A Short Path to Murder

The news made the front page of The Moscow Times last week, but scarcely caused a stir elsewhere: Sergei Rakhovsky, aged 30 and unemployed, confessed to raping and murdering 24 people in a killing spree dating back to 1987. An everyday occurrence in Russia? Not quite. At least, not yet.


It all began with Andrei Chikatilo, the mild-mannered grandfather who was convicted in October by a court in Rostov-on-Don of killing 52 women and children. For a society already on the verge of hysteria over the collapse in law and order, this was the final straw. The end of the Soviet Union had already brought such alien ills as unemployment and inflation. Now came that quintessential American creation: the serial killer.


Nothing could be more wrong - and not only because Chikatilo claimed more than half his victims before Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985. In fact, he was far from the first Soviet serial killer. That was an impression created by the veil of secrecy that the Communists long hung around most serious crime.


According to Andrei Tkachenko, a psychiatrist from Moscow's Serbsky Institute who was called in to examine Chikatilo, 78 serial killers have been through that feared institution's top-security wards since current records started in 1968; dozens more had already been treated in the decades before.


Since certifying his most famous patient "sane" in late 1991, Tkachenko has examined another seven such horrific killers: among them the "Taganrog Monster", who strangled women with their pantyhose, and Sergei Golovkin, the Muscovite known to the Russian press as "the boa".


A young man accused of killing four women within a week is in a ward beside Tkachenko's office. The doctor expects to be welcoming Rakhovsky behind the Serbsky's walls this year.


Although comparisons are difficult, Russia now appears well up in the league table beside the United States, whose own Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy, etc. are already enshrined in the hall of infamy.


Tkachenko pins the apparent prevalence of serial murder in Russia in part on the streak of violence running through society - from the savagery of the civil war to the twin disruption wrought by World War II and by Stalin. A new twist has been added in recent years by the atrocities accompanying the ethnic clashes in the borderlands of the Caucasus and Central Asia.


Further impetus comes from the "machismo" of Russian society. Many of the serial killers examined by Tkachenko began their "careers" as rapists or minor sex offenders. With Chikatilo, as with most others, the desire to take control and inflict pain is inevitably channelled through sex. Thankfully, only a tiny minority goes as far as to kill.


But in Russia, so Tkachenko argues, where the threshold of acceptable behavior is set at a point already classified as sexual harassment in the United States or much of Europe, the path to murder can be perilously short.


None of these background factors looks likely to improve in the near future. Nor is there cause for optimism on the other side of the equation, where an undermanned and underpaid police force is struggling against rising crime of all sorts. Chikatilo was at large for 12 years, slipping in and out of the militia net; the six years that Rakhovsky spent at large were far from atypical.


In both cases it was more than just police incompetence or lack of computers, walkie-talkies or gasoline for squad cars. The serial killer, almost by definition, presents an extraordinary challenge to law-enforcement bodies.


Rakhovsky lived at home with his parents; Chikatilo was a party member and graduate who wrote a column on morality for the local Communist newspaper. Another past mass murderer, Andrei Slivko, who sought his victims exclusively among young pioneers, helped police in the long and predictably fruitless search to find himself. Who would have suspected any of them?


"The serial killer is always extremely difficult to catch because his personality is of a noncriminal character", said Leonid Akubzhanov, the judge who convicted Chikatilo. "Judging by his deeds he is a criminal, but he does not come from the criminal world. He is fully integrated into society".


Rakhovsky is behind bars. How many more like him are still at large?


Peter Conradi, Moscow correspondent for The European, is the author of "The Red Ripper - Inside the Mind of Russia's Most Brutal Serial Killer.