Letters From Russia: The Story Of (Nearly) Forgotten Murders
May you live in interesting times.
~ old Chinese curse
On an unknown date in 1988, the Soviet Union executed Tamara Ivanyutina (maiden name Maslenko), a former school dishwasher, pig farmer, wife, daughter, sister and serial poisoner. She became the last woman executed by the USSR and one of only three executed in the post-war period.* As per standard Soviet practices, her execution was not announced beforehand, and it is not known how her body was disposed. The notification of her death was sent to her unincarcerated next-of-kin — who happened to be one of her victims, and the child of two additional victims. Not surprisingly, he did not bother to hold a memorial for her. The lack of ceremony or mourning surrounding her death was particularly ironic in light of her personality and motivations. Unwept, unhonored and unsung** — such was the ignominious end of a woman who was propelled on her life path by a powerful conviction that the world did not treat her with due respect.
Those who come regularly to my blog know that most of what I write is polemical, but every once in a while, I like to tell a story. This is one of these posts. In the late 1980’s, the Maslenko-Ivanyutina-Matsibora affair flashed briefly as one of those lurid sensations that crime reporters like to characterize as “the crime of the century” – and then, almost immediately, it passed from memory. Contemporaneous watershed events are most likely to blame to the obscurity of this case: the year before Tamara Ivanyutina was busted while on a gleeful killing spree saw the Chernobyl nuclear disaster and the Reykjavik Summit. Meanwhile, 1988, the year when she was executed, marked the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union with the uprising in Nagorno-Karabakh. The following year saw the humiliating withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan after a disastrous ten-year war. The news cycle, and the gossip cycle, were dominated by radiation poisoning, population transfers, the looming food crisis, the Russo-American relations, the creaking-at-the-seams of the Warsaw Pact and the fraying of the country itself along its southern frontier; and so it is not surprising that this grisly business disappeared into the vortex of history. Maybe the problem is that there is no easy name to pick for this case; the family members involved all had different surnames. Whatever the reason, today, the only information in English that can be found on Tamara Ivanyutina and her family comes from an MRA website, and its take on the story is as nutty as you would expect.
One disclaimer before I begin. Most of the events I am describing here took place in Ukraine. At that time, Ukraine did not exist as a separate polity. It was nominally one of the fifteen federative republics that comprised the Soviet Union, but the republics were merely administrative subdivisions of a highly centralized whole. I’ve tried to refer to policies and culture at the time as “Soviet”, but if in places it seems like I’m using “Russia” in place of “Ukraine”, understand that it makes no historical sense to talk about Ukraine as its own world in the 1980’s. For all intents and purposes, it was part of the Russian Empire, as it had been since the 17th century. So do forgive me for the seeming insensitivity to the Ukrainian identity: in the context of the events described here, Ukraine was Russia.
When I was growing up in the Soviet Union in the 1980’s, it seemed like people were constantly dying from heart attacks. Or lingering in hospitals for weeks after narrowly surviving one. I don’t have any solid research on this,*** but it seemed to my admittedly untrained mind that terminal heart disease was freakishly common – and that it usually struck without warning. Even now, I can recall about a dozen people in our apartment block alone (some only by face) who had had heart attacks. Whether it was the genes or the terrible diet (heart attacks always seemed to peak around March, after people had spent months eating vegetables only in pickle form), or a combination of the two, it felt like – and I don’t think it’s too strong a word – an epidemic.
There was, I suspect, a vicious cycle. The very prevalence of untreated heart disease and myocardial infarctions likely drove overdiagnosis, so that if a patient presented with mysterious, inexplicable symptoms, the doctor could always latch on to the inevitable heart failure as the culprit. In other words, “heart attack” as the cause of death could mean either “heart attack” or “hell if I know, the patient died of death”.
And so, when one day in the late 1970’s, in Tula (a lesser city in Russia’s heartland, famous for its painted samovars and honey-flavored gingerbreads), a middle-aged woman was brought into a hospital complaining of excruciating abdominal and joint pain, and a burning sensation in her feet and calves, the doctors were initially stumped. Soon after admission, she began losing hair. A few days later, she died. Her cardiac arrest was attributed to a heart attack. In the days before death, she kept muttering something about a “black egg” – about how a relative of hers peeled a hard-boiled egg and it turned black in his hand – but that was dismissed as delirium.
It would be remembered, however, about a decade later.
In late winter of 1987 in Kiev, located about 450 miles southwest of Tula, two people working in the same school died of an “atypical heart attack” within days of each other. One of these people was the school partorg (essentially, a human resources guy with a side helping of ideology); a middle-aged man, he was a typical heart attack client. The other, however, was a young, fit woman with no history of health problems. She worked as the school’s “nutrition nurse”, and during her brief illness, she expressed doubt over the doctors’ assessment that she was suffering from sudden congestive heart failure. Both victims had joint pains, especially in the lower body; both lost all their hair. Both were buried quietly, and the world moved on.
However, while a mysterious deadly illness can be shrugged off as a heart attack when it strikes one person here, two people there, seemingly at random, it cannot explain a sudden rush of deaths – especially when most of the victims are children.
One afternoon in March of 1987, several desperately ill youngsters were brought into a Kiev hospital. They were picked up at different locations in the city, struck at once with a horrendously painful affliction. By evening, the number of young victims rose to nine. And then, a panicked call came from a school on the outskirts of the city: the late shift had just let out when two adults – the shop teacher and a refrigerator repair man – and two children collapsed almost simultaneously, screaming in pain. Within twenty-four hours, the two adults and two of the children were dead. All victims complained of strong pains in the joints and the abdomen, and a burning sensation in their feet, which made it impossible to walk; all lost their hair.
Even to the ordinarily indifferent Soviet medical establishment, this was a bona fide public health emergency. And so, the doctors at the hospital where the victims were lingering held a meeting trying to figure out what was making the students and teachers at one particular Kiev school sick.
Initially, the theory everyone preferred was some exotic infection. AIDS had arrived in the Soviet Union circa 1980, and it was just beginning to be whispered about. Although the government’s official position was “AIDS? What’s that?”, there were rumors. The mid-to-late 1980’s was the time when people were beginning to get especially nervous about foreign contagion. So if heart attacks could not explain the simultaneous illness of numerous people, most of them children, some weird undetectable infection was the next best guess.
But on that hospital panel, there was a dissenter. One doctor focused on the victims’ hair loss as being inconsistent with an infection (that, plus the negative cultures and an absence of other signs and symptoms of infectious disease, such as a fever). He posited that the alopecia was indicative of exposure to a powerful poison – radioactive material, perhaps, or a heavy metal. The establishment was initially skeptical, but this one doctor gradually convinced his colleagues that acute poisoning may indeed be the culprit. With the Chernobyl disaster having occurred less than a year prior, and the cleanup still in full swing, that seemed like a plausible theory.
At this point, the Public Procurator and the Sanitation and Epidemics Station (Russia’s version of the CDC) became involved. The SES decided not to wait for the hospital test results and sent workers with Geiger counters to the school; their theory was that radioactive waste from Chernobyl somehow made it to Kiev and ended up in one particular school. The inspection did not return any positive results, however.
Meanwhile, back at the hospital, all the victims, including the four deceased, tested positive for thallium.
While interviewing school employees, the SES learned about the recent deaths of the partorg and the nutrition nurse. Their bodies were exhumed and tested positive for thallium.
Even once the poison was identified, the authorities still went with the theory of accidental contamination, perhaps as a result of sloppy pest control. The school building was subjected to a thorough sweep; even the ventilation system and the plumbing were tested. No trace of the poison was found.
This left deliberate poisoning as the only explanation for the mass deaths.
Thallium has been called the poisoner’s poison. It is tasteless, odorless, and does not affect the appearance of most foods. Its legal uses revolve primarily around minerological research and precious stones trade; an aqueous solution of thallium salts is used to evaluate the density of various minerals. Thallium poisoning is rare – which ups the chances of doctors attributing the symptoms to something else, especially since thallium does not show up on standard hospital bloodwork. Thallium also has the advantage of delayed action and accumulating in the body; thus, provided our poisoner is sufficiently disciplined and methodical, he can evade detection by killing his victim gradually, slipping him small doses over a period of time. (My impression of major thallium cases, including this one, is that perpetrators get caught when they get impatient.)
The substance does, however, have a couple of significant drawbacks. First, thallium poisoning causes rapid hair loss, a tell-tale sign of heavy metal exposure; get a sharp enough (or just caring enough) doctor, and he might get suspicious. And second, once thallium poisoning is diagnosed, the perpetrator is as good as done; since there are very few places from which one might obtain thallium, tracing the source and thereby identifying the murderer is relatively easy.
This is not to say that the investigation did not take a detour. The detectives’ first, and seemingly obvious prime suspect was a middle-grades student who had a remarkable, almost obsessive love of chemistry. By late adolescence, the whiz kid had already won a number of city and regional science Olympiads. A few days before the nutrition nurse took ill, she and the boy got in a bit of a tiff when she caught him rummaging through the school refrigerator. And the youngster had an ominous prior: after a gym teacher got a little carried away poking fun at the frail intellectual for a subpar performance on the monkey bars, the kid tampered with the teacher’s whistle, causing painful, though superficial, chemical burns to the teacher’s lips and mouth. The caustic substance he smeared on the whistle caused the teacher’s lips and tongue to immediately turn black and swell up, and also slurred his speech – all of which amused the other kids to no end and restored the young chemist’s shattered street cred. This was strong circumstantial stuff, and so the investigators decided to take a closer look at the Nerd.
What they ultimately discovered, however, was an abused and desperate (though extremely gifted) child who frequently stole food and picked pockets at a nearby farmers’ market, because his violent alcoholic mother did not feed him – moreover, demanded that her adolescent son support her habit. The boy survived on occasional charity from neighbors (all of whom attested to the abuse) and by sneaking food off of vendors’ counters. On interrogation, he admitted the incident of sneaking into the kitchen and going for the refrigerator. He explained that he was intensely hungry, having had nothing to eat for days. He also admitted that he had played a cruel prank on the gym teacher. But he emphatically denied poisoning anyone.
Numerous problems arose with the mad boy genius theory: the child had no motive for killing anyone but the nutrition nurse; he was not bullied and had never expressed an urge to commit violence upon his classmates; but the biggest problem of all, of course, was the fact that there was no way to show how or where he could have obtained thallium. It would have been one thing for a student to pilfer some reagents from the school chemistry lab to create a mild corrosive – but getting one’s hands on something as restricted as thallium would have been a feat of a whole different order of magnitude. A thorough search of the kid’s apartment and school things turned up no trace of the poison. Nor could the investigators pinpoint to him having any contacts that could have potentially enabled him to procure thallium.
In addition to all the deaths already mentioned, there was one notable survivor: a chemistry teacher who became gravely ill around the same period as the partorg and the nutrition nurse. He also experienced extreme joint and abdominal pains and likewise lost his hair; but he narrowly survived what was diagnosed as – naturally – a heart attack. In the ensuing investigation, he submitted a tissue sample, which also tested positive for thallium. The chemistry teacher would, at first blush, have a connection to the wunderkind, but the kid had no motive against him. The chemistry teacher had a second job at the school, though: food inventory.
After ruling the kid out as a suspect the investigators decided to examine what connections, if any, there were between the adult victims: the nutrition nurse; the partorg, who oversaw all of the school workers, including the kitchen staff; the chemistry teacher, who was charged with keeping track of the food inventory; the repair technician who worked on the school’s broken refrigerator the day he fell ill; the metal shop teacher who assisted him. All the trails, it seemed, led back to the kitchen – and since the possibility of accidental contamination had been ruled out, the detectives decided to take another look at the kitchen staff.
Asked if they observed anything at all unusual during their Geiger sweep, some of the SES workers recalled a small, but potentially significant detail: the dishwasher, Tamara Ivanyutina, displayed bizarre behavior during the procedure – trailing the workers and getting in their way when they got close to food stores, even after the area was cordoned off and despite several requests to stand back. At times, she became combative and rude.
At about this time, other detectives working on the case were making rounds at Kiev’s various gemological and geological labs, going over inventory and questioning the staff about any leaks of thallium. It did not take much pressure – the Soviet Union, after all, did not have such a thing as “lawyering up”, and oh, by the way, this was an investigation into a dozen homicides – to find the thallium source at a geology research lab. When questioned by the detectives over discrepancies in the inventory books, one of the technicians there tearfully confessed that she had provided her friends, Anton and Maria Maslenko, through their daughter Nina, with about 50 mg of Clerici solution – a solution of thallium salts — nine times since 1976, ostensibly to address a persistent pest problem. One such occasion was shortly before Nina’s marriage to a much older man. The technician’s “defense” (such as it was) was that she explained to her friend in detail just how deadly the Clerici solution was, and even marked the bottles with the word “poison” and a skull and bones symbol.
As it turned out, Anton and Maria Maslenko had another daughter besides Nina living in Kiev. That other daughter’s name was Tamara Ivanyutina. She worked as a dishwasher at the school where the mass poisoning occurred.
One thing that seems to get lost in the wake of the long and notoriously inhumane Soviet regime is that the Russian Empire was always a police state. Its long succession of increasingly authoritarian governments maintained a perpetually keen interest in keeping tabs on all citizens, at all times. The system of internal passports and mandatory police registration goes back to at least the early nineteenth century – and it is a system that survives even into the present. Then, of course, there was the chattel slavery serfdom, which legally bound the majority of the peasantry to the land and literally made them property of those who owned it (including the state itself – for even under the Tsars, some serfs were bound to public land, and thus were government-owned).
Only one factor limited Russian governments’ tracking of the population – and that was technology. And so, in the mid-1930’s, as the young Soviet state got its bearings, it introduced a tracking system the likes of which the world had never seen, putting the awesome technological innovations of the modern age in service of its endless paranoia. For one thing, it reimposed serfdom – abolished in 1861 – in all but name; the kolkhoz system once again bound peasants to land. Internal passports came back with a vengeance.
But perhaps the most draconian aspect of internal registration was the notorious propiska system.
The word propiska, as best I can translate it, means “written entry”. In practice, it referred both to one’s membership in a proprietary lease on a government-provided apartment, and a residential permit that allowed one to dwell in a specific city or town. The “entry” in question was made in one’s internal passport – and it was not easily changed. If you were a Soviet citizen, wherever you found yourself at any moment in time, you had to have official written permission to be in that particular city or town. A cop in Moscow would have grounds to detain you simply because your passport said you live in Vologda and you couldn’t demonstrate a legal basis for being in Moscow. That’s right: you had to have a legal basis for being somewhere. Anywhere.
The bottom line on propiska was that it made internal migration illegal. Don’t like living in Bumfuck, Siberia? Suck it up and love your motherland. With the vast differences in lifestyle between capital cities like Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev and Minsk on the one hand, and provincial towns and rural areas on the other, the residential permit part of propiska was even more important than the proprietary lease one, although that was very important too. And in Soviet Union’s weird economy, with its own quaint yardsticks for measuring “wealth”, having a good propiska – i.e., a permit for a major city and a relatively decent apartment in a central location – was perhaps the most important asset.
There were few ways to change one’s propiska for a better one. By far the surest was through marriage – or by inheriting it from a relative. This meant, of course, that pragmatic marriages were par for the course in the USSR. Moreover, single people with good propiska – especially the elderly – attracted scammers and con artists. Murder-for-propiska was not unknown.
In the more desirable places to live – of which Kiev, of course, was one – one particularly horrid legacy of the propiska system was the shared flat. We are not talking mere roommates here – a shared flat was one where several families, numbering in total perhaps a dozen people, had joint use of one kitchen and one bathroom. With each family (up to three generations) being limited to one, in rare cases two, rooms within a single apartment, married couples used screens to shield their beds from in-laws and children. That is, if they even had space for that. Rooms in shared flats were often so cramped that people slept on cots, placed side by side or at right angles to each other. Bathrooms had strict usage schedules, which was a hoot on weekday mornings. In the kitchen, every centimeter of space was jealously guarded and fought over. People used chamber pots and cooked on camping stoves in their rooms. Bathing was restricted. Cabin-fever conflicts were through the roof. Overcrowding was severe. Fires were frequent. Privacy was non-existent. With its rows upon rows of laundry criss-crossing the kitchen, the bathtub and the sink black and gross from overuse and underrepair, the constant noise of dozens of people talking, arguing, fucking, screaming, crying, listening to the radio, all confined to a tiny space; the walls and creases grown moldy from overcrowding, the disintegration of common areas that no one agreed to maintain – a shared flat was a slum, simple as that.
If the better, “private” apartments during the Soviet era were overcrowded and barely fit for human habitation, shared flats were revolting. And to keep people from actually revolting, the Soviet propaganda machine cultivated a certain monastic ethos of limiting one’s wants and needs to bare survival. You can still hear echoes of that ideology from those nostalgic for the Soviet times.
The Maslenko family spent many, many years in shared flats.
I found this story to be too fascinating not to write about – but I also found researching it very frustrating. It’s one of those stories where the broad outlines are well-defined, but small details are notoriously difficult to pin down.
We know the Maslenkos moved a lot – and since changing one’s propiska involved complicated government approved dwelling exchanges – it is not surprising they stuck to those human beehives. They lived in Tyumen, Kherson and Tula prior to settling down in Kiev, but the timing is almost impossible to ascertain. If I were to venture a guess, however, I would say Tyumen is probably where they lived during World War II and immediately after. Tyumen is a city in Siberia, a region to which many people from the war-ravaged parts of the country (including Ukraine) were temporarily relocated. It was probably in Tyumen that Tamara Maslenko, later Ivanyutina, was born in 1942.
Kherson is a city about three hundred miles south of Kiev, located at the mouth of the river Dnieper, on the Black Sea. Living there was probably a transitional period prior to the family moving to Tula, where they spent at least twenty years. It is in Tula that four of the six Maslenko children disappear from our story. In the accounts of Russian and Ukrainian journalists, much of the background information about the Maslenkos is credited to “relatives” who asked to remain anonymous; I suspect those “relatives” are in fact the three Maslenko sons and one daughter who separated themselves from the murderous wing of their family and were never implicated in any of the crimes.
The pre-war origins of the Maslenko family are obscure. For what it’s worth, names ending in “ko” are Ukrainian; and the family claimed, at least according to some witnesses, to have been originally from Kiev. At the same time – further complicating the question – according to family lore, Anton Maslenko committed his first murder in the 1930’s in retaliation for the government’s anti-kulak policies. This would suggest that the family patriarch came from a rural area and was of peasant stock. Be that as it may, the clan always seemed drawn to Kiev, and that’s where it – or at least its murdering part — was living in 1987.
It is difficult to imagine what it must have been like for a family of eight occupying a room, maybe two, in an apartment crowded with other families. Leading a life stripped of even basic dignity, packed into a space so tight, there was barely room for everyone to lie down at night, completely lacking privacy, observing adult lives on full display in all their squalor, complicated intimacy and often ugliness, witnessing all kinds of backstabbing and vendettas among neighbors forced to share a toilet and a sink, unable to say anything without worrying that their voices would carry to other parts of the dwelling, where their domestic enemies would take notes, grinning, the Maslenko children were raised with wildly mercantile values and a great deal of resentment and mistrust towards others. Their parents cultivated them to believe that their purpose in life was to attain wealth and comfort by any means – and I mean, any means. They also imparted to the younger generation a deep, incurable grudge, a belief that mankind had wronged the Maslenkos, and that it was high time for mankind to pay the price.
Of the six kids, the daughters Nina and Tamara internalized those lessons only too well.
There is, in the picturesque central part of Kiev, a nineteenth-century neo-Gothic structure known as the Lone Knight’s House. Once a posh townhouse of a wealthy landowner and nobleman, the Knight’s House was nationalized after the Revolution and converted into shared flats. By the time Anton and Maria Maslenko came to occupy a room in it in the 1980’s, it was a crumbling ruin, with rotted staircases, sagging floors and wooden latticework peeking through partially disintegrated plaster. The fairytale urban castle was worn out by decades of overcrowding, a lack of maintenance, and a 1944 fire. But it continued to be tightly occupied.
At some point, the elder Maslenkos developed a conflict with a neighbor who had his TV on too loud – so they killed him with thallium supplied by their daughter Nina, who had in turn gotten it from her friend at the geology lab. Another neighbor was impolitic enough to remark on the squalor of Maslenkos’ room; she too bit the dust. Very likely, it was the same thallium Nina had used not long prior to murder her much-older husband mere days after their wedding. The old coot graciously left her a very comfortable (by Soviet standards, at any rate) private apartment in a central location in Kiev. Her path to better housing was not without its snags, however. An earlier, more attractive prospect utterly refused matrimony, but informed Nina that he would be amenable to continuing to live in sin. For this outrage, she added thallium to the lothario’s borscht – not enough to kill him, but enough to make him very unpleasantly sick and to render him impotent.
The TV aficionado was not the first Maslenko victim to be killed purely out of spite. In the late 1970’s, when the elder Maslenkos still lived in Tula, Maria was hospitalized for unrelated reasons. A female in-law trying to comfort the distraught Maslenko-père let it slip that perhaps he should prepare himself for the worst. Not the most tactful of comments to be sure, particularly given Russians’ strong belief in the Law of Attraction, but certainly meant well. Anton Maslenko bristled at the comment, but showed no outward anger. Instead, he invited the relative to have a drink with him to his wife’s health. In accordance with Russian tradition, the two had some finger foods with their vodka. A few days later, the woman was dead. “She dared imagine the death of my beloved Maria Fyodorovna,” Maslenko-père would later explain during interrogation.
Tamara Maslenko/Ivanyutina’s path to a better life was the most complicated of her family – probably because she was its most ambitious member.
Her first husband was a truck driver. The first attempt at poisoning him failed, though only just barely. Once recovered, the young man returned to work and signed up for a long haul. Tamara packed him some sandwiches for the road. He never came back.
Her second husband was a man seven years her junior, named Oleg, with no permanent place to live after a recent divorce. Not long after their marriage, Oleg’s parents moved from Krasnodar to Kiev to be closer to their son and daughter-in-law. Whatever it is they had back in Krasnodar, they were somehow able to exchange it for an actual single-family house in Kiev, that came with a large backyard. The property was on the outskirts, but still; for a family of two to occupy a free-standing house with a generous territory within the boundaries of a major city was virtually unheard of in the Soviet Union. Plus, it spoke deeply to Tamara’s ambitions: her dream was to sell meat at the farmers’ market, and to buy herself a black Volga – the official car of diplomats, important government officials and others whom Thackeray would describe as “the best people”.
The elder Ivanyutins did not like Tamara. In fact, no one liked her, with the sole exception of Oleg. It is hard to say what he saw in her. She was invariably described by those who knew her as obnoxious, combative, rude and egotistical. Still, while not conventionally attractive, she was a large woman with a hearty, jovial appearance — the kind that tends to remind people of home-cooked meals and well-run households. She was the type of woman that Russians describe as “visible” (I guess the English equivalent, albeit inexact, would be “striking”.) She looked like someone who would be a source of domestic comfort and protection.
Oleg would later tell investigators that she was solicitous, attentive, caring. When later in their marriage, she kept him perpetually sick and impotent with regular low doses of thallium, he felt guilty that such a healthy, good-looking woman was “stuck” with a ruin like him, and truly blessed that she stuck around and took care of him.
Tamara’s mannerisms aside, the Ivanyutins’ problem with their daughter-in-law was of a practical nature. She was considerably older than their son, she was in her early forties, and the first few years of marriage had not produced a child. Adoption was discussed, but Tamara seemed to be dragging her heels. Anxious for a grandchild, Oleg’s parents were increasingly frustrated with this situation. Sometime after moving to Kiev, they gave Oleg and Tamara an ultimatum: either they would, one way or another, have a child within a year, or the Ivanyutins would write a will bequeathing the house to someone else.
The only effect this ultimatum had was to seal their fate.
Tamara’s father-in-law died first. He became ill soon after Tamara treated her in-laws to a home-cooked dinner as a gesture of reconciliation. It was the usual deal: painful joints, abdominal cramps, hair loss, deterioration of heart function, death attributed to heart attack.
An ugly scene unfolded at the funeral. Tamara approached the inconsolable widow with a small glass of clear liquid that she claimed was Corvalol – the standard Russian preparation for calming nerves. Her mother-in-law barely tasted it when she turned ashen and began to scream that Tamara was trying to poison her. Another relative present said she had seen Tamara handling an unmarked bottle containing some brownish substance. In the ensuing tussle which would have ended in a strip search were it not for Oleg’s efforts at protecting his wife, Tamara fortuitously knocked over the glass she had previously handed to the widow and crushed it underfoot. This was but a short reprieve for Oleg’s mother; she died only a few weeks later after the same kind of illness that had killed her husband.
With the in-laws out of the way, Tamara got her hands on the first, and most important, building block of her happy future: a house in Kiev with a territory large enough to have a small farm.
It was around that time that the Soviet government, faced with a looming food crisis after decades of disastrous meat policies, relaxed somewhat its old anti-kulak laws. People were now permitted to keep a few pigs and chickens, provided they gave a cut of the profits to a local kolkhoz. And so, Tamara Ivanyutina became a pig farmer. Her neighbors, while decrying her personality and attitude, reluctantly admitted that she seemed like a good entrepreneur, certainly a dedicated one. Her animals were healthy and fat, her property clean and well-organized. But while her business was going well, her husband was becoming increasingly sick. Bald, doubled over with pain and shuffling about unsteadily while putting all his weight on a cane – the thirty-something presented a shocking sight to the investigators when they first went to check out Tamara’s house.
At work, Tamara complained about her husband’s illness and often expressed fears that he would die soon. Doctors could not figure out what was wrong with him; it was probably something to do with his heart. After all, it was not that long prior that his parents died from similar symptoms. Perhaps whatever he was suffering from was hereditary, and if so, it would not be long before he would die too, sigh. Tamara commented almost daily to no one in particular about her husband getting worse.
As a dishwasher, Tamara was on the bottom of the school hierarchy. The job paid pennies and consisted of hard, repetitive, unpleasant manual labor. She chafed at her poorly paid post, where everyone outranked her, and about a dozen people ordered her about, but endured the hardship and the humiliation for one thing: access to the school’s food inventory. After all, the pigs needed to be nourished, the market stall in the meat row needed to be paid for, and as someone without education or particular vocational skills, Tamara could never hope to get a job that would pay for her farming operation, her own necessities and still leave her something to put aside towards that Volga.
Besides, why pay money for anything you could get for free? While stealing from one’s job was not exactly lauded in the Soviet Union, it was widely tolerated. By the 1980’s, the country had raised five generations of people who perceived widespread shortages of pretty much everything as an unavoidable fact of life; and lived in an economy that treated sweaters and bottles of perfume as a sort of informal currency. No one said stealing or bribery were good things; but they were also seen as necessary evils. Those who worked in retail and had direct access to goods were pretty much expected to skim. And why not? It was only human nature, after all. Would you spend two and a half hours standing in line in subzero temperatures to buy laundry detergent, if there were fifty boxes of it in the storeroom where you worked? Would you let your family go hungry if the store where you worked had just received a shipment of meat? Imagine a life where complicated scheming to get your hands on this or that necessity (or a small luxury every once in a while, lets not be uncharitable) occupied the better part of your waking hours and the better part of your thinking. The system did not reward the scrupulous; but being closest to the trough had perks that one would have to be dumb not to exercise.
Thus, stealing was illegal, but mostly shrugged off. In one of the interviews used as sources for this blog post, the lead investigator on the case commented that ordinarily, a thallium leak in a geology lab would not have been seen as a big deal, and was only significant in the context of a murder investigation. Here is a public official, charged with enforcing criminal laws – and he thought stealing a rare, deadly substance from one’s workplace was nothing to be worked up about.
Still, as with all shady business everywhere, there were rules; in fact, I would submit that following unwritten rules is especially important in law-breaking, since the wrongdoer needs witnesses’ cooperation in getting away with it. This is a principle that Tamara ignored to her – and of course, her victims’ – doom.
She stole openly, ostentatiously, in large quantities. She was seen carrying huge, heavy bags home. She lacked decorum. She had an attitude like she wasn’t stealing at all, like she was entitled to whatever she wanted, like people who used the food as it was lawfully intended were stealing from her. She got all up in people’s faces if they got anywhere near what she had already decided was hers. At times, she lost any semblance of social grace, hovering over children who were slow eaters and snatching away any leftovers as soon as she felt they had had enough. She watched for any rule-breakers who dared take something out of the cafeteria and confronted them angrily; although children were technically forbidden from taking any food with them, this wasn’t, you know, Tamara’s department, and she could get positively wild in her anger.
The investigation uncovered a particularly terrifying incident in which a brother and sister — a first-grader and a fifth-grader, respectively — came into the kitchen one day and asked the cook if they could take anything home for their pets. The cook happily packed some scraps into two baggies. On the way out of the kitchen, the kids were confronted by a furious Tamara, who snatched the baggies out of their hands and chased them out.
Perhaps there was some backtalk, who knows. For one reason or another, Tamara felt that those two needed to be taught a lesson. Within days of the incident, both children got sick. They felt a twisting sensation in their joints and abdomens, they lost their hair and they cried piteously from pain. A few harrowing weeks later, the girl began to get better — but the boy continued to get sicker and sicker. Both children ultimately survived, and, long after the kitchen confrontation, tested positive for thallium. The boy was still weak and hairless at that time; he had at one point been in a wheelchair. Tamara slowly tortured him for nearly a year before her attention shifted elsewhere.
Specifically, it shifted to the nutrition nurse. Tamara’s cardinal weakness was being nasty and rude to the very people who were her bosses, and whom she actually needed to cooperate in her theft. Eventually, the nutrition nurse put her foot down. She angrily instructed Tamara to stay away from the cooler and the stoves, to stop harrying children, and to stop taking food home, even if it was inedible; she was to take absolutely nothing under any circumstances, not an ounce. After Tamara disobeyed her orders, the nutrition nurse, backed up by the chemistry teacher, reported her to the partorg.
Firing was not the standard punishment for petty work-related crime, and local party officials were actually reluctant to report workplace thieves to the police. Instead, they used social pressure, at least at first. Per this protocol, the partorg hauled Tamara before the local Communist Party Committee meeting, where she was pilloried (figuratively) for a little bit, then given a warning.
From the superiors’ point of view, this was a reasonable, even charitable way to address the problem. To Tamara, however, this was an intolerable insult; besides, she could not operate her farm unless she got to take from the school kitchen. And so, it was not long after that the nutrition nurse and the partorg kicked the bucket within a short time of one another, and the chemistry teacher got grievously ill.
Then came the fireworks.
On the fateful day when her murderous enterprise finally blew wide open, Tamara, frustrated by the prior series of setbacks, sabotaged the school refrigerator. Her intention was to have the cook declare its contents unsafe, so they could be taken home to feed to her pigs. The repairman and the shop teacher were murdered that afternoon for the crime of fixing the appliance before the food could officially spoil. Another target was the assistant principal (the bastard called the repairman too promptly, so he needed to die), but he was called away at the last minute and never partook of the buckwheat soup that Tamara had poisoned. The dozen kids poisoned that day were collateral damage.
Tamara would later tell investigators that the mass poisoning of school children in March of 1987 was an accident. She maintained that only individual plates were laced with the Clerici solution; but that when the assistant principal realized he could not stay for the meal, he poured his soup back into the pot unbeknownst to Tamara, thereby poisoning the whole. The assistant principal confirmed that this was, in fact, what he had done.
Although Tamara’s claim of accidental poisoning sounds plausible, it is almost certainly a lie. Tamara had tremendous experience with thallium, and her prior poisonings — including the slow poisonings of her second husband and the two children who took scraps from the kitchen — demonstrates that she had mastered the Clerici dosage. That the amount of poison she dispensed that day was sufficient to taint a commercial-size pot of soup enough to severely sicken all who ate it and kill some of them, makes it unlikely that it was intended as an isolated dose for a single individual.
Co-workers would later say that Tamara seemed to really dislike children. She was annoyed by their voices, their pranks, their running around. They irritated her. I think the more accurate assessment isn’t that she hated children, per se; but that she hated everybody. And a day came when the madness took over completely.
Once she became a suspect, there was, of course, a search — and a vial of Clerici solution was discovered. Different investigators later gave conflicting accounts on where exactly it had been hidden – but both agree that once asked what the bizarrely heavy, brownish substance was, she stated that she was using it to combat a pest problem. Just like that, she admitted that (1) she knew what the substance was; (2) it was poison; (3) it was hers. Although investigators would later describe Tamara as almost Machiavellian in her machinations, truth is, she never seemed like the sharpest knife in the drawer; rather, her “strength” as a murderer was an utter lack of empathy.
Oleg Ivanyutin – who refused to believe the allegations against Tamara until he was shown the toxicology report on his parents’ exhumed bodies – would later tell investigators that his wife seemed to have a bizarre obsession with funerals. It is bizarre especially in light of the fact that, in contrast to many other cultures, Russian and Ukrainian funerals are exceedingly dark proceedings; and the superstition of attraction is incredibly strong. Death itself is thought to be a malevolent, sentient presence accompanying the procession.
And it is – or at least was, at the time – a pedestrian procession; the casket and the mourners winding slowly through the streets towards the cemetery, announcing their sad progress with an orchestra blaring a few bars of Chopin’s funeral march, leaving behind a trail of carnations and pine branches. Whenever there was a funeral, death was palpably in the air, and it tended to make people uneasy. But Tamara, when she heard the music and the crying, would rush towards the procession, lurk among the mourners and take in their grief with what could alternatively be described as either a childlike curiosity or a particularly disturbing tendency to delight in others’ suffering. When Oleg remarked on this weird habit of hers, she replied pithily: “It is not the dead one should fear, but the living.”
Tamara had already been arrested, and her murdering parents – whether they realized it or not – were operating on borrowed time, when Mama Maslenko decided to venture into homicide once more. This time, the intended victim was an elderly disabled neighbor and a World War II veteran, whose offense was receiving generous veterans’ benefits. Mama felt this was unfair, and so she administered justice by presenting the old lady with a stack of pancakes abundantly laced with thallium. The intended victim, however, was wary of the sudden friendliness on the part of a neighbor who had always been unpleasant to her. She gave some pancakes to her cat, and the animal died, convulsing, shortly after. Thereupon, the intended victim packed up the rest of the pancakes and called the cops.
Criminal cases in the Soviet Union were tried before a panel consisting of one professional judge and two lay assessors. Proceedings were very informal – indeed, amateurish – by Western standards. Although the role of the professional judge was ostensibly to rule on questions of law, while the rest of the panel adjudicated facts, the distinction between the two was exceedingly vague. There was no presumption of innocence, and judges took on an active role as investigators.
The stated purpose of a trial in that era was to arrive at “objective truth”. In practice, it meant that the system was non-adversarial, and that there were no evidentiary rules as such. Even relevance, the most basic criterion for evaluating the admissibility of evidence, was a slippery notion in Russian jurisprudence and remains so to this day. (That’s why, at the 2012 trial of Pussy Riot, one of the prosecution’s witnesses was just some guy who testified that he watched a YouTube clip of Pussy Riot’s stunt over and over, and it made him very upset.) Courts admitted hearsay, opinion evidence (from lay witnesses), speculation, conjecture, character evidence (on issues having nothing to do with sentencing) and the like. There weren’t even – and still aren’t – any rules concerning the chain of custody and authentication of evidence generated by third parties (which is why, at the aforementioned Pussy Riot trial, neither the court, nor the prosecutor, nor the defense team ever bothered to address the question of who made the clip, or when, or how it was edited, and or why it was uploaded to YouTube).
People accused of crimes were technically entitled to a defense attorney – but in a regime where challenging a government official, especially one as powerful as the prosecutor, was not only pointless, but one of the surest ways to get a ticket for a trip east, few jurists ever bothered, or dared, to mount a vigorous defense on the merits. Besides, the very fact that the system was non-adversarial and there was no presumption of innocence carried the unspoken implication that the defense attorney had a duty to cooperate with the prosecution in getting his client convicted. Consequently, the role of the defense attorney was limited to pleading for mercy by citing attenuating circumstances or the accused’s troubled childhood.
There was no double jeopardy, no concept of separate transactions. Criminals nabbed for multiple offenses would have all those offenses adjudicated in one proceeding. Serial killers would be tried for all their known murders in one trial.
The end result of this utterly bizarre legal system was that, once the police identified the culprit and lined up its evidence, the conviction was all but a foregone conclusion. The prosecutor would simply dump a big heap of stuff before the judges – a lot of it that would be patently inadmissible in an Anglo-American system – and let the chips fall where they may. And they fell very predictably. Although some offenders got lenient sentences, outright acquittals were extremely rare.
The reason I am saying all this isn’t to suggest that Tamara Ivanyutina, or her parents, or her sister were innocent — the key elements of the case against them are, after all, conclusive. Rather, the fact that there was no such thing in the Soviet criminal justice system as getting off on a technicality makes one of the details of this prosecution stand out as bizarre.
Here is what I find weird: Nina Matsibora was charged with, and convicted of, only one murder. The court apparently ignored the fact that she supplied the whole family with thallium, as it ignored her non-lethal poisoning of an ex-boyfriend. Despite the appalling circumstances of her crime – the one of which she was actually convicted — she received a fairly tame sentence of sixteen years.
Equally bizarre is the fact that the source of the thallium, the technician at the geology lab, apparently got off scot-free. Hell, she even managed to keep her name out of the papers. I should add here that I don’t believe for a minute that this woman had no idea what her friends were up to. I suspect that perhaps the reason she kept supplying them for years was that she was afraid of them – but she had to have at least suspected that they were using her lab’s thallium to kill people.
There is a limited number of possibilities here. It’s possible the lab technician was well-connected. Or maybe it was just the usual sloppiness in a system that all but encouraged it. It’s also possible Tamara’s and Nina’s promises to give the investigators “much gold” if they threw the case did not fall on entirely deaf ears.
The investigators were unanimous in their impression that the Maslenkos and their daughters were arrogant, resentful, oversensitive to perceived slights and had an inflated opinion of themselves. Tamara remained defiant at the trial and showed no hint of remorse. When the chief judge asked her at the very end if she wished to apologize to her victims, she replied that she wasn’t the apologizing kind.**** That was the very last thing she ever said to anyone (that we know of); her last message to humanity.
Anton and Maria Maslenko were sentenced to thirteen and ten years, respectively, in view of their advanced age. Both died in prison.
One more wrinkle.
At some point during the investigation, the police broadened their search to include all other places where the Maslenko clan resided since after the war. In all those cities, they uncovered clusters of suspicious deaths of people connected to the family. (Thallium was always rare, but arsenic — the poison Anton Maslenko reportedly used on his older brother back in the 1930’s — was abundant and easily obtainable earlier in the century.) However, before the authorities could start exhuming bodies, either the Ukraine or the Union Prosecutor’s Office pulled the plug; the only non-Kiev homicide that came into the case was Anton Maslenko’s murder of the woman who made an insensitive comment about his wife’s illness back in Tula.
The decision was likely a political one. The law enforcement in the pre-Chikatilo era was ill-equipped to deal with serial killers. In fact, the very term, “serial killer”, did not exist at that time; and its closest equivalent, “manic killer”, was mentioned almost exclusively in the context of discussing lurid stories of crime in the West.
Not that people never got convicted of multiple murders – but to recognize that serial killers were a thing that existed required an acknowledgement that the law enforcement was less vigilant, and life in general less safe, than the Soviet propaganda would lead one to believe. So from the point of view of officials charged with maintaining ideological purity, the Maslenkos and their daughters were already cooked anyway; uncovering more homicides would serve no purpose except to damage the regime’s image.
When someone got sentenced to death in the Soviet Union, that person all but ceased to exist even before the sentence was carried out. Death row inmates were held in almost total isolation. They were not permitted visitors (except with special permission), and, with the exception of appeals for clemency, they had no communication with the outside world. The waiting time from sentencing to execution ranged from a few weeks to a few months.
Up until the demise of the Soviet Union, the exact workings of its death penalty system were a matter of state secret. Even statistics were not disclosed, so it was not until the mid-1990’s and later that researchers learned even how many people the Soviet Union executed. Today, much remains hidden, such as any written guidelines (if they existed). We know death row prisoners had stimulation kept to a minimum. There were no books, no television, no exercise, no time outside. Lights were kept dim, and guards and officials did not speak above a whisper. The goal, for whatever reason, seems to have been to subject death row inmates to long-term sensory deprivation.
Based on interviews with former wardens, the condemned were never told beforehand that they were about to be executed. There was no right to prepare, or say goodbye, or make a statement. Some officials bent this rule a little bit. One former Azerbaijani warden (who was apparently a big softie) copped to using coded language with his prisoners, apparently because he felt that tricking people into the death chamber was disrespectful, even if they were scum. “I am here to tell you your clemency petition has been processed,” he would tell the condemned, without adding whether it was approved. Most people instantly understood. This small show of humanity, however, occasionally backfired, such as when people about to be executed became hysterical or combative, or refused to move. Sometimes, they had to be dragged to the execution chamber while they pleaded for their lives. Sometimes, a baton had to be used to force them to kneel to be shot.
The usual custom and practice, however, was to avoid such complications by telling the condemned he was being taken to an office to fill out some paperwork for one final clemency petition. As the door opened and he stepped in, instead of a desk with people sitting behind it, he would see a tiny empty room with a concrete floor and rubber-covered walls. Before the prisoner could react, the executioner would step forward from behind the door and shoot him at close range just behind the left ear. This usually caused instantaneous death. An additional “control shot” would still be administered immediately afterwards.
Earlier in the century, death row inmates were executed at night. The condemned would be led to a courtyard under the pretext of transfer to another prison. As the door opened and he stepped into the courtyard, he would face a row of big trucks, all with their high beams on and engines roaring. The lights and the noise would disorient the prisoner, while the executioner stepped up behind him or from the side and fired into his head.
Whether denying the condemned knowledge that he is taking his last walk is compassionate or disrespectful – I leave that to the reader.
The property of one condemned to death was forfeited to the state, which did not follow clear rules on ownership; thus, even family property was fair game. Oleg Ivanyutin spent nearly a year fighting the mighty Soviet bureaucracy that was dead-set on leaving him homeless and without a pot to piss in, even though he was one of the victims of the crimes for which Tamara was executed, and the house had belonged to his parents, whom she had also murdered. Kafka had nothing on the real-life Soviet legal system.
One more interesting factoid about thallium: if it comes in contact with egg white, it reacts with albumin, turning it black.
*Or seven, depending on how you count. There were three confirmed executions of women post-1945. There were, however, four additional women sentenced to death in the 1960’s for illegal foreign currency trade, but they disappeared from the system; there is no record of them receiving clemency, no record of them being executed, and no record of them being in prison. They simply vanished.
One of the other two confirmed executions is a fascinating story in its own right. Antonina Makarova/Parfenova was a Nazi collaborator who executed two thousand people (give or take), partisans and various “subhumans”, on the orders of her Nazi superiors. In late 1944-early 1945, she slipped away in the fog of war, assumed a false identity, married a decorated veteran (and a Jew, no less), had three children and became as respectable, and respected, a Soviet matron as they came. Her sordid war-time activities, her flight, life under an assumed identity, the thirty-year (wo)manhunt and her eventual capture are the stuff of psychological thrillers. How come there’s still no movie?
***Okay, FINE, here’s a link.
****My own idiomatic translation. What she literally said was: “That’s not how I was raised.”
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