Joseph Stalin. Alexander Pichushkin. Ivan the Terrible. Andrei Chikatilo. Lavrenty Beria. Darya Saltykova. These are names in Russian history synonymous with depravity and death. For causing countless acts of inhumanity and suffering on their own people. Some for their own, twisted fantasies; others for a political ideal. Two of these, Stalin and Beria, are responsible through their orders for the deaths of millions. Ivan the Terrible, due to the smaller Russian population in the 16th century, multiple thousands probably. The remaining people’s body count – though all below 100 – have the infamous reputation of killing people with their own hands.
Fancy a game of Chess? The serial killer Alexander Pichushkin.
So which is worse, killing millions but getting somebody else to do it for you, or ending the lives of far less yet having the ultimate responsibility for it? Who’s to know, though I’m sure most people would find it easier to give the order than to take out the order. I know I would.
If you said to your average Russian, or a Russian ashamed of their country’s violent past, they could say Stalin and Beria were Georgians. They would simply pass on the blame: The Georgians would reply to you, however, that the Gori-born Stalin was not a Georgian but an Ossetian, somewhat different. The Ossetians – ashamed of the fact – would reply to you that he was descended from sheep! Joking aside, there’s no excuse for any of it, though I have to say these people seem to fascinate the minds of many of us in popular culture. Why have so many countless books been written about them? Films been shot? Plays staged? I know why: It’s our fascination with them. They bring something to the table that none of us can really understand. It’s little wonder Hannibal Lecter is one of literature and Hollywood’s most iconic figures. But let’s forget fava beans and a nice glass of Chianti… There’s a new man in town, Ivan Kokoshkin!
Ivan Petrovich Kokoshkin is a minor character in my new book, Red Corner, An Alternate History of Rus, A Novel, which you can purchase here in the US and here in the UK. In the story Kokoshkin is one of Grand Prince Ivan Vasilyevich’s henchman. Kokoshkin has only one chapter in the limelight, where he executes General Malenkov for retreating from battle against the Grand Duke’s orders, but it’s my favourite part of the novel. In it we see how much fun he gets out of torturing the unfortuante soldier with a device he calls the Portioncutter. The contraption – all of his own design – is somewhat like an early guillotine with blades that cut off parts of the body. At the beginning of the chapter, the Grand Duke asks Kokoshkin what it does:
“…So, this torture, what is it?” the Grand Duke asked, turning to Kokoshkin.
Kokoshkin smiled hideously. He was a small man with a crooked back, not quite a hunchback but bordering on one nonetheless. His black, beady eyes expressed no humanity, and when he looked at you, you knew it was the Devil in a shapka.
“It’s my best yet, Your Majesty,” he responded enthusiastically.
Kokoshkin took the Grand Duke to another chamber next to where Malenkov was hanging. It was lighter there, as candles were flickering all around. In the centre lay the ‘device’. The contraption, a work of art in itself, took up nearly the whole chamber.
“What is it?” the Grand Duke asked.
“I call it the Portioncutter, Your Majesty.”
“What does it do?”
“It cuts people up to perfection in a vertical fashion – from the fingers all the way in.”
The Grand Duke studied the machine for a few minutes, moving around it purposefully, touching every part: the thin blades hanging down from the top, the wooden structure and the rope bindings.
“Does it work?”
“Of course, Your Majesty.”
“How do you know – did you try it out on someone already?”
“Yes, Your Majesty,” Kokoshkin began, almost squealing now like a wild animal, “on a few little children – last week it was… Oh, yes, does it work… I was surprised myself… It was like, well, ha ha ha, I can’t describe the artistry to you… Can we start, Your Majesty, can we start!?…”
Above Malyuta Skuratov sneaking up to kill yet another innocent victim.
Ivan Kokoshkin is based on another man of Russian history, Malyuta Skuratov, henchman to Ivan IV, otherwise known as Ivan the Terrible. Although one can never know, the great Russian historian Nikolai Karamzin (1766-1826) wrote of him in his 12-volume History of the Russian State that compared to Skuratov, Ivan the Terrible was like Mickey Mouse (no, he didn’t say that really, but I’m sure he would have if Disney had been around then). Skuratov was leader of the Oprichnina, Ivan the Terrible’s secret police. By all accounts he was responsible for the deaths of thousands of people, particularly in Novgorod in 1571, exactly a century after the events in my book in that city. If you’re interested in this character and the events surrounding his life, you should watch the Russian film Tsar here directed by Pavel Lungin. The movie’s set between 1566 and 1569 during the Oprichnina and Livonian War, and it makes for terrific viewing.