he an­a­lyzed in­ves­ti­ga­tion ar­chives, he pointed to the rit­ual na­ture of the gang’s crimes, the de­hu­man­iza­tion of im­pov­er­ished land­less vil­lagers in the re­peat­edly col­o­nized North­ern Poltava re­gion, and the or­ga­ni­za­tion of the gang in­spired by the haidamaky units.

The au­thor­i­ties of that time em­ployed sig­nif­i­cant re­sources to hunt down the crim­i­nals. But they could have es­caped into the ter­ri­tory be­yond their con­trol – to the right-bank Ukraine as haidamaky rebels, for in­stance. Mean­while, the regime of Rus­sian Em­press Anna Ivanovna and Ernst von Biron was more con­cerned with per­se­cut­ing old be­liev­ers around Star­o­dub, a city that had been part of the Cos­sack Het­manate in Nortern Ukraine but is in Rus­sia to­day, or cast­ing the par­tic­i­pants of the Ice House Clown Wed­ding en­ter­tain­ment show Anna ini­ti­ated. Even­tu­ally, as a re­sult of the war with the Ot­tomans de facto oc­cu­py­ing forces of 75 Rus­sian units in 1737 and 50 in 1738, all main­tained at the ex­pense of the lo­cal pop­u­la­tion, in­ter­vened into the left-bank Ukraine.

The case of the most no­to­ri­ous Ukrainian can­ni­bal does not fit into the ro­man­ti­cized im­age of the late Cos­sack Het­manate pe­riod. In the spring of 1740, Mat­sa­pura’s gang ter­ror­ized re­mote vil­lages and ham­lets in Pry­luky, Lubny and Pereyaslav gar­risons. The sadists killed 27 peo­ple and com­mit­ted hideous crimes of can­ni­bal­ism. The lat­ter were al­ways ac­com­pa­nied by ugly rit­u­als ini­ti­ated by the self-pro­claimed ma­gi­cian, haidamaka Ivan Taran. The hor­rors stopped when the back­bone of the gang, four out of its 16 mem­bers, were ar­rested. The demon­stra­tive ex­e­cu­tion of these vi­o­lent crim­i­nals brought a fair end to this ter­ri­ble story.

Street jus­tice for a horse-stealer. A paint­ing by Mykola Py­mo­nenko dat­ing back to 1900

Ety­mo­log­i­cal foot­print. Kyivska Starovyna, a his­tory and lin­guis­tics jour­nal, de­scribes how Pavlo Mat­sa­pura's last name turned into a word for vi­o­lent vil­lains in the 18th cen­tury

Batu­ryn case­mate. Mod­ern re­con­struc­tion

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