October 19, 1992 12:00 PM

JUST BEFORE CHRISTMAS IN 1978, A BODY WAS PILLED FROM THE Grushevka River in southern Russia. It belonged to Yelena Zakotnova, a 9-year-old girl who had been missing from her home in nearby Shakti, in Rostov Oblast, a province near the Black Sea, for two days. She had been both strangled and stabbed. Police questioned some of her neighbors and eventually arrested a man who had spent time in prison for rape. He was later convicted and executed. Among those questioned and released was a school counselor named Andrei Chikatilo.

By September 1984, 23 more bodies—most of them young boys, girls and women in their 20s—had been discovered in wooded areas of the province. Each had been mutilated; sexual organs and other body parts were missing. Although police minimized the extent of the crimes, gossip ran rampant. Police quickly began a massive manhunt, arresting virtually anyone who looked suspicious. Among the thousands who were picked up was Andrei Chikatilo, who by this time was working as a factory supply officer in the province’s major city, Rostov-on-Don. But again he was let go; his blood type did not seem to match semen left by the serial killer.

Six years later the Rostov-area body count was up to 34, but the killer had still not been caught. Police pulled out all the stops, assigning hundreds of uniformed cops to parks and public buildings throughout the area. The idea was to make it so hot for the killer that he would gravitate to a more isolated location where it would be easier for undercover agents to catch him.

The plan worked. In early November 1990, a policeman at a remote train station checked the identification of a man emerging from the woods. It was Andrei Chikatilo. A few days later, Lt. Col. Viktor Burakov, chief of special homicides in Rostov, discovered Chikatilo’s name on a list of previous suspects. He put him under 24-hour surveillance and checked his whereabouts on the nights of various murders. His alibis were weak or nonexistent. On Nov. 20, 1990, Burakov ordered him arrested.

Nine days later, Chikatilo, 56, confessed. Not only did he admit to the 34 murders, he also told police about 18 more that they hadn’t connected to the case. And he led authorities to the shallow grave of yet another body that hadn’t been discovered. Chikatilo was charged with killing and cannibalizing 53 people from 1978 to 1990—more than three times as many as Milwaukee killer Jeffrey Dahmer. “Without question,” says American journalist Robert Cullen, who is writing a book, The Killer Department, on Chikatilo, “he is the worst serial killer in modern times.”

Chikatilo’s method of operation, he told police, depended on his innocuous looks and easygoing manner. In each case, he said, he found his quarry in train stations, bus depots, airports or on the vehicles themselves. He then lured his prey—generally naive children or hard-drinking drifters—into a wooded area with promises of anything from vodka to food to chewing gum or videotapes. Once in the woods, he would attack from behind, knocking his victims out. Then, he said, he would stab them again and again—usually in the heart first, then in the eyes—while he simultaneously masturbated. Afterward he would cut off various body parts, but what he did with them is unclear. He confessed to gnawing on only some of them.

This summer, Chikatilo was tried in open court—the most publicized murder trial in the post-Soviet era. At the beginning of the nonjury trial in April, descriptions of the killings were so gruesome that doctors and nurses in white coats were in courtroom No. 5 to dispense smelling salts to those who fainted. Relatives of victims angrily hurled themselves at the steel cage where Chikatilo sat. And emotions grew so intense that Judge Leonid Akubzhanov eventually vacated the courtroom for several days. By the end of the trial, in late August, few people bothered to attend. If they had, they would have seen Chikatilo—his head shaved, his hands cuffed behind him—open each day’s proceedings by haranguing the judge incoherently. Chikatilo would then be removed from the court, and the trial would continue without him. Court-appointed psychiatrists could not say whether Chikatilo was faking insanity to avoid what the Russians call dyevyat gram—a bullet to the back of the head. But even if he is insane, they said, he is still responsible for his actions.

This week, Judge Akubzhanov is expected to render his verdict. Given Chikatilo’s detailed confessions, he will almost certainly be found guilty and sentenced to death. Whether that final sanction will satisfy grieving relatives is another question. “Russia is a cruel country,” says Vitali Babenko, head of Moscow’s Text publishing house, which is producing a book about the case. “The only reaction here is, ‘Shoot him! Tear him to pieces! Tear his family to pieces! Shoot his wife! Shoot his kids!’ People want blood.”

During his trial, Chikatilo could give little explanation for his actions. At one point, Judge Akubzhanov asked him, “Why did you cut out the heart of a 9-year-old boy? Did you like the torture you were causing?” Chikatilo could only mumble, “I don’t know. I can’t explain.” But later, in a long, rambling speech to the court, he said, “Yes, I received sexual satisfaction. But I am a mistake of nature. I deserve to be done away with.” He also explained that he was helping society by getting rid of drifters “who were loose in their sexual activity, easy to come to you.”

Out of court, Chikatilo was more articulate. Russian authors Mikhail Krivich and Olgert Olgin, who are writing the book for Text, said they managed to smuggle written questions into his cell and get back handwritten answers. In them, Chikatilo talked about the blood and gore he saw as a child. “In 1941 to 1943 my family lived under the Nazi occupation [in the Ukraine]. After the battles we picked up the corpses…parts of bodies everywhere….In the streets I saw the children torn into pieces.” He also mentioned an incident before his birth, during which fellow villagers had reportedly attacked his brother during a famine. “My father and mother told me that in 1933 my elder brother Stepan was stolen and devoured,” he wrote. After the war, he added, when he was 11, he too faced famine. “I remember permanent hunger and cold. I nearly died of hunger lying in the tall weeds.”

He cited as another negative influence the Communist Party, to which he belonged for 25 years. The atheism that he learned as a college student at Rostov University, he wrote, “inspired me with anxiety, caused the split of my thinking.” Since his arrest, he said, he has become religious. “I pray to God myself,” he wrote. “And I believe in the immortality of a soul.”

After earning a master’s degree in Russian literature in 1971, Chikatilo got a job as a counselor in a secondary school in Rostov Oblast. But in 1974 he was fired for molesting several female students. Because the incidents were hushed up, he was able to get another school job in Shakti, where, in 1978. he committed his first murder.

By that time he was married, and he and his wife, Feyodosia, now 53, had two children—a daughter, Ludmila, now 27, and a son, Yuri, 23. (All three have moved away to escape Chikatilo’s shame.) He told psychiatrists he and his wife ceased their lovemaking in 1984. “I love my wife,” Chikatilo wrote. “I’m grateful to her because she endured my impotence. We had no real intercourse, only imitation.”

In 1981 he took a job as a supply officer in a building-materials factory, a position that required him to travel. After his brush with the law in 1984, he confined his killing sprees largely to forays in distant Russian cities and in other republics. Since the Soviet Union had no national crime-reporting system, only one of those murders, in Moscow, was linked to the killings in Rostov Oblast. And until glasnost, little was written in the press about the killings. “We had a socialist country, and it was well understood that under socialism there were no killers—certainly not serial killers,” publisher Babenko explains. “And so they kept it secret from the public.”

In 1989, Chikatilo began killing again in the Rostov area. But homicide inspector Burakov was waiting. He had ordered up something new in Soviet police work—a psychological profile, something the FBI has been using for years. The most accurate of these was written by Rostov psychiatrist Alexander Bukhanovsky, who dismissed theories that the killer was a homosexual, a mental patient or more than one man. The portrait he drew—that of a middle-aged, impotent man who was experienced in winning the trust of children—did not help in Chikatilo’s capture. It did, however, help persuade him to acknowledge his crimes. After nine days of intense questioning, Chikatilo had admitted to nothing. Then Bukhanovsky was permitted to talk to him. As the psychiatrist read the profile aloud, Chikatilo began to recognize himself and started to weep. Then he confessed.

Burakov readily admits that mistakes were made. The biggest, apparently, involved the blood test given Chikatilo in 1984. Incredibly, police continue to argue that Chikatilo’s blood and semen have different types, something American serologists say is impossible. More likely, there was police error. “Russian technical ability is really very primitive,” says Richard Lourie, another American writer working on a Chikatilo book. “The level of sloppiness is horrifying.”

The case is something of a landmark in Russian jurisprudence, since Chikatilo’s case will be publicly reviewed by the Russian Supreme Court. And, Babenko says, it will also be considered by a new Amnesty Commission. “They look through thousands of cases, and they try to persuade judges to be merciful,” he says. “He has a chance.” But with 53 victims, Chikatilo is more likely to receive his dyevyat gram than an equivalent ration of mercy.

JOE TREEN

CONSTANCE RICHARDS in Rostov-on-Don

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