SERIAL KILLERS: The serial killers of Russia are of a significantly different breed, often sporting the epithet of ‘maniac’, ‘ripper’ or ‘monster’ – and there is a kind of crude brutality in their methods. But it is a rare individual that makes a nation re-consider their ban on the death penalty. Alexander Pichushkin, also known as the ‘Bitsa Park Maniac’ and ‘The Chessboard Killer’, is one such murderer. Katya Gladiadis investigates.
Now, Russia is not the easiest place to obtain accurate information from. Between any potential corruption in the police force and the nature of record keeping between the rise and fall of the Soviet Union, information is hard to obtain, let alone trust. I’ve struggled and fought to find consistency and found the journalistic attempts at recording his crimes wanting.
So I have decided to rely most on documented clips of Pichushkin, statements of family, neighbours and investigators involved. I’ve also correlated information from various news articles – including Russian newspapers and documentaries to try and piece together a more complete picture of his life.
There are many reasons I find this particular killer fascinating, and hopefully I will get to them all.
In 1974, when Pichushkin was born, Russia was not Russia but the U.S.S.R under Leonid Brezhnev. While Russian history is immensely fascinating, I will keep the discussion of politics to a minimum – except to say that as a poor family in a communist country, growing up would have been an entirely different experience for Pichushkin.
To illustrate this, his primary home was given to his mother by his maternal grandparents, who remained close by. It was a two bedroom flat, with one room acting as a lounge and a sleeping area. Apart from a few years of his life, he lived in the tiny space he was allotted initially to share with his mother. Later on there was a temporary stepfather and a rumoured half sister and others, but those I cannot verify.
This flat was situated in the Konkovo district of southwest Moscow, with Bitsa Park’s 22 km2 of wilderness close to hand.
It appears he came from a loving, if poor, single-parent household. There was no abuse in the home; Pichushkin has never claimed it and his mother has only ever stated that she did the best for her children. Though she has taken the blame for her son’s actions upon herself, feeling that she must have failed somewhere.
Reports from family and neighbours suggest that as a boy he was animal loving, polite, and sociable – if a little shy. A neighbour, Svetlana Mortyakova, stated that she had, at one time, discovered him in the stairwell of the building, mourning and speechless over the death of his cat. At what age this was, I am not 100 per cent certain. After all, having empathy for animals is surprising. It would be naive to assume that all serial killers are cruel to animals, though it is a well-publicised ‘sign’ of psychopathy / sociopathy.
What I am sure of is that at the age of 4 there was an incident that caused damage to his frontal lobe, an area of the brain that handles anger, decision, and impulse control. I can only find one instance of what follows in the records. Alexander’s mother told interviewers that he fell from a swing, which as he sat up then swung back and struck his forehead.
Pichushkin became an entirely different boy after that – prone to aggression and impulsive behaviour. His mother, concerned that he was falling behind and wanting the best for him, made the decision to remove him from mainstream school. He was placed instead in an institution for children with learning disabilities, which would only have furthered his hostile behaviour and stalled his education.
Alexander, or ‘Sasha’ as is the usual shortening of the name in Russia, became close to his maternal grandfather, who seemed to see Pichushkin’s intelligence. He made an offer to his daughter, that he would take Alexander into his home. She agreed and his grandfather became what was likely the closest thing to a father figure in his life – he never knew his father, who had walked out early on.
It’s apparent that his Grandfather was the one person who encouraged Pichushkin in the pursuit of intellectual activities outside of school. As he saw it, his grandfather taught him to ‘be a man’. This seemed to consist of going to Bitsa Park, playing chess and talking with other men while drinking vodka. Chess gave Alexander a different way of looking at things, which he came to excel at, much to his Grandfather’s pride. The game soothed Sasha’s aggression by giving him a competitive outlet, playing exhibition games in Bitsa Park, regularly beating the men who congregated there. He would often skip school to spend time in Bitsa Park.
Unfortunately, towards the end of his adolescence, I haven’t been able to find the exact date, his grandfather passed away. By all accounts this tore Alexander apart. He moved back into his mother’s flat and began to drink vodka heavily. At this point he had a dog, allegedly given to him by his grandfather, that he cared for dearly, possibly as the last vestige of his grandfather’s memory. He still played chess, both at home and in Bitsa Park.
While it is conjecture, I am of the opinion that Pichushkin felt abandoned by his grandfather, as he had been by his father. Though I feel that this projection of abandonment is somewhat unreasonable, I have some empathy for him. His grandfather was the only person who observed and nurtured any potential in Alexander when it was assumed he had none. And that was gone.
Since I have been unable to pinpoint his grandfather’s death to even a year, I cannot say how much time passed between his moving back in with his mother and the time of his first murder. I know his dog passed away in this time, which further upset Pichushkin, sending him deeper into alcoholism and depression.
It is rumoured only that he took to scaring children in this time, holding them out of windows claiming their lives were in his hands, while recording it on a video camera. All I have seen to support this are some home videos that were televised on a Russian news report . This footage shows him holding a figure, claiming he was about to throw them out of a 10th storey window while laughing, the individual does seem to fight him at this revelation but it all seems in jest, truthfully. There is someone else operating the camera so I doubt it actually happened in that instance.
I would not be surprised if he was physically imposing to younger children, the same programme also stated that Pichushkin was interested in bodybuilding – another activity that would make use of his aggression, was competitive and takes some mental cunning and fortitude. Footage and photos were shown of Sasha posing his bare torso in a typical fashion for such competitions.
1992 marks a number of significant things. However, before I venture down that particular road I think it should be noted that Andrei Chikatilo, the man Alexander would come to admire and measure himself against, had been apprehended in late 1990 for his crimes. Whether or not Pichushkin was following Chikatilo’s investigation at this point is hard to say, but his highly publicised trial began on the 14th of April 1992, five days after Alexander’s own 18th birthday. And on this momentous milestone he decided to give himself a birthday gift, his first victim.
“This first murder,” he would later say, “it’s like first love. It’s unforgettable.”
Mikhail Odichuk was a fellow student at Pichushkin’s school, and he never intended to kill his schoolmate. His desire was for Mikhail to join him in a ‘murder expedition’, Mikhail agreed thinking it was in jest. As they walked Bitsa Park together Pichushkin started to point out potential victims, their vulnerabilities, theorising on how best to do the deed.
Alexander Pichushkin and Mikhail Odichuk (Image: Supplied)
What exactly happened next, I’m not certain. Mikhail must have refused to participate and Pichushkin, either uncertain of Mikhail’s silence or out of anger, decided his first victim in that moment.
Mikhail Odichuk died screaming, according to Pichushkin, with at least 21 blows to the skull.
When Mikhail’s body was found, Pichushkin was questioned by police as a suspect, but was not pursued further based on a lack of solid evidence. The crime went unsolved and Pichushkin could breathe easy.
It was nine years before he would kill again. Why? That is only known to Alexander Pichushkin and he has never seen fit to solve that mystery. Perhaps his desire was sated. Or maybe the close call with the police gave him pause. While this violence was unforgettable by his own words, in his mind perhaps the experience needed analysing, refining.
As much as I would like to cover each death to give the victims their due, not all bodies were found and only 52 of the 61 deaths he claimed were recalled to the police in grisly detail. Besides that, what is supposed to be an article would become a novelette. Thus, I will stick to what I can confirm.
When his killing spree really began in earnest in 2001 things were different, he experimented. Some victims he strangled or asphyxiated, one he shot in the head with a pen gun he bought from a man at work – I’d describe that one in more detail, but truthfully the deed was done so quickly that Pichushkin himself seemed disappointed with the experience. The death was too quick and his own description of the actual death amounts to a couple of sentences.
“… I walked up to him, put the pen to his temple and shot. But the gun misfired. I reloaded the pen and shot again. Second shot killed him… At first he was snoring. After the shot he was quiet. I lifted the rags from his head, he wasn’t making any noise. Blood was coming from his head. I carefully covered him and left.” – Alexander Pichushkin during video confession/interrogation.
All his kills occurred in Bitsa (Bitsevki) Park, except one, which I believe may have been his second. Pichushkin met the man at the local supermarket. Instead of going to Bitsa Park, he took him to a high-rise apartment block, offering him vodka if he would help Pichushkin mourn the death of his dog. Who in Russia passes up free vodka? Apparently no one. If anyone refused Pichushkin has never said.
The man became intoxicated, “singing some stupid song” as Pichushkin put it. When his victim had passed out, Pichushkin lifted him up, placing the man’s torso over the railing so that all he had to do was lift the legs and the victim plummeted 16 storeys to the ground, where he woke and began to scream. Pichushkin admitted that he was curious to see how much a person would suffer when dropped from that height.
It was labelled a suicide, or an accident by some accounts. Either way, it came as quite a surprise to the police.
What is clear to me is that he was looking to cause as much pain as possible to his victims without prolonged torture. Some journalists and police officers are of the opinion that he changed his M.O. to avoid capture. I see the changes as experiments. Finding the death that most satisfied him, the death that he felt put the ultimate suffering to the victim. It would appear that his first kill was the one that satisfied him most. A pattern emerged.
The majority of his victims were elderly gents, a number of whom he’d played chess with in the park, others he had watched and approached. He offered them free vodka and sometimes cigarettes, invited them to drink with him at the grave of his dog – which he told them was buried in a secluded spot in the park.
“The closer a person is to you, and the better you know them, the more pleasurable it is to kill them.”
He’d get to know at least a little of all his victims, sharing a drink and putting them at their ease with a little conversation. But it often ended the same way, at some point Pichushkin would get up, move behind them, and then strike. Some reports claim he used a pipe, but Russian police found a hammer connected to him and at least one of the bodies. Said hammer was shown in a documentary on Pichushkin and appeared to be more similar to a Tinner’s hammer or a Lineman’s hammer, than the claw hammer or ball-peen hammer that we might be familiar with.
Early on in this ‘spree’, each spot a victim was taken to was conveniently close to a sewage pipe entrance. The victims, dead or alive were often dumped, falling several feet down into the cold waters to hide the body and/or finish them off, drowning them as they bled out. The manhole lids were heavy if any tried to escape. 11 alleged victims were never found because of this routine. 11 people that Alexander Pichushkin was never charged for because the police had no evidence other than the confession.
As Pichushkin continued to murder, it would seem that at a certain point he gave up dumping the bodies. Why? You have an undetectable means of body disposal with numerous victims already taken and the police don’t even know there’s a problem.
My theory is that this is exactly why he started leaving bodies to be found and was certainly part of why his violence escalated.
No one knew he existed.
Elderly men, often homeless, were disappearing, but there was no evidence of foul play or real reason for concern. He wanted the public’s concern. Pichushkin wanted to feel that tension in the air – so he left them where they fell and his hammer began to fall harder.
A savage beating to the head was standard practice, penetrating the skull, using it as sexual substitution. Smashing the head into pieces and exposing the brain, perhaps less so. Jamming a stick or bottle of vodka neck-first into the brain of the victim would become his calling card, his signature.
The media branded him ‘The Bitsa Park Maniac’ – the fear was setting in.
Bitsa Park in Moscow (Image: Wikimedia Commons)
Three victims survived Pichushkin’s attacks to tell the tale. Two reported it to the police. The police, despite how they later portrayed themselves in documentaries and televised reports, wilfully ignored the name they were given – Pichushkin.
The first survivor was Maria Viricheva and she was pregnant at the time of the attack. Pichushkin said he was near the metro station when he saw Maria who was working a job selling stationary nearby. She looked distressed. Unlike others, he did not offer her alcohol, he would claim later in court that “Women always need to have a financial interest,” and instead told her that he had several stolen cameras hidden in Bitsa Park and she was welcome to half if she needed some extra money. She accepted.
After coaxing her closer to the sewer, he managed to shove her in, grabbed her hair and began beating her head against the concrete pipe. She let go, letting herself fall eight metres into the sewers. The flow carried her along, the speed of water as stated in court was roughly seven metres per second.
After a staggering ordeal, which I do not have the room to go into, she managed to get free of the sewer. In hospital, she said the police forced her to sign a statement that she had fallen down the well herself. They did not want the trouble of investigating it, though she had given the officer Alexander Pichushkin’s name.
A neighbour also survived, Konstantin Polikarpov, who was disposed of in a similar way, several strikes to the head and down into the sewers. But he miraculously held on and managed to climb out, unfortunately with no memory of what had happened.
The third survivor was a 14 year old, homeless boy, Mikhail Lobov. Pichushkin threw him down the well. Lobov identified Pichushkin, who happened to be walking by, to a nearby police officer, accusing him of the assault. He was brushed off and again Pichushkin went un-investigated.
In court Pichushkin offered them all another walk with him, to which they all politely declined.
His last victim was his downfall. It was a work colleague, and not the first one. When her body was found and searched the key to this case was found. In Marina Moskalyova’s pocket was a metro ticket, the surveillance footage showed her to be walking with Pichushkin. She had also left a note for her son, saying whom she was with and wrote down his number in case of emergency, her phone was not working. Even knowing this note had been left; Pichushkin took the risk and murdered her.
“As we were heading to the park and talking, I kept thinking whether to kill her or exercise caution,” Pichushkin said, “But finally I decided to take the risk. I was in that mood already.”
When brought in and the police started questioning him, he confessed. Not just to the murder of Marina Moskalyova, which he was suspected of, but to being the Bitsa Park Maniac. And not only that, but the 14 victims they connected to this case was a major underestimation of how far his crimes went. Pichushkin admitted to 60-63 – the reports are not consistent.
In the search of his belongings a chessboard was found, numbers stuck to the squares with dates and supposedly names, thus earning him the moniker of ‘The Chessboard Killer’ in the media. He stated he wanted to kill one for each square on the board, though he later admitted that he would never have stopped. Also found were clippings regarding the Andrei Chikatilo case and trial, thus proving his idolisation and obsession with the killer.
At trial, he did not fight the 49 counts of murder the police had evidence for, though he accused his lawyer of working against him. He wanted a trail by jury; he wanted the adulation and glory. He wanted to be seen by the world for his ‘achievements’. He wanted to beat Chikatilo’s score. But 48 counts of murder was several short of the record he’d set himself to beat. During the trial he asked for 11 more to be added to his conviction so that the victims received justice. He was denied, as the police had no evidence for those 11 individuals.
Alexander Pichushkin was a victim of his early proficiency. Which, since he was classed as a narcissist, must have caused him a great deal of frustration. He robbed himself of the title he sought.
Russia did away with the death penalty not long after Chikatilo, though they considered re-instating it for Pichushkin. Several jury members called for it and many of the onlookers would have agreed. The judge sentenced him to life in prison with the first 15 years in solitary confinement.
I’m not sure I’ve truly covered Alexander Pichushkin as much as I would like, there are so many nooks I’d like to explore, but I have neither the time or the resources to do it justice.
An assessment of his mental proved him sane enough to stand trial, though he was considered to have narcissistic personality disorder and antisocial personality disorder.
His narcissism is clear to me, from his younger years and in his later murders, wanting attention, desperate for the title. Even in prison, where the guards are not allowed to speak to him, he believes that they admire him. Narcissists have a tendency to deceive, so I still have to take his words with a grain of salt. They also rarely regret, which Alexander professed violently against when asked if he did regret his crimes. He said the reason that he killed was to live. The thrill was addictive, and without it he felt empty. The kind of experience killing had for him was one of majesty, of calling. I will leave you with a few quotes of his to think on.
“I felt like the father of all these people, since it was I who opened the door for them to another world. “ “For 500 days I have been under arrest and for all this time you have all decided my fate. At one time I alone decided the fate of 60 people. I was judge and prosecutor and the executioner. I was God. I alone fulfilled all of your functions.”