A killer from NKVD (Source: Historia Do Rzeczy magazine/Krzysztof Wyrzykowski)

We know almost everything about the victims of the Katyń crime. The killers still hide in the shadow.

Piotr Zychowicz

The killers came from Moscow to Kalinin – bearing the name of Twer before the revolution – in a special parlour car. The group was led by Vasili Blokhin, Czekist [a member of Cheka, the Soviet state security police], the most notorius executioner in the history of the Soviet Union.

He was accompanied by Nikolay Siniegubow and Mikhail Kriwienko. They brought a suitcase full of Walther pistols, ammunition and several crates of vodka. The work they were supposed to do, in fact required large amounts of alcohol. This work was to murder 6,300 people.

It has left a powerful impression on me when they entered my office for the first time. Blokhin, Siniegubow and Kriwienko. „Let’s go, let’s start, come with me!” – testified Dmitrij Tokariew, former head of NKVD in Kalinin, in 1991. – So we went. And then I saw all this horror. Blokhin put on his special clothing: a brown leather cap, a long brown leather apron, and brown leather gloves with cuffs above the elbow. On me, it made a huge impression. I saw the executioner.

At night, on 5 April 1940, a mass murder began in the headquarters of NKVD at Sowiecka Street No. 6. The killers acted methodically, calmly, following an established routine. Almost like on the production line.

Polish prisoners were called out from their cells one at a time. Then the guards led them to a common room commemorating Lenin, which was set up in every major Soviet institution. It was a place with a bulletin board hung on the wall and the bust of the first leader of the revolution.

The convicts were asked for their name, their father’s name and the date of birth. After confirming the data the guard handcuffed them and escorted them, also one at a time, to the next cell, where the executioner was waiting. Right after entering the cell, the victim had a barrel put to his occiput and the executioner pulled the trigger. A blast – and it’s over. The man is gone. There is another one waiting in the queue.

When the Pole fell dead to the ground, the next convict was led into the common room, and the whole procedure was repeated. From dusk till dawn. To prevent the next to be murdered from hearing the shots, Blokhin ordered that the door and walls of the execution room be covered with a thick layer of felt.

The victims had no idea what was going on. Death came suddenly. “No one read nothing, nothing was said – only handcuffs and off you go ” – said Tokarev after years.

One night, approximately 300 executions were performed in Kalinin. It was the “standard” quantity. On the first night, 343 Poles were sent to death, but it turned out that this figure was too high. Murderers overestimated their abilities and the night proved to be too short.

So they had to murder the last people in a hurry, in daylight. It could lead to the unmasking of the whole operation, which took place in the strictest confidence. Hence, Blokhin made the decision to slightly reduce the “standard quantity”. As a result, in order to kill more than 6 thousand people, members from NKVD needed more than a month and a half. On the 22nd of May it was all over.

Banquet in the parlour car

Three professional executioners who came from Moscow were not able to murder all Poles. To perform that task, participation of members of the local branch of NKVD was needed. Many of them. Even during the years of the great terror, i.e., 1937–1938, NKVD did not kill so many people in such a short time.

So they hastily gathered a “specgrupa” (special team), which was to do the job. The team was composed of investigating officers, prison guards, the head of the garage, and ordinary drivers. Office clerks were also its members. In total, about 30 people. They were selected by a man named Borisov, head of human resources in NKVD in Kalinin.

Most of the officers of NKVD in Kalinin showed no reluctance to killing defenceless captives.

Their motivation could be, of course, fanatical belief in the communist ideas or innate sadism. As a rule, however, the incentive was the promise of a financial bonus, and drinking parties that took place after the murder of each batch of prisoners. For impoverished Soviet people it was quite a temptation.

Shortly before dawn, when the last Pole was murdered, Blokhin collected guns from the killers and checked their condition. The weapon wore off quickly.

Then – as a reward for a well done job – Blokhin gave away a luxurious appetizer and offered vodka. Most probably, the killers drunk also before and during the executions. Food was collected in the evening from the departmental canteen. Sausage, sturgeon, and white bread.

The alcohol was necessary to anesthetize killers. It allowed suppressing the horror of murders committed in the basement. It also facilitated the performance of the last part of the operation. At daybreak, everyone involved in the murder had to remove the bodies.

They were taking them to the prison courtyard, where five or six trucks covered with tarpaulin were already waiting. Later, Blokhin ordered to burn the tarpaulin and carefully wash and scrub the floor of the trucks covered with blood and brain tissue.

The bodies were transported to a suburban area called Miednoje. There, they were thrown into a mass grave dug earlier with an excavator Komsomolets delivered at the request of Blokhin. When Tokarev suggested at the beginning that the death pits could be dug with shovels, Blokhin said laughing: “We, in Moscow, do it in a modern way.”

Two operators of the excavator came together with Blokhin from the capital. After the operation was completed, these people filled the pits with earth and levelled the ground. At the place of execution, NKVD created a false radio jamming station to have an excuse for not admitting people to that area.

After the murder of Poles, Blokhin and the other executors from Moscow arranged a sumptuous banquet in their parlour car – standing on a dead track of the railway station in Kalinin. They were drinking cold vodka, and ate caviar.

Everyone involved in the murder of Poles received cash prizes – the equivalent of a monthly salary or 800 rubles. They were also granted vacation leaves “to relax.” Blokhin went up for a month and a half for such vacation leave…

In two other places where Polish prisoners were murdered in 1940, i.e., Smolensk and Kharkov, the operation was carried out in a similar manner. “Specialists” from Moscow also arrived there and took control of the local NKVD.

It does not mean, however, that there was no difference. For example, the NKVD in Smolensk murdered not only in the basement of its headquarters at Dzierżyńskiego Street No. 13, but also directly over the pits of death – in the area of the holiday resort for police officers in Katyń.

It is quite possible that this method was abandoned after the one of the victims escaped his captors and ran through the woods, calling for help. It was in Katyń where bodies stabbed with bayonets were found. The torturers tied up some Polish officers with loops clenched around their necks and hands. Any movements of hands led to suffocation.

Initially Nagant revolvers were used in Smolensk and Kharkov. This weapon proved, however, to be impractical as it was necessary to appoint a special person to remove the scales from the drum and load bullets, which, with the number of victims and the rate at which they were murdered, delayed the whole procedure.

Soon, much more practical Walthers started to be used. Their advantage was also that they did not get hot so quickly and did not burn the hands of the torturers.

There were also some differences as far as the killing methods are concerned. While the murderers in Smolensk/Katyń and Kalinin pointed the gun to the occiput of their victims, in Kharkov their shot them in the neck – on the level of the first two or three cervical vertebrae.

It was done at such angle that the bullet, having cut the vertebrae, pierced the head and went outside through an eye, nose or mouth. The „advantage” of such method of extermination was a lighter bleeding from the wound, and what follows, less cleaning. Butchers working at their horrific production line tried to make their work as „optimal” as possible.

In years 1990–1992, the Russian prosecutor’s offices conducted numerous hearings of Mitrofan Syromiatnikov, an executor from Kharkov.

We took coats and caps – he testified. – They had to be covered and we had to wrap their heads somehow. You understand. To stop bleeding. We wrapped their heads immediately after the shooting. We took them out and arranged on the truck, alternately. One with the head in one direction, and the other in the opposite. And so, one after another, up to the edge.

We were not like the Germans. They took people to Babi Jar and gathered them all together with children and shot. Here, these things are done, so to say, according to the regulations. Such decision has been made. Someone was not guilty, and got punished.

Bodies of Poles murdered in the NKVD prison in Kharkov were transported to Piatykhatky village, where they were thrown into death pits. Before backfilling the hole, bodies were sprinkled with powder intended for speeding up the decomposition process.

Then, for some time, Chekists were kept on duty at the burial site. If the level of the ground somewhere lowered, their task was to backfill it with sand and level the ground.

In his testimony, Syromiatnikov revealed a horrifying fact. Unlike in Kalinin, in Kharkov, Poles were led out of their cells in groups. They stood in the hallway with their hands tied up, waiting for their turn. They must have heard the shots that killed their compatriots.

Upon the order of Timofiejew Kuprij, the commander of the local NKVD, one group of guards was escorting a Pole, while the other was dragging a body out of the execution room. It is hard to imagine what the convicted must have felt waiting for their turn.

What is interesting, Kuprij, who was the main executor in Kharkov, was later transferred to the position of the director of a fat manufacturing plant in Poltava. He committed serious frauds while holding that position, and, and as a result, was tried before the court.

Pobeda and a watch

When we talk about the Katyń massacre, in general, attention is focused on the victims. Doctors, journalists, university professors, officers, officials, politicians. Fathers, husbands, sons, brothers … Representatives of the Polish elite.

To make the knowledge of this terrible genocide complete, one must also look at the other side. Into the dark world of executioners.

After the fall of communism, the secret order No. 001365 issued by Beria after the massacre was revealed. According to that order, 125 officers of the NKVD were awarded “for successful execution of special tasks.”

Lavrenti Beria with Stalin and his daughter, 1931 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Nikita Pietrov, a great Russian historian from the Memorial society performed a titanic work and identified almost all mentioned in that order. He included their biographical notes in two books published in Poland: „Psy Stalina” [“Stalin’s dogs”] and „Poczet katów katyńskich” [“Guide to the executioners from Katyń”].

While reviewing these notes one cannot find any regularity. After 1940, some of the executioners climbed up the career ladder in the Soviet apparatus of violence, and some of them just the opposite – languished while holding mediocre jobs or were murdered by the new ruling team after Stalin’s death.

Among the murderers, there were people with different educational background and holding a variety of professional positions, of various ages and different nationalities – Russians, Ukrainians, Belarusians, Jews, Poles, and representatives of the eastern nations of the USSR. The vast majority came from the families of peasants and workers. Previously they worked as stokers, drivers, or porters.

The oldest on the list was Ivan Stelmach, commander of the NKVD prison in Smolensk, who was 58 years old, when the murders were committed. He commanded the executions in Katyń. According to unconfirmed information, he died in agony – “suffering from terrible pain in his guts.”

The youngest on the list was Anna Ivanovna Razorienowa. In 1940, she was just 21 years old. She was a typist who prepared death lists. She believed in the ideals of communism, and quit the party only in 1990.

Meanwhile, the fate of the most notorious executioner, Vasily Blokhin, who personally killed 15 thousand people is quite well known. Most likely today, no mass murderer could even get close to his “record”.

In addition to hundreds of Polish prisoners, during internal Soviet purges, Blokhin killed: Lev Kamenev, Grigory Zinoviev, Mikhail Tukhachevsky, Genrikh Yagoda, Nikolai Yezhov, writer Isaac Babel, and many others. The fact that he was appointed to do the killings, was considered an honour by Blokhin.

In recognition of his faithful service, Blokhin received a car, GAZ M-20 “Pobeda”, and a gold watch. Unlike most other major Chekists, he did not become a victim of any cleansing – he was always irreplaceable for successive heads of the NKVD. Moreover, he could always count on support and patronage of the leader.

He retired only after the death of Joseph Stalin. It seemed that finally he would find time to read 700 books about horse breeding, which he gathered. However, he died unexpectedly of a heart attack in 1955. After many years of exhausting “work” performed at nights his health was ruined.

His two assistants from Kalinin made highly successful career. Nikolai Siniegubow – a unique sadist known for his inclination for tormenting prisoners – was appointed as a deputy minister of railways in the Soviet Union. Mikhail Kriwienko served as the chief of staff in the Convoy Army of NKVD and the head of the Main Directorate of Affairs of Prisoners of War and Internees of the NKVD.

Dmitry Tokarev successively held the position of the minister of security in the Soviet republics of Tajikistan and Tatar.

Surgeon’s hands

What is the most interesting in the whole case, is not the career path, but the psyche of killers. Has the murder of such great number of people left any mark on that psyche or they just forgot about it and became involved in other tasks?

Well – as usually in such cases – it depends on the person. In his testimony of 1991, Tokarev claimed that some of the killers could not sleep peacefully. For example, Nikolai Suchariew, the driver of Tokarev, who received a TT pistol as a reward for participating in the murder of Poles, apparently shot himself with that weapon.

Is it true? Difficult to say. Especially that another story told by Tokarev turned out to be a lie. According to Tokarev, another killer, namely Andrei Rubanow lost his senses as a result of his bloodstained job. In fact, Rubanow attained the rank of colonel and lived in good health until he was eighty.

However, he drank heavily. He argued that it was a method of silencing his conscience. “O Lord – he used to say – how many people have passed through my hands. And among them, how many Poles! “

Peter Karcev, another killer, could not find peace having so much blood on his hands. As his daughter recalled, father “was filled with deep remorse and guilt.” Once, he took her to Katyń and lay down on the ground in a place where there were mass graves of Polish officers and wept for a long time. On 18 January 1948, Karcev committed suicide.

Alcoholism was a typical “occupational disease” of the butchers from Katyń. Many of them literally drank themselves to death. However, it is hard to determine whether it was a result of the executions, or rather an element of the Soviet men’s lifestyle at that time. In particular, those working for “the authorities”.

Let’s take, for example, the executioner Iwan Antonov:

He lived with his wife and daughter in two modest rooms in a council flat – wrote Nikita Petrov. – According to his neighbours, he was a taciturn man, never spoke on topics related to the service or about politics. Only about everyday life. Neighbour like neighbour – quite an ordinary man. But there was something peculiar that shocked his neighbours. Very often, Antonov was driven home at daybreak, completely drunk, and hauled up the stairs, together with huge bouquets of flowers. They brought the numb body surrounded by flowers, as if each time they buried a man who shot his own soul. Or maybe it was all the more prosaic and the smell of flowers was supposed to suppress the smell of blood, gunpowder and cadaverous stench.

When the murderer woke up, he went to the bathroom and washed his hands covered with red stubble for a very long time. Another notorious sadist, Boris Rodos, who was much talked about because of his extremely brutal methods of interrogation used during the Great Terror, behaved in a similar way. It was him, who gouged out the eye of Robert Eiche, a high-ranking Soviet official, and forced others interviewed to drink urine.

As part of the Katyń operation, he supervised the execution of 3435 Polish prisoners in the Soviet part of Ukraine. The son of Rodos wrote in his book “I, the son of the executioner” that his father rarely stayed home.

When I woke up – he was gone, and when I went to sleep, he was still at work. He returned home terribly tired, exhausted and every half an hour, he washed his hands in the bathroom soaping them again and again. Up to his elbows. Like a surgeon. Before he went to work, sometimes he did enema to himself. He had a big belly, and the work was physically demanding, anything could happen.

And this is how one of the executors talked about his job:

Of course, we drank vodka to unconsciousness. Needless to say, this work was not a light one. Sometimes we were so tired that we barely stood on our feet. We washed ourselves with water cologne. From the waist up. Otherwise, it would be impossible to get rid of the smell of blood and gunpowder. Even the dogs fled at the sight of us, and if they barked, they did it from a distance.

Due to excessive drinking, in 1940, many Chekists being “men of merit” were recalled from the “authorities”. They ended up on the street or as security guards. Others worked as locksmiths or operators of the septic tank trucks. By the end of their lives, people involved in the murder of Poles were bound by confidence.

As Nikita Petrov wrote, they created a secret closed circle. They often met to drink vodka in silence – they lived close to each other and kept an eye on each other. When one of them died, the rest, in dark suits, came to the funeral. Interestingly, the murderers never talked about what happened in the spring of 1940, even among themselves. And they saw to it that none of them “let the cat out of the bag “. They had to keep the secret until the end of their lives.

About 22,000 Poles were killed in the Katyń massacre. There were well over a hundred of executioners. They were very different people; of different nationalities, different professional positions and having various motives. They also reacted differently to the crimes they committed.

There is one thing, however, they have in common. None of them was held liable for the crime that took place in 1940. Katyń remained a crime without punishment.