Russian serial killers: Andrei Chikatilo and beyond

Russian dolls

When we think of serial killers, the usual characters from history and their miserable mugshots tend to spring to mind - and for the most part, they are British or American citizens. From Christie to Dahmer, from Gacy to Nilsen, we tend to have a concretely Western view of these lone killers.

However, if those of us who are grimly fascinated by these monstrous humans ever look over to the history of the former Soviet Union, we see that there is a wealth of cases from that nation to investigate, each with a story which is comparably ghoulish to their British or American counterparts - and sometimes with a much higher kill-count. Time to take a look at some of Russia’s most prolific and terrifying serial killers.

Mikhail Novosyolov - 22 murder convictions

‘The Necrophile Rebel’

The turbulent history of Novosyolov - whose span of crimes lasted from 1977–1995 - began when he wounded two men with a knife during an argument, earning him a 17-year sentence.

On his release, he visited a prostitute who mocked his sexual performance, an experience that may have inspired his murderous campaign of violence against women. His first victim was a girl he had never met before and, upon killing her, he fled the scene. Sometime later he returned and, unable to resist his urges, he committed necrophilia on her corpse.

To lure his victims, Novosyolov would pose as a professional before he attacked them with blunt instruments or choked them. Invariably, he would sexually interfere with their corpses once they were dead.

Novosyolov managed to avoid the attentions of the police for quite some time as he committed murders in very different locations; he had several passports, enabling him to move around Russia under different identities.

He was ultimately arrested for attempting to steal an air rifle. Once detained it was revealed that he was already being investigated for three murders and his homicidal history soon came to light. Upon being convicted, he was found to be insane and was sent to civil commitment - meaning he was locked away in an asylum for life.

Vasili Komaroff - 33 murder convictions

‘The Wolf of Moscow’

Another early 20th-century murderer, Komaroff was an alcoholic who worked in the Russian military. During the Russo-Japanese war of 1904, he headed to East Russia and the Japanese border where he became wealthy via nefarious means.

Later in life, he joined the Red Army and improved himself, learning how to read and write. He eventually became a platoon commander, even escaping capture by the Tsarist White Army. Moving his family to Moscow and changing his family name as a result of this experience, Komaroff acquired some horses and began to run a transport business whilst also trading his livestock. It is quite possible that Komaroff killed many more men in combat but it was in Moscow where his murderous rampage began in earnest.

Many people who wanted to buy horses from Komaroff would never be seen again. Komaroff would invite his victims to his stable, drink vodka with them and then strangle them, beat them with a hammer or cut their throats. Komaroff would hide corpses in his stable and then ultimately dump them in the Moskva river. When his wife found out what he was up to, rather than turn him in, she began to help him with the murders.

In the end, it was his routine that got Komaroff caught. Gossip began to flow when bodies only surfaced on Thursdays and Saturdays buried in shallow graves or carelessly thrown in the river. These gruesome discoveries followed Komaroff’s visits to the markets on Wednesdays and Fridays where he would meet customers, looking for horses and his next victims.

Both he and his wife were arrested and put in prison. Though Komaroff tried to kill himself in jail he was unsuccessful and both he and his wife were executed by firing squad.

Alexander Pichuskin - 48 murder convictions

‘The Chessboard Killer’

Operating between 1992 and 2006, Alexander Pichuskin became known as ‘The Chessboard Killer’ due to a bizarre mission he felt he had to complete. Pichuskin operated in Bitsa Park, Moscow - a place where middle-aged men congregate to play chess in the open air - a detail which presumably inspired his morbid plan. The first body to be found was that of Mikhail Odichuk. Later it came to light that Odichuk had been a classmate of Pichuskin and they had planned to murder somebody together, for fun. Realising that his friend wasn’t serious about the expedition, Pichuskin became upset and killed Odichuk instead, bashing in his skull and causing severe injuries to the head.

In the majority of cases, his murder was the same. Pichuskin would break his victims’ skulls with a hammer or similar blunt instrument and then, bizarrely, stick a broken bottle or a tree branch into their headwounds. He would make no attempt to hide the bodies and neither did he rob them once they were dead. Previous to this more careless period, he would dispose of bodies by throwing them into a manhole which led to a sewer outlet operating beneath Bitsa Park.

Police at first believed that inmates from a sanatorium near the park were to blame. However, Pichuskin eventually gave his game away after he switched to killing women. He arranged to go for a walk with a woman named Marina Moskalyova whom he later beat to death in the park.

Unfortunately for Pichuskin, Marina’s mobile phone had stopped working so she had left a note for her family telling them where she had gone and left Pichuskin’s number in case they needed to contact her. This led the police directly to Pichuskin, who they now suspected of 14 murders. However, he eventually confessed to 61 - 48 of which he could be convicted for. In his flat, police found a chessboard with squares that the killer had numbered. His grisly aim had been to kill 64 people, one for every square.

Andrei Chikatilo - 52 murder convictions

‘The Butcher of Rostov’

Perhaps the most well-known Russian killer on our list, Andrei Chikatilo embarked on a 12-year reign of slaughter before a very public trial sealed his infamy. During his time in court, he posed for bizarre photos and at one point even exposed himself, searing his identity on the public consciousness.

Whilst free, the sadistic killer had left bodies for the police to find with eyes gouged out and organs removed - the body parts often ripped from the corpses by biting. These unfortunate victims were most often children or prostitutes, adding further fear to those in the area that the killer was preying on the most vulnerable members of society.

Chikatilo - like so many others of his kind - experienced something of a traumatic childhood. As an infant, his mother told him stories of his dead brother having been cannibalized. This story had a very real air of truth as, in Stalinist Russia where food shortages were many and often, cases of cannibalism were not all that rare. Added to this dark family history, it’s also quite possible that he may have seen his mother raped by soldiers whilst he was a baby. This turbulent childhood was later compounded by his impotence which ruined any relationship he attempted to have - though he somehow did manage to marry and have a child.

When he found work as a schoolteacher, these early experiences combined into a pathological and psychopathic personality. He was soon fired from his role at the school after it was found that he had molested students. After quickly finding a new job that required extensive travel, he set up a secret second home. His first murder took place in this new house. He began regularly murdering as a recreational activity, racking up 52 traceable murders in the process. As the bodies were largely found near bus and train stations, police began to patrol such transit points until they ultimately found him engaged with a prostitute in public. Arrested initially for this sexual misdemeanour, his past soon unravelled in front of the officers who realised they had captured a monster.

Mikhail Popkov - 83 murder convictions

‘The Werewolf’

Known as ‘The Werewolf’ due to the nocturnal nature of his activities, Mikhail Popkov was also referred to as the ‘Angarsk Maniac’ due to the level of violence he unleashed on those unfortunates who crossed his path. Popkov is the most prolific on our list but was also arguably the most mild-mannered. This combined with the fact he was a police officer for some time likely enabled him to operate for much longer, prolonging the misery he inflicted throughout Siberia.

Not much is known about Popkov’s early life, but we do know that he was married to Elena by whom he had a daughter named Ekaterina - and there is no evidence to suggest he had a troubled home life - at least externally. Internally, Popkov held the suspicion that his wife had committed adultery and rather than face this, his twisted psychology set him on a path of frequent and brutal murder.

Believing women - particularly those who were inebriated - to be immoral, Popkov would use his police uniform to his advantage and pick semi-drunken women to offer a lift. Given the sub-zero temperatures in the region and the trustworthy look of a man in uniform, he would usually be taken up on this offer of kindness. Popkov would knock his victims unconscious in an isolated place and then undress them before attacking them with any one of a range of blunt or sharp instruments - including knives, pool cues and baseball bats. He would then, rape and strangle, decapitate or stab them. Once dead, he would sometimes perform necrophilia on the bodies.

Part way through his rampage, one victim managed to escape his clutches and police pulled Popkov in for questioning - but somewhat unbelievably his wife provided him with a false alibi. Thankfully, Popkov was ultimately captured when tyre tracks were found near a murder scene that could be traced to the police force, resulting in DNA testing of 3,500 officers, of whom Popkov was one. With 83 murders to his name, he remains the most murderous man in Russia’s history - and the fourth most prolific serial killer in world history.