For some reason, “serial killers” seem to be mostly an American phenomenon. But there have also been serial killers in other countries, and one of the most brutal was in the Soviet Union in the midst of the Cold War.
Andrei Chikatilo’s police mug shot
In the summer of 1982, Soviet police in the city of Rostov, on the Don River, were facing something they had never seen before. It began when the body of a 13-year old girl was found in a wooded area: she had been sexually assaulted, stabbed, mutilated, and her eyes gouged out. Soon afterwards, two more young women were discovered, with similar wounds.
From the beginning, the police recognized that all of the murders were probably being committed by the same person or persons. But in 1980s Russia, the phenomenon of the “serial killer” was virtually unknown, and the detectives there did not quite know what to make of it. At first, it was theorized that the killings were ritual sacrifices made by some sort of satanic cult: at one point the police postulated that the inmates of a nearby mental health hospital were involved.
Meanwhile, the killings continued. By 1984, there were 23 victims: some of these were prostitutes, some were young children, (both boys and girls), and some were local women up to age 45. All had been sexually assaulted and mutilated. In some instances, there were clear teeth marks where the victim’s body had been chewed. By now, the police realized that they were dealing with a serial killer. But little information was released by the state-run media, partly because the police did not want to disclose information to the killer, and partly because Soviet authorities were ideologically reluctant to admit the existence of such a crime spree within the Communist state.
Rostov police began rounding up and questioning dozens of “suspicious” people, but had little in the way of hard evidence, and no good suspect. One of the men they questioned had been observed by police in town as he approached and talked to several young women, then went off into an abandoned building with a prostitute. When confronted, he turned out to be a middle-aged local Communist Party member named Andrei Chikatilo. A blood sample was taken from him for comparison with stains found at the murder scenes, but was misinterpreted by the police lab. Chikatilo also did not fit the profile of the sort of suspect the police were looking for—they assumed that the serial killer would be a young man, anti-social, and with a history of sexual violence. Chikatilo fit none of that, and so he was released.
But by 1990, as the body count continued to grow, the detectives noticed a pattern: nearly all of the victims were being found in patches of woodland that were located near bus and train stations, indicating that the killer was likely using the public transportation system to move around. This was of course not very surprising, since most citizens of the USSR had no private automobile and nearly everyone took the local bus or train. But it was the only good lead the police had, and so a plan was put into effect: Soviet uniformed police made a heavily-visible presence at most of the train and bus stations in Rostov, but carefully left a few, on the city’s outskirts, apparently unwatched. In reality, these were being monitored by plainclothes police, who were hoping that the unknown killer would be forced to operate in these areas and might be spotted.
In November, the gamble paid off: an undercover police officer saw a middle-aged man walking out of a patch of woods near an isolated train station, who had a cut on his finger and a smear of blood on his cheek. When confronted, the man explained that he was just taking a walk and had cut himself on some thorns. The policeman, having no good reason to hold him, let him go, but filed a report on the encounter. The man he had stopped had identified himself as 54-year old Andrei Chikatilo. The same man who had been questioned by the police back in 1984.
The next day, the body of a young girl was found near this very spot. Chikatilo now became the prime suspect, and was placed under surveillance. Shortly after, he was watched as he approached a young boy, with a bottle of beer. The police, thinking that he intended to lure the boy away with him, acted immediately and arrested him. It was November 20, 1990.
Under Soviet criminal law, the police could only hold Chikatilo for ten days before they had to either charge him with a crime or release him. But although the Rostov detectives had now concluded he was the serial killer they were looking for, they had no witnesses and no forensic evidence linking him to any of the murders. The only way they could convict him was through a confession.
What followed was the classic “good cop/bad cop” ploy. For hours, police detectives aggressively grilled Chikatilo, who stubbornly admitted nothing. Then, a police psychiatrist named Alexander Bukhanovsky was brought in, who adopted a different approach: he was friendly and sociable, informing the suspect that he was only a doctor and was only here to help him, not to gain evidence. After spending nearly the entire day with Bukhanovsky, Chikatilo began to talk. The story he told was horrifying. Not only did he confess to all of the 36 murders that the police had linked him to, but also an additional 17 that they did not know about. His crimes extended back over 12 years.
In the basement of the local KGB office, Chikatilo told authorities how he had gained the confidence of his victims, how he had lured them into the woods, and, using mannequins to demonstrate, how he had killed them. He guided police to shallow graves in the woods where he had buried some of his victims. And like most serial killers, who tend to be sociopaths without the capacity for emotional attachment, he exhibited almost a professional pride in how he had accomplished it all.
Chikatilo had suffered a violent upbringing. As a young boy in the 1930s, he had grown up on a farm in the Ukraine during Stalin’s brutal “collectivization” campaign, when Soviet farmers were routinely brutalized, famine swept the area, and stories of cannibalism were widespread. During the Second World War Chikatilo’s father was captured by the Nazis, then, like all returned Soviet POWs, was treated as a traitor and potential spy by the Stalin regime.
In the post-Stalin era of Khrushchev and Brezhnev, Chikatilo seemed to everyone like a typical young man. But privately, he had difficulties. He found himself attracted to much younger girls and boys, but was also frustrated by impotence and a lack of sexual ability. In 1955, he applied to a university law school in Moscow but was denied when, although he was of above-average intelligence, he did poorly on the entrance exam. He then got a degree in a vocational school and married a friend of his sister in 1963. They moved into a Rostov apartment block and had two children.
Chikatilo joined the Communist Party and worked as a telephone technician while pursuing degrees in engineering and Marxism-Leninism. In 1970, he took a job as a teacher in a secondary school. Although by Soviet standards he and his family were leading a pretty good life, Chikatilo, still plagued by sexual difficulties, had come to view himself as a failure. He began sexually molesting his young students and, to avoid trouble with the state authorities, the school’s director quietly fired him in 1974. Chikatilo moved to the village of Shakty, on the remote outskirts of the city, and began teaching at another school.
But now Chikatilo’s sexual and psychological frustrations overtook him. Unknown to his wife, he rented a small three-room cottage outside town. In 1978, he lured a nine-year old girl there by offering her bubble gum, raped her, stabbed her, and dumped her body in a nearby river. Although bloodstains had been found on the street near Chikatilo’s cottage and he had been questioned by the Soviet police, as a Communist Party member and a married family man he was viewed as “respectable” and was never considered as a possible criminal suspect. Instead, the local police arrested a local man with a previous history of rape—who was convicted of the girl’s murder and executed.
For Chikatilo, it was the first of what would become a 12-year murder spree. But the encounter with the police had scared him, and he laid low for the next few years. He left his teaching job and became a low-level government employee at a distribution center—a job that allowed him to travel freely in the area and to be away from his home and office for days at a time.
For a serial killer, it presented perfect opportunities, and Chikatilo took advantage. In September 1981, he picked up a 17-year old girl in front of the Rostov library, walked her to a patch of woods, assaulted her, and killed her. He would not stop until he was caught nine years later. After some of the murders, Chikatilo, he later confessed, would cut pieces from the body, take them back to his cottage, and eat them.
By the time Chikatilo’s trial took place in 1992, the Soviet Union had collapsed and been replaced by the Commonwealth of Independent States, and the trial became post-Soviet Russia’s first “media circus”. The serial killer was dubbed “The Butcher of Rostov” and “The Red Ripper”, and people followed his trial and read his confessions with morbid fascination. It was the sort of thing, they thought, that only happened in decadent and violent countries like the United States. In court, Chikatilo was encased in an iron cage to protect him from the throngs of spectators who crowded into the room. At one point, he gave a rambling two-hour speech to the court blaming his actions on Stalin, the war, and the Soviet system: at another time, he screamed at the judge and then dropped his pants. The Russian press wondered whether he was crazy, or just pretending to be.
The trial took six months, and it took the judge two months to write his verdict. But in October 1992, Chikatilo was found guilty and sentenced to death. He was executed on February 15, 1994.