When conversations about serial killers strike up, some well-known names soon enter the fray. Infamous characters like Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy, Ed Gein and John Wayne Gacy. The criminal phenomenon, while not uniquely American, is very much regarded as having its spiritual home in the US.
Of course, Britain has more than enough serial killers of its own, as do most other populous countries.
In terms of sheer numbers and shocking kill count, however, some of the most brutal multiple murderers in modern history hail from Russia and the former Soviet Union. We know as much now, but back when some of these killers were active, their grotesque exploits were not well publicised. In fact, quite the opposite. Information about these evil killers’ terrible crimes was actively suppressed.
This scandalous Soviet cover-up of serial killers may have been for political gain, but it’s likely to have cost many, many people their lives.
During The Cold War, the Soviet Union was obsessed with undermining the United States in any way possible. Any minor win that they could claim, they would. The US did similar, of course, but the Soviets were especially concerned with how superior they could appear to their own people.
Serial murderers in Russia were routinely covered up in order to keep their existence in the country as quiet as possible. The policy came from the Kremlin and would even extend to the suppression and banning of advanced policing techniques in order to help catch serial killers. Instead, politically convenient scapegoats were found or the crimes were simply hushed up.
The reason behind it was one of optics. America had, for some time, had a global reputation as being the home of serial killers. The Soviets decided to weaponise this viewpoint by covering up their own multiple murderers and pushing the narrative that the concept was almost exclusive to the USA and a by-product of American culture and capitalism.
Shades of Chernobyl
This may all sound somewhat familiar. The meltdown of the No. 4 reactor in the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant back in 1986 was, of course, an enormous disaster that resulted in the deaths of many people. The Soviets regarded it, not just as an actual disaster, but as a PR disaster.
‘The official position of the state is that global nuclear catastrophe is not possible in the Soviet Union.’
That’s a line that may well have come from the 2019 television dramatisation, but the production was well-researched. The parallels between Chernobyl and the serial killer cover-up are stark.
What the policy led to
The media blackout about serial killers and murders in general, led to most Russian citizens being blithely unaware that, while not exactly commonplace, such things did go on. The public’s ignorance isn’t too damaging (although knowledge is power, of course). Worse than that was the ignorance of Russian police forces.
Such was the efficacy of the cover-up of such crimes, even police officers were largely unaware of such things. Outside of Moscow and other major cities, no one really knew that the serial killer phenomenon even existed. Those that did were assured it was a western thing and nothing for them to worry about.
Russian police’s lack of knowledge meant that any serial killer operating during the decades of the suppression policy, effectively, had it easy. Keen to ‘solve’ cases, most police forces were only too happy to write off murders as terrorist or cult activity. Allowing the true perpetrator to not only get away with it but be able to continue their murderous ways.
The Butcher of Rostov
The greatest example of the state’s attitude and approach to serial killers must surely be that of Andrei Chikatilo.
‘The Butcher of Rostov’ was able to go undetected for 12 years, as he went about raping, torturing, killing and mutilating more than 50 women. His ability to go undetained wasn’t due to his cunning, it was a direct result of the police’s ignorance of serial killer pathology. Forces were kept in the dark about serial killers and how they operated allowing the worst kinds of monsters to carry out their evil deeds almost entirely unimpeded.
Chikatilo’s brutal crimes were not reported on by the media for fear that the news would damage the USSR’s reputation and undermine their declaration that serial killers were solely a product of the morally corrupt West.
The shocking tale is one covered brilliantly by author Rovert Cullen in his 1993 book The Killer Department. The film version, Citizen X, is also a must watch for any true crime buff.
The truth and why Soviet might have had so many serial killers
Part of the reason that the Soviets were so keen to conspire to keep their serial killer problem quiet was due to its scale. As we’ve mentioned, it was politically savvy - in Soviet officials’ minds - to hide the truth and present such killers as a product of American capitalism. The truth was damaging to Soviet Russia’s reputation. Or so officials thought.
What was that truth? Well, not only did they have sociopaths stalking the streets of Russian cities, but they had also quite a lot of them. Why, though?
Criminologists and sociologists have long posited that extreme social turmoil and violence can be so damaging that it can effectively create a generation of serial killers. Or, at least, poison small sections of that society, leading to a new attitude towards extreme violence.
This theory is usually discussed in the context of war. After vicious wars, it’s believed by some that the effects can be seen in those that took part. Famous 20th century examples include ideas around the impact of World War Two and the Vietnam War.
If social interruption, upheaval and trauma can encourage a spike in serial killers, then the generation that endured the horrendous atrocities of Stalinist Russia must surely have been at risk.
The truth, however, could be somewhat less interesting. A country the size of Russia, with as big a population as it has, will just have some serial killers. It’s just basic probability. Pretending otherwise is, as we just considered, as dangerous as it is ridiculous.