Soviet Monsters

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Tamara Ivanyutina

In the early months of 1987, a school located in Kiev, Ukraine suffered a double tragedy. Two staff members died in quick succession, both with similar, inexplicable symptoms. The first of these was the school “Partorg” (a role that encompassed responsibility for ideological education as well as human resources); the second was the institution’s “nutrition nurse,” a woman in her twenties, who had appeared to be in good physical health. Doctors who examined the two were baffled by their symptoms, which included chronic joint pain and almost complete hair loss. Unable to determine the cause behind these afflictions, they fell back on the diagnosis prevalent in Soviet medicine at that time. According to their death certificates, both victims had died of heart failure.

A short while later, on an afternoon in March of 1987, a Kiev hospital was suddenly inundated with a rash of emergency admissions. Several desperately ill children arrived almost simultaneous at the facility, all of them writhing in agony. The youngsters had been picked up at various locations, although a common link was soon established. They all attended the same school. Then, as doctors fought desperately to stabilize their young patients, a call came in from the school itself. Two adults – a teacher and a refrigerator repair man – had been struck down by the same mystery ailment. An ambulance was immediately dispatched to bring them to the hospital. Within 24 hours, both adults, as well as two of the 11 children admitted on that horrific day, had died in agony.

A link was quickly established between those deaths and the two that had occurred earlier in the year at the same school. The question was, what had caused them?

Initially, it was speculated that some sort of infection was responsible. However, the symptoms displayed by the patients were inconsistent with this. None, for example, had shown any evidence of fever.

Then, it was thought the victims had been exposed to some sort of poison, radioactive material, perhaps. The Chernobyl nuclear disaster had occurred less than a year prior. Had radioactive material somehow made it to this Kiev school? Not wanting to take any chances, hospital administrators contacted the Sanitation and Epidemics Station (Russia’s version of the CDC). It wasn’t long before SES technicians in protective suits were wandering the halls of the school with Geiger counters. The results, however, showed no signs of contamination.

Meanwhile, back at the hospital, the bloodwork of all the patients, including the four who had died, was back. And the doctors were in for a surprise. All had tested positive for the poison, thallium. Tests were then ordered on the exhumed corpses of the two earlier victims and returned a similar result.

With the discovery of thallium in the bodies, the symptoms made perfect sense. But while that question was now answered, another was raised. How had the victims come into contact with the deadly substance? SES officials suspected accidental exposure, perhaps as a result of careless pest control measures. The school building was thus subjected to a thorough sweep. No trace of the poison was found.

That left only one explanation for the six deaths - deliberate poisoning. What had started out as the suspected leak of radioactive materials was now a homicide investigation.

As detectives descended on the school and began questioning faculty and learners, their suspicions fell initially on a talented middle-grader who was said to be obsessed with chemistry. The boy had once played a prank on the gym teacher, coating his whistle with a mildly corrosive substance that had caused the man’s lips to blister. However, the youngster had no possible way of obtaining thallium and in any case had no motive for poisoning any of the victims. Besides, another of those afflicted was the school chemistry teacher, with whom the boy had a good relationship. That teacher had survived, despite suffering debilitating symptoms. Under questioning, he provided investigators with an interesting snippet of information. In addition to his role in the chemistry department, he was also responsible for the school’s food inventory.

That clue set alarm bells jangling with detectives. Suddenly the connection they’d been missing appeared crystal clear. All of the deaths were somehow connected to the school kitchen. The nutrition nurse; the Partorg who oversaw all of the school workers, including the kitchen staff; the chemistry teacher, who was responsible for food inventory; the technician who had been called in to fix the school’s broken refrigerator the day he fell ill; the metal shop teacher who had assisted him in the job; the children who had all eaten in the cafeteria. If there was a mass poisoner, investigators decided, he or she was to be found working in the kitchen.

The detectives’ first step before interrogating the kitchen staff was to speak to the SES workers who had carried out the Geiger sweep of the school. Had they noticed anything unusual while processing the kitchen area? Several of them had. A dishwasher, Tamara Ivanyutina, had made a nuisance of herself during the procedure, following the technicians around, constantly under their feet even after the area had been cordoned off. She’d been asked to leave several times and eventually had been removed forcibly after she became insolent and abusive.

While all of this was going on, a second team of detectives was working the investigation from a different angle, making the rounds of various geological labs in Kiev, trying to trace the source of the thallium. They soon hit paydirt. After finding a discrepancy in the inventory at one facility, they began interrogating lab technicians and soon extracted a tearful confession from one of them. The young woman said that she had given about 50 milligrams of Clerici solution to a friend of hers, something she’d been doing regularly since 1976. The friend had told her that her parents required it for pest control. Pressed for the friend’s name, the young lab tech said that it was Nina Maslenko. Nina, as it turned out, was the sister of Tamara Ivanyutina.

Tamara Maslenko (later Ivanyutina) was born in Tyumen, Siberia in 1942. Her parents, Anton and Maria, had been relocated there from war-torn Ukraine during WWII. They would spend several years in the unwelcoming backwater before returning eventually to Kiev, via the Ukrainian towns of Kherson and Tula. It was a decades-long sojourn, during which the couple had six children. They arrived back in Kiev in the early 80s to take up residence in a crumbling ruin of a building, where they shared an apartment with several other families. By then, four of their offspring had cut all ties with the family. It is not difficult to understand why.

Anton and Maria Maslenko appear to have been a particularly malevolent couple, who sought to instill in their children an ideology based on hatred and self-interest. Succeed at any cost and crush those who stand in your way; trust no one and let no slight go unpunished. This was their ethos, one that their remaining children, Nina and Tamara, readily bought into.

And that philosophy was more than just theoretical. Crammed into their overcrowded apartment, the Maslenkos were soon involved in disputes and squabbles with their neighbors. Those who made enemies of them, invariably, were not long for this world. One man was poisoned because his TV was too loud; a woman was killed after making an ill-advised remark about the squalid condition of the Maslenkos’ living area. Then Nina entered into a marriage of convenience with a much older man and he died within days of the wedding, leaving her a spacious apartment in the Kiev city center. She then seduced a younger beau but began poisoning him after he refused to marry her. The man survived but was left incapacitated and impotent.

Neither were these the first victims of the Maslenko clan. Anton is believed to have committed his first murder as far back as the 1930s. He would later admit to poisoning a female relative in the Seventies. The woman had had the temerity to suggest that he should prepare himself for the worst after Maria was hospitalized with a serious illness. “She dared imagine the death of my beloved wife,” Maslenko would later confess, “so I killed her.”

What is perhaps most shocking about these murders, is the casual indifference with which they were committed. Yet for all of the psychopathic exploits of her parents and sister, Tamara was the worst of the bunch.

The first murder that can be definitely attributed to Tamara was that of her husband, a truck driver who she’d married in haste and thereafter decided was below her station. Seeking a way out, Tamara had given no thought to divorce. Why concern yourself with such trivialities when there was a supply of thallium at the ready? The truck driver had departed on a road trip carrying a batch of sandwiches prepared by his wife and had never returned. Thereafter, Tamara had set her sights on a recent divorcee, seven years her junior.

Oleg Ivanyutina was instantly attracted to the pretty but overweight Tamara. It is easy too, to see what attracted her to him. His parents had a free standing house with a large backyard on the outskirts of Kiev. Tamara, who had ambitions of raising livestock and operating a butchery, undoubtedly had her eye on that property.

But it was soon clear that the elder Ivanyutins did not like Tamara. In truth, she was a difficult person to like – combative, rude and obnoxious, interested in nothing other than getting her own way. The Ivanyutins were keen on a grandchild, which Tamara, by now in her early forties, seemed incapable of producing. When they suggested adoption, Tamara balked. Eventually, frustrated with the situation, they gave Oleg and Tamara an ultimatum. They had a year to produce a grandchild, by whatever means. Failing that, the Ivanyutins would write Oleg out of their will and bequeath their house to some distant relative.

It was an ill-advised threat, one that amounted to a death sentence for those issuing it.

Oleg’s father was the first to die. He fell ill soon after eating a meal prepared by his daughter-in-law. His wife followed him to the grave just a few weeks after the funeral, having suffered many of the same symptoms – joint pain, abdominal cramps, hair loss, and ultimately heart failure. Despite symptoms that seemed to suggest otherwise, both deaths were put down to coronary problems.

With her in-laws out of the way, Tamara finally had her hands on a property big enough to realize her dream. Shortly thereafter, she began raising pigs. By all accounts, she was a good farmer, her animals fat and healthy. Her husband, meanwhile, appeared to have contracted the same disease that had taken his parents. He began steadily losing weight, lost all of his hair, and began suffering severe pains in his joints. Barely into his mid-thirties he looked twice that age and could only walk doubled over and supported by a cane.

Despite her burgeoning business, Tamara continued to work at her lowly job as a dishwasher in the school cafeteria. The reason for this was simple. Keeping livestock was an expensive undertaking and she lacked the funds to buy feed for her pigs. Working in the cafeteria gave her access to untold quantities of food that she could pilfer and carry home. She was hardly subtle about it either. She stole without any attempt at subterfuge. Almost daily, she’d be seen leaving the school premises carrying large, heavy bags.

Often, she’d be seen stalking the cafeteria floor chasing slow eaters from their meals which she’d then scoop up into one of her bags. On one occasion, two young children – a first-grader and a fifth-grader – approached the cook for some scraps to take home to their pet. Tamara was furious. She waited for the children outside and angrily demanded that they hand the food over to her. Within days of that incident both of the children became seriously ill, suffering joint pain and hair loss. They would remain so for over a year as Tamara continued to feed them small doses of poison, not enough to kill but certainly enough to keep them in agony. Even against children, she held a grudge for a long time.

But Tamara’s wholesale thievery had not gone unnoticed. The school’s nutrition nurse had eventually had enough and confronted her, instructing her to stay away from the refrigerators and the stoves and to stop harassing the children. When Tamara ignored this instruction, the nurse went to the chemistry teacher responsible for food inventory and he, in turn, reported the matter to the school Partorg. Tamara was hauled before the local Communist Party Committee, where she suffered a humiliating dressing-down before being released with a warning. Not long after, the nurse and the Partorg became ill and ultimately died. The chemistry teacher suffered similar symptoms but survived.

With her accusers dispatched, Tamara decided on a new ploy. She sabotaged the cafeteria’s refrigeration units, hoping that the food would spoil and that she’d then be allowed to take it home to her pigs. But the school was quick to attend to the problem, summoning a repairman that same day. Tamara then poisoned a pot of buckwheat soup that she knew would be given to the repairman for his lunch. The twelve children that were also poisoned, she considered collateral damage. She had never liked children anyway.

But the mass poisoning had been a major miscalculation on her part. With evidence of thallium in the bloodwork of the victims and eyewitness testimony as to her strange behavior, Tamara was placed under her arrest. When a vial of Clerici solution was discovered at her house, the game was finally up for the serial poisoner.

With Tamara now in custody, attention turned to her parents. The police, however, had very little evidence against them at this point, aside from the fact that they had procured the thallium. But then Maria Maslenko made it easy for them. She tried to kill a neighbor with a batch of poisoned pancakes (the woman’s only offense appeared to be that Maria was jealous of her war veteran’s pension). Fortunately, the woman was suspicious of Maria’s sudden show of generosity and rather than eat the pancakes she packed them up and took them to the police. Tests would prove that they were tainted with enough thallium to kill several times over.

All four members of the murderous Maslenko clan would eventually be tried for murder. Nina would face only one charge, for killing her elderly husband. She was sentenced to the relatively light term of 16 years for the crime. Anton and Maria Maslenko were also convicted. Their sentences of thirteen and ten years respectively would amount to life in prison, as both died behind bars.

As for the primary focus of the murder inquiry, Tamara Ivanyutina was found guilty on multiple counts and sentenced to death. The Soviet state was not in the habit of making public statements about executions but it is believed that she was put to death by a bullet to the back of the head sometime in the late eighties. She would be the last woman executed in the Soviet Union.

Subsequent to the execution, investigators began looking into suspicious deaths in other places where the Maslenkos had lived before arriving back in Kiev. In each of those cities, they found numerous unexplained deaths directly connected to the family, although no further charges were ever brought.