The Wolf of Moscow
Known to Soviet citizens as “the Wolf of Moscow”, Vasili Komaroff is considered one of the earliest known Russian serial killers. Born to a poor family in the Russian Empire, Vasili would go on to join the Red Army during the Communist Revolution in 1917 and later settled in Moscow where he became a horse trader to support his wife and children. In 1921 the Soviet police began investigating a series of disappearances and murders which were being committed in and around the Moscow area. The bodies were found buried or dumped in the Moscow River, and soon the corpses of 21 men were discovered. Eventually the police came to Komaroff’s home to question him about his criminal activities, and there they found his latest victim in the stable next to his home. Managing to escape arrest, he was soon recaptured and questioned over the murders. Komaroff admitted to murdering a total of 33 men and was sentenced to death by the Soviet court and subsequently executed for his crimes.
Vasili Komaroff was born Vasili Ivanovich Petrov in 1871 in Vitebsk, a Governorate of the Russian Empire under the Romanov Dynasty. The Petrov’s had a large but poor family and as a result of the hardships of the era many members turned to alcohol, including Vasili who began drinking as the age of fifteen. When he came of age he was conscripted into the Russian Army where he served for four years. He married in 1899 at the age of 28 and moved family to the Far East in 1904 during the Russian-Japanese War.
There he was able to earned a small fortune but the money was squandered and Komaroff soon resorted to crime to pay for his family. He became involved in a robbery at a military warehouse, but was caught and received a one-year prison sentence. During his imprisonment, he learned his wife had died from cholera. When released he moved to Riga and married Sophia, a Polish widow and they had two children. To friends and acquaintances it seemed a happy marriage, however Komaroff was by now an alcoholic and would often beat his wife and children.
When World War I began, Komaroff was still living in the Baltic when German troops entered and he was forced to flee along with his family to the Russian Volga region. With the rise of Lenin’s Communist Party and the collapse of the Russian Empire under Czar Nicholas II, Komaroff decided, like many disaffected men, to join the Red Army during the October Revolution in 1917. Whilst in the army he learned to both read and write and eventually rose to the position of platoon commander.
He fought against the White Army under General Denikin who were attempting to restore the Monarchy, and was captured by White Army troops but managed to escape. Because he feared judgement by the Military Revolutionary Tribunal as a possible deserter, he changed his name to Vasili Komaroff, also known as Komarov, and moved to the Moscow area with his family. There he moved into a house on 26 Shabolovka Street and started working as a horse trader and carriage driver. But he never managed to stop his criminal activities which included thievery and the sale of illegal alcohol. The catalyst for Komaroff’s murderous spree appeared to coincide with the New Economic Policy which Lenin declared in 1921, and which allowed private enterprise.
Komaroff would attend the local marketplace to sell his horses and there he would become acquainted with any prospective buyers. The man was then brought to his home and offered vodka, and as the victim drank Komaroff would attack them from behind, either hitting them with a hammer, slitting their throat with a knife or a wire for strangulation.
The bodies were then placed inside a sack and either hidden about the family house, dumped in the Moscow River or buried in the surrounding countryside. In 1921, the first year, he committed at least 17 murders and the another 12 over the course of the next two years. In 1922, Sophia Komaroff became aware of her husbands murderous nature, but instead of being horrified, she became a active participant in his crimes.
Due to the high number of disappearances, the Soviet police began an investigation which intensified after the bodies of 21 of the men who vanished were discovered. The human remains were found disposed of in garbage sacks which were dumped on the same successive Thursdays and Saturdays. After an almost two year investigation, the police were no closer to catching the killer than when the first bodies were recovered.
By early March 1923, the police came to Komaroff’s house, specifically to question him regarding the sale of illegal alcohol. It was during a search of the stable next to his home that the officers found the body of his latest victim, hidden under a stack of hay. Komaroff was somehow able to evade arrest by jumping out of a window. Several days later, on March 18, the police were finally able to arrest him in Moscow Oblast.
Investigators began to question witnesses, or anyone who knew Komaroff either socially or through his horse trading business. Several came forward to claim he was usually seen at market, and was observed there every Wednesday and Friday, the days before each of the murders. He would usually arrive without bringing a horse and was almost always left with a potential customer. Friends of the family told police that although he was happily married, Komaroff was known to be extremelt abusive towards his wife and children and on one occasion he attempted to kill his 8-year-old son. During his interrogation, Komaroff admitted to the murders of 33 men. He explained that as best he could remember, most of the men had been lured to his home with the intenton of buying one of his horses.
He was quoted as describing murder as “an awfully easy job.” Detectives suspected the motives in his crimes were purely monetary, but Komaroff recevied very little financial gain from the murders. Komaroff led investigators to the locations where he had buried some of his victims, but they could only find 6 of the 12 he claimed were buried there. In prison Komaroff attempted to commit suicide on three occasions. Due to the vicious predatory nature of his crimes, he became known to the citizens of Moscow as the “Wolf of Moscow”. His wife Sophia was also arrested because detectives found it difficult to believe that she knew nothing of the murders that were committed in the stable next to the family home. She was tried alongside her husband and both were found guilty and given the death penalty. They were executed by firing squad in Moscow on June 18, 1923.