Why you should care

Because it’s not easy being a mass murderer.

Some occupations are unjustifiable, like selling pyramid schemes to retirees or getting kids hooked on heroin. But being Stalin’s chief executioner takes detestable professions to a new height — a height scaled by Vasili Blokhin, the chubby but ruthless Soviet major-general who murdered 10,000 people during Stalin’s purges and World War II. Donning a leather apron and caressing his German pistol, he waited as guards brought scores of men before him each night — one by one — for a quick shot to the back of the head.

The 2010 Guinness World Records named him history’s “Most Prolific Executioner,” a title that’s impossible to prove, because there are so many contenders for the dubious honor — from Nazis to the Khmer Rouge. But Blokhin was unique in his eagerness to perform most of the dirty deeds himself, and he played an indispensable role in helping Stalin eliminate his political adversaries, both real and imagined.

For types like Blokhin, killing is a way to ignore one’s deepest fears and get a sense of omnipotence.

Dr. Harold J. Bursztajn, co-founder of Harvard Medical School’s Program in Psychiatry and the Law

Throughout history, the credit for perpetrating massacres and genocides has belonged almost exclusively to a handful of short, angry men, such as Stalin or Pol Pot. But it wasn’t their fingers pulling the trigger or flipping switches outside gas chambers. The darkest chapters of human history were made possible by hardworking antiheroes who, like Blokhin, took perverse comfort in others’ suffering.

“For types like Blokhin, killing is a way to ignore one’s deepest fears and get a sense of omnipotence,” says Dr. Harold J. Bursztajn, co-founder of Harvard Medical School’s Program in Psychiatry and the Law. “Such behaviors can easily become addictive.”

A portrait of Vasili Blokhin looking stern and militaristic.

A portrait of Vasili Blokhin.

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Blokhin certainly could have used a rehab program, considering that he was known to execute as many as 300 people a night. And since practice makes perfect, the Soviet executioner became a virtuoso, so much so that he designed his own uniform and set of tools for his trade: He wore a leather apron and gloves, and he used his personal set of German Walther pistols, which performed better and didn’t tend to jam like the standard-issue Soviet handguns.

This machinelike focus and reliability is what gained him the admiration of his commander-in-chief, who was somewhat of a paranoiac. “Stalin had very serious trust issues,” says Norman M. Naimark, a history professor at Stanford University and author of Stalin’s Genocides. To prevent police chiefs from gaining too much power, Stalin frequently replaced them, says Naimark, “so it’s sort of amazing he kept this man around for as long as he did.”

No one would have guessed, based on his humble beginnings, that Blokhin would one day serve as Stalin’s henchman. Destined to become a farmer, he was diverted after being sent to fight with the czarist army in World War I. He then joined the Communist Party and the Cheka, the Bolsheviks’ renowned secret police force, where he caught Stalin’s eye with his innate talent for getting his hands dirty. The Soviet chieftain then put Blokhin in charge of his execution squad under the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs.

Despite having a team of men under him, Blokhin never stopped personally carrying out killings. He especially enjoyed executing high-profile enemies of the party, like writer Isaac Babel and journalist Mikhail Koltsov. But the most heinous episode of this man’s sinister career was the Katyn massacre of 1940, when Stalin gave him direct orders to kill 7,000 Polish generals in 28 days. Blokhin obliged, and the communist leader rewarded him for his exemplary service with the Order of the Red Banner.

Justice eventually caught up with the murdering mastermind. Following Stalin’s death in 1953, successor Nikita Khrushchev decided to strip Blokhin of his rank as major-general and revoked all of his privileges and awards. After 30 years of shooting people in the head — and just months after being demoted by Khrushchev — Stalin’s lethal weapon took the coward’s way out by committing suicide. “For a narcissistic person like him, it must have been intolerable to suddenly lose control like that and have to face all he’d been avoiding,” says Bursztajn. “So he decided to take control the only way he knew.”

Blokhin’s life should probably be remembered as a cautionary tale. Yet, after decades of cold-blooded assassinations, his grave in Moscow still attracts visitors who leave flowers and pay their respects. To them, he was a communist hero.

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