Case of Maksimko Ivanov

Valeria Kivelson describes one of the most sensational cases of spirit invocation involving a suspect of non-Russian ethnicity, which was one of the largest groups of people accused of witch craft in Russia.

“Maksimko Ivanov, for instance, a self-proclaimed healer, was charged with calling demons to tell him ‘what is going on 100 versts away, and what illnesses people suffer from and whom to bewitch. And he recognizes people without seeing them and knows what kind of hair and identifying marks they have and their height. And he can look in a trough of water and say who will die and who will live and who has bewitched them.’ A witness also testified that Maksimko had sent an ‘unclean force’ to a neighbor’s cottage, and ‘the unclean force hit that neighbor with logs and chucked him out of his house.’ This dramatic case contains much wonderful detail, but pertains to a non-Russian magical tradition: Maksimko and his neighbors were Mordvins, Finnic pagans. The same trial record reports that they participated in a ritual of ancestor veneration that involved sacrificing horses. The forest rite degenerated into an all-out battle when the pagans began attacking passing Russians, and landed the whole group in court.”

Late 16th century Russia was a country of ethnic heterogeneity with many non-Russians and non-Christians. Finnish and Turkish immigrants were known to have been pagan and so were doubly vulnerable to accusations  made by Orthodox Russians. Interestingly, the magic of Finnish and Turkish practitioners had different connotations than that of Russians origin. Finnish and Turkish magicians were given the label “volkhvy,” which was an ancient term applied to pagan sorcerers and seers, while Russian practitioners were associated with terms like “vedovstvo” and “koldovstvo,” that were general Russian words for witchcraft.


Kivelson, Valerie A. “Male Witches and Gendered Categories in Seventeenth-Century Russia.” Comparative Studies in Society and Histry 45, no. 3 (2003): 606-31.

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Nizhny Novgorod
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