ROSTOV-ON-DON, Southern Russia -- Something deeply evil lurks among the dimly lit streets and along the foggy riverbanks of Rostov-on-Don, and Alexander Bukhanovsky is on a mission to fight it. For reasons neither science, religion nor the occult can satisfactorily explain, the bustling river-port city has become a crucible for the rage of an extraordinarily high number of psychopathic serial killers and sadistic rapists. Twenty-nine multiple murderers and rapists have been caught in the area over the last 10 years, making Rostov - a city of 1.5 million - the serial-killer capital of the world. It's a blight that Bukhanovsky, Russia's leading psychiatric expert on mass murder, is determined to confront, even if it means risking his reputation with a bold experiment that pushes the limits of both medical ethics and the law.
No one knows why Rostov appears to harbor such a unique concentration of evil. Though the city has a reputation as a center of organized crime, its economy is no worse off than the rest of Russia's, and its per capita murder rate is actually below the national average. "The people here are no less God-fearing than anywhere else," says Father Ambrosy of the local Orthodox cathedral. "Why Satan chooses so many of his servants here is not for us to know." Some locals blame a supernatural influence from 18th-century Cossacks who desecrated ancient Scythian burial mounds. But Bukhanovsky, a plump, charismatic man who exudes self-confidence and paternal concern, has a more prosaic - if not particularly comforting - explanation: "The problem of serial murder exists everywhere in Russia," says Bukhanovsky, a professor at the Rostov Institute of Medicine's psychiatry department who has worked closely with police on numerous serial-murder cases. "It's just that here we have more practice at catching serial killers, and therefore the statistics are higher."
Bukhanovsky's hypnotic manner and irresistible confidence in his methods made a deep impression on Rostov's most recent suspected serial criminal, Andrei Seleznov, dubbed "The Electrician" because he is believed to have impersonated a repairman in order to gain entry to the apartments of his 11 victims. A local prosecutor commissioned Bukhanovsky to put together a psychological study of the alleged child rapist. Bukhanovsky concluded that the defendant was sane and fit to stand trial after a series of intense interviews in the city jail. "He got right inside my head," says Seleznov from a cage in Rostov's main courtroom during his trial in December. "He has a way about him that makes you tell him stuff you didn't even know was there."
Bukhanovsky's work with police and prosecutors began 15 years ago when authorities turned to him for help in catching Andrei Chikatilo, a rapist-murderer who was convicted of torturing, mutilating and cannibalizing 52 victims between 1978 and 1991. At the time, Bukhanovsky was regarded as a black sheep in his profession because of his specialization in the then-officially taboo topic of transsexuality and for helping to pioneer sex-change surgery in the Soviet Union. But after years of embarrassing failure in hunting down the serial killer, the head of the investigating team, detective Viktor Burakov, asked Bukhanovsky to draw up a psychological portrait of Chikatilo, by then known as the "Rostov Ripper."
For years, Bukhanovsky had been working in a scholarly vacuum. The Soviet Union refused to recognize the existence of sexual deviancy or psychopathic tendencies, and Bukhanovsky had to invent his own methodology to identify the sexual pathologies of the killer investigators called "Citizen X." Bukhanovsky pieced together forensic and circumstantial clues, such as the killer's urge to stab out the eyes of his victims and the ease with which he was apparently able to lure them into accompanying him into lonely woods and to their deaths. He concluded that the killer was a middle-aged, educated man with a history of molestation and sexual problems.
Police initially disregarded Bukhanovsky's conclusions. But when they finally caught Chikatilo in 1991, Bukhanovsky's portrait proved to have been uncannily accurate. And when, to the horror of local investigators, serial killers began to multiply in the region, authorities quickly incorporated Bukhanovsky's expertise into the serial criminal-busting tactics of Rostov's "killer department," a unit dedicated to serial crimes, which grew out of the original "Citizen X" team.
After Chikatilo came Yury Tsuiman, the "Beast of Taganrog," who killed four young girls and had a black-stockings fetish; Konstantin "The Barbarian" Cheremukhin, who killed three children and one of their mothers; and Viktor "The Animal" Kuchmiy, who raped and murdered three young women. By 1994, the local press was running short of tabloid nicknames, but the murders and violence continued at an average of one new killing spree and two series of rapes per year. "By the time we caught Chikatilo we had very wide knowledge of these types of crime," says police Captain Anatoly Yevseyev, a veteran of the Chikatilo investigation. "Most other police forces investigate such crimes individually, without linking them. That gives next to no chance of catching the culprit, whereas we - thank God - have caught every major serial maniac since 1991."
The experience of the eight-year hunt for Chikatilo - who was later executed - forced Rostov's police to radically re-think their methods and in the process arrive at something approaching a Western-style methodology of crime solving. Yury Maslov, the city's main pathologist until his recent retirement, sees at least one tangible benefit brought by the city's murder epidemic. Serial murder investigators placed a newfound emphasis on forensic science rather than the more traditional confession, says Maslov. Five people "confessed" to the Chikatilo murders - including Alexander Kravchenko, who was wrongly executed in 1979 for a murder committed by the Ripper. "We quickly realized that we would only catch this killer though good science, through careful forensics," Maslov says, as he casually chain smokes over the body of a drug addict in the police morgue. "That was all pretty new to us back then, and gave us a good impulse to learn."
Rostov's dearly bought expertise in solving serial killings is now sought after by the rest of the country. The city's killer department is the only one of its kind in Russia. Rostov has twice hosted international conferences on serial murders and social aggression, both organized by Bukhanovsky. Police forces from other regions turn to Bukhanovsky and his colleagues for help in tracking down suspected maniacs.
Bukhanovsky has become something of a local hero, appearing regularly on local television and traveling the world to address psychiatric conventions. Max von Sidow portrays Bukhanovsky as a brilliant, if somewhat eccentric, psychiatrist in a 1995 U.S. film of the Chikatilo case, "Citizen X."
For Bukhanovsky, serial killers have become nearly an obsession. He speaks of his patients and the killers he has helped to catch with a strange reverence, at once horrified and fascinated. Bukhanovsky has published several volumes of scholarly studies on the subject at his own expense, and his cozy apartment is home to a library of psychopathic crime, from schlocky American true crime books to scientific articles. One of his grimmest "working materials" is a video compiled by police from 16-millimeter films made by Anatoly Slivko, the first Rostov mass murderer in recent history, who was captured and executed in 1985. The films show Slivko mutilating and hanging seven young boys.
Since last year, Bukhanovsky's efforts to get inside the mind of killers have taken a radical and controversial turn, raising criticism from some authorities. Bukhanovsky treats serial criminals who are still at large, flouting Russian laws that require physicians to report to authorities anyone they consider dangerous to society. "I, a trained doctor, am working with a killer who is still at large," he announces in a dramatic stage whisper. "I could call the police, but ethically I don't have that right because he trusted me. Maybe I am wrong to do this, but it is in the interests of science."
Bukhanovsky claims to be able to "cure" psychopathic tendencies, using his own experimental brand of aggression-curbing drugs and psychotherapy. He persuades the criminally insane to come forward for treatment with a promise of silence. One of his patients is Alexander, a thick-set, surly 21-year-old murderer. His parents brought him to Bukhanovsky from a neighboring town after he began showing antisocial and violent behavior last summer. On the psychiatrist's couch, Alexander confessed he had killed one woman during a drunken binge of sadistic sex and had tortured and beaten up several more. He has been coming to Bukhanovsky's private clinic for regular treatment ever since, and apart from a November attempt to commit suicide by slashing his wrists, Alexander claims that his violent urges have subsided. "I don't know what makes me do these things. I always feel sorry afterward, but I feel as though there's something inside of me I can't control," Alexander says, as he clenches and unclenches his large fists. "The doctor helps me understand that I am sick, that he will help me conquer this."
Alexander is being treated by Bukhanovsky and his daughter Olga, also a psychiatrist, at Bukhanovsky's own expense in his private clinic called Phoenix. Bukhanovsky earns $70 a month from his work at the Rostov institute and survives from income from paying clients at Phoenix like recovering drug addicts and sex-change patients.
"This boy is a classic serial killer in the making," Bukhanovsky says of Alexander. "We have caught him just as he is beginning to realize his fantasies. What makes him dangerous is not what he has done, but what is going on in his head. Now he believes in me absolutely. He wants to be cured, which is the key step to recovery."
Another patient, Viktor, is a self-confessed, middle-aged child rapist. His wife gave him an ultimatum to see a psychiatrist or go to the police after she discovered he had been abusing their 11-year-old daughter. "Professor Bukhanovsky has given me a way to live again, to control my urges. He is a wonderful, understanding man," says Viktor, a huge junior army officer who has developed a puppy-like devotion to his strong-willed therapist. "If it had not been for him I would have done something much worse."
Bukhanovsky's experimental work with criminals is threatening his relationship with the police and could land him in prison. In December, local health authorities lodged an official complaint at the municipal court, criticizing Bukhanovsky's handling of a convicted rapist, Sergei, who committed another sexual assault while under his care. "It seems that psychiatrists, unlike priests or other doctors or lawyers, are responsible if the people they are treating relapse," Bukhanovsky says. "I am treating Alexander at my own expense but if he does something, they will rip my head off. I could go to jail. And it will be very difficult for me morally if Alexander kills."
Bukhanovsky argues that his freelance work with local psychopaths is not just groundbreaking research but also a service to the community, particularly since it does not cost the state anything. It is better for mentally ill patients to come for treatment rather than remain alone with private demons they cannot comprehend, he says. "Many think that serial killers get pleasure from killing. This is not so," Bukhanovsky says. "Their urge to kill is like breathing. It is irresistible. They want desperately to stop. Some are even relieved when they are finally caught." Rostov residents, tormented by the seemingly perpetual appearance of serial killers, are equally desperate for an end to the evil.
A shorter version of this story appeared in the Jan. 25 issue of Newsweek magazine.