It’s likely that all of us, at some point in our lives, aspire to be the best at something. When one is young, it sometimes doesn’t matter what that “something” is; the goal is simply to be No. 1.
Vasili Blokhin achieved such prominence, even if many don’t recognize his name.
He was Joseph Stalin’s executioner for decades and personally killed tens of thousands of individuals between the 1920s and early 1950s. Today, he is recognized as the most prolific official executioner in recorded world history.
Blokhin, who served in the Russian army in World War I, joined the Cheka, the notorious security arm of the Bolsheviks, in 1921. He quickly gained the notice of Stalin and before long was heading up the department that handled clandestine torture and executions.
In 1926, Stalin personally chose Blokhin as chief executioner for the Soviet secret police.
During Stalin’s tenure, this arm of government, which later became known as the NKVD, is conservatively estimated to have executed more than 800,000 individuals.
Blokhin not only oversaw mass executions, but personally pulled the trigger on every high-profile execution.
Among those he dispatched: Old Bolsheviks such as Grigory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev, condemned at the Moscow Show Trials in the mid-to-late 1930s, Marshal of the Soviet Union Mikhail Tukhachevsky, and two of this three former NKVD bosses, Genrikh Yagoda and Nikolai Yezhov.
Perhaps most infamously, he single-handedly killed approximately 7,000 Polish prisoners of war during a one-month period in 1940.
The Poles had been captured in the early days of World War II. Shortly after Germany attacked Poland from the west, the Soviets did the same on the east.
After taking hundreds of thousands of Polish prisoners captive, the Soviets culled out officers and intelligentsia such as university professors, lawyers and priests.
In a bid to deprive the Polish state of a good bit of its leadership – present and future – Stalin had nearly 22,000 killed in what became known as the Katyn Massacre, so-called for the forest where many of the bodies were later discovered.
Blokhin’s work was done over a period of 28 consecutive nights, as he personally executed 300 men each evening.
A description of the scene sounds like a modernized version of Dante’s Inferno.
Polish prisoners were led into a small chamber one at a time. The chamber was painted red and specially designed with padded walls to block sound, along with a sloping concrete floor with a hose and drain.
Blokhin, fittingly, wore a leather butcher’s apron, cap, and shoulder-length gloves to protect his uniform.
He shot each prisoner in the base of the skull with a German Walther Model 2 .25 ACP pistol. The choice of a German-model weapon would give the Soviets a means to place the blame on the Nazis should the bodies be found.
There was no hearing, no reading of a sentence and no other legal formalities before each execution.
Blokhin’s men then removed the body, hosed away the blood and loaded the corpse on a flatbed truck through a back door, to be buried in a mass grave.
Blokhin liked to work continuously and rapidly without interruption, executing a prisoner, on average, every three minutes.
The executions started at dark and continuing until dawn, with Blokhin working without pause for 10 hours each night.
For his efforts, Blokhin was secretly awarded the Order of the Red Banner from Stalin on April 27, 1940.
Blokhin never had a shortage of “duties” as long as Stalin was in power, but once the dictator died in 1953 he was forcibly retired.
Following the death of Stalin toady Lavrenty Beria in late 1953, Blokhin’s rank of major general was eventually stripped from him.
Blokhin reportedly sank into alcoholism, went insane and died in February 1955. The official cause of death was listed as suicide.
(Top: Scene from the Moscow Show Trials of the 1930s.)