I ask Misha, a Moscow Mafia hit man, the question I have always wanted to ask a murderer: "Does something change inside you as the soul leaves a man whom you have just killed?"
When he has checked the corridor outside the hotel room for snoopers, taken off his fur hat, and swigged the flask of cheap American brandy I offer him, the young killer tells me that the man who takes a human life possesses a special force:
"It takes a special power to kill a fellow man and it gives you a secret something—a confidence, afterward. Maybe you are more of a philosopher than I am. You are a member of the intelligensia. Philosophy is your department. So I will leave that to you. But yes, there is something I feel as I do the job. It is a private thing. When you fly, at take-off, there is a strange feeling in your body, not explicable, but strange. A sort of revolution in your belly. That's the way I feel when I kill. It's no mystery."
Then he shrugs nonchalantly. "It goes with the territory. It's a little thing. Not important. It doesn't interrupt the work."
Of course. Nothing interrupts the work.
Misha adds disdainfully that the man who kills by accident, in anger, or otherwise unprofessionally ("without training or knowledge" in his words), does not experience this mysterious thrill of the man who kills for a living.
"It is different," he says. "They just feel lost. I know, because I have killed someone in a bar fight. I just felt panic and fear. But when you kill for a job, it is control you feel. A very different thing."
We talked for a couple of hours in my Moscow hotel room to answer three questions: What is the psychology of a hit man? Why does our society honor the cult of the cold-blooded dispatcher of life? What kind of man is Misha, the executioner?
The Psychology of a Hit Man
Is Misha a psychopath? A psychopath used to be defined as a "moral imbecile"—someone without conscience, free of all moral constraints. Psychologists are still arguing whether psychopaths are created by nature or nurture—from childhood abuse, mental incapacity, or criminal culture. All of these can be suggested in one case or another. But this does not help us analyze Misha.
Certainly psychopaths are often highly intelligent and able to plan and conceal capital crimes for long periods. Take the case of the "Monster of Rostov," Andrei Chikalito (sentenced to death in 1992), who managed to kill 52 people in 12 years before he was caught. Misha himself is highly intelligent, with diplomas in engineering and English language, but his use of the terms "job" and "control" is not the language of a psychopath. I discussed Misha's case and interview, which I recount in full below, with Alfred Blumstein, Ph.D., president of the American Society of Criminology and Dean of the Heinz School of Public Policy and Management at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
"Misha," says Blumstein, "has found a chosen profession at which he can succeed, and he has found ways to rationalize it to accommodate his moral feelings. Yet he is neither strictly a psychopath nor is he mad in any sense."
Blumstein breaks his analysis into two parts: professionalism (moral considerations) and cost-benefit calculation (practical considerations). "First, he is performing as a professional, one who is able to suppress the moral reprehensibility of his acts. Obviously, he is a more extreme case than the guy selling encyclopedias to illiterates. He is more like the SS guards at a concentration camp. The point is that we all find ways to justify morally repugnant acts to ourselves.
"Second, we all make cost-benefit decisions. The cost for most of us would be too high even if we were offered $1 million, because we would fear getting caught. Misha probably began feeling that the cost was too high, but somehow he passed the point where the cost outweighed the benefits of this profession."
Although Misha's "strange feeling" from his murders is more than just professionalism, Blumstein believes that does not necessarily make Misha a psychopath. "His rush of exhilaration is often experienced by criminals and is associated with risk-taking. But there is also the phenomenon where the criminal commits a powerful act solely to show their control. It is a variant on the rape experience, where the satisfaction is a matter of control, not sexuality. Even though Misha is more interested in gaining control than giving pain, the rush he experiences when he kills is not that different from sadism."
Perhaps that is the most realistic way to understand Misha: He has a good job and he enjoys it. However, other experts do not take the "professional" claims of killers like Misha at face value. Jack Katz, professor of sociology at UCLA and the author of Seductions of Crime, believes that "killers like Misha often put forward the myth that they are working as professionals in order to endow themselves with conventional values and lives. They claim their killing is a technical skill; in fact, they want to be seen as illicit, gambling, womanizing tough guys who talk about themselves as professionals as a cynical exploitation of conventional perceptions of ordinary people."
Katz believes that the profession is simply an excuse for the thrill of killing, "like Nietzche's idea of the criminal who claims that he kills only to rob, while in fact the opposite is true—he robs in order to kill." Katz sees the overwhelming reason for a man like Misha becoming a hit man as "the excitement of confronting the prospect of raw possibility."
Like Blumstein, he finds the whole idea that anyone who can kill in cold blood must be a psychopath as irrelevant and not useful for his analysis: "Insanity is a way of imposing a pattern on these cases and casting them aside as if their experience is not relevant to our lives. It is an easy way out. After all, we know that a man who executes someone in the justice system or in the military is not insane. Misha appreciates the moral questions of killing. In fact, I've found that part of the thrill is knowing the immorality of the act, suggesting that he is quite sane."
The Cult of the Man Who Knows Death
One of Misha's claims is that he believes in God's omnipotence, and therefore presumes that he must be doing God's will. Katz says this is typical: "A big attraction of violence is that the criminal likes to feel that he is acting like God; the thrill of possessing God's power to kill someone is a big attraction."
Reverend Dr. Hugh Montefiore, the former Bishop of Birmingham in Great Britain, puts it this way: "Misha's claims are total rubbish. He has free will. He knows the difference between morality and immorality. He is not an automaton. How does he know God has chosen him? He is simply a murderer who is either deluding himself or making a cynical claim to let himself off the hook."
Children want to grow up to be pilots, rock stars, or doctors. I ask Misha if they should want to be hit men.
"You know," Misha says curtly, "this job isn't that of a beast, okay? It's not a dirty life. No more than a doctor's or a soldier's. I get respect for this profession. Think of me like a doctor in that way even though our roles are different."
The psychological reaction of civilized culture toward a murderer is a mixture of fear and the respect that Misha mentions. We should feel more disgust toward a paid killer than we do toward a clinically ill psychopath—but we do not. "What we admire about these people, if we do admire them," Blumstein explains, "is their consummate professionalism."
We feel contempt, anger, and disgust for the maniacal madman who hysterically kills humans out of sadism, perversion, or just lunacy, and we feel equal contempt for the person who kills in anger or by accident. Yet, perversely, our society stands in awe of those who have the ability to kill while coolly in control of themselves.
I believe that the reason Misha is respected in his Muscovite twilight zone is the same reason why we honor generals and "godfathers," why we romanticize bank robbers and hit men: they are men who control death. No one is the equal of the man who knows death, uses it, and does not flinch. Look at Patton, James Bond, Bugsy Siegel, Vito Corleone…
In our culture, James Bond, who we admire breathlessly for his "00" license to kill, is really a cold-hearted murderer—one who jokes and fornicates between exotic slaughters. We find glamour in the solitary life of the assassin in such films as The Day of the Jackal.
When Britain's last executioner, Mr. Pierpont (he never used a first name, regarding it as a sign of unprofessional intimacy), died, he received an admiring obituary, pages long, in the Times of London giving nuggets of his views on all manner of day-to-day subjects including marriage and the price of beer. In other words, because Mr. Pierpont had hanged, in a long and glorious career, hundreds of criminals (and a couple of innocent mistakes as well, which incidentally converted him to opposing the death penalty), we regard him as a legitimate source of wisdom.
But more than that, the killing films—including the Death Wish, Terminator, Dirty Harry, and Bugsy and Goodfellas—glorify the hit man in his traditional place of respect. The Godfather was the subtlest of all because it balanced the homespun sentiment, love, and loyalty of the Corleone family with the their business of murder and fear. In their world, the Godfather is revered, but even he fears his ruthless hit man, the sepulchral Lucca Brazzi.
Eli A. Rubinstein, professor of journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and one of America's leading authorities on the relationship between violence in the media and its audience, stresses that "we do not respect these people, but I agree we do admire them. Why? Part of the reason must be that media violence is sanitized, so the audience does not see the real, horrible consequences of these murders. On the other hand is the phenomenon of desensitization—we have seen so much violence that it no longer makes much impact."
Rubinstein sees the enjoyment of violence on the screen as part of "our fascination with all aberrant behavior. After all, there are lots of people who like watching aberrant sexual activity on screen but who would never do it in real life. Again, by watching the violence of this character, we are living through the same experience vicariously and without risk or danger."
Another important idea is that the audience likes the characters of violent men played by Clint Eastwood or Arnold Schwarzenegger because they admire the star himself. "DeNiro or Eastwood are larger than life and the young see them as heroes even when they commit dastardly acts," says Rubinstein. "They cannot separate the star from the character."
But none of this in itself explains why movie after movie elevates the cold-blooded hit man. Rubinstein concludes by saying, "Essentially, we admire a man who commits an act, even if it is immoral, if he does it with style. We admire the success of it. These hit men are dealing in death, and there is nothing as beyond the experience of most of us as death itself."
In truth, Rubinstein has captured the reason I was so keen to meet the Moscow Mafia's hit man: I believe our respect for executioners stems from the value we place on human life. On that level, we instinctively admire those who deal in valuable things, just as we are awed by the money of a billionaire, even if we disapprove of the way he made it. More than that is the sheer mystery of death, which extends to those who bring it on swiftly, efficiently, and unnaturally. We suppose they must possess a sort of power that other men do not have. Hence, my questions to Misha: What secrets does he know?
The Hit Man
Misha's story demonstrates the psychology of a nation in anarchy. In the fall of empires, morality is suspended. The institutions that were once the pillars of law and order—such as the police, the courts, or the KGB—are suddenly just nebulous organizations, floating desperately betwixt the State and the underworld, half-respectably above the water line, half-submerged in the mire.
Misha's world is one of mirrors, lies, and confusion. No one doubts these are strange times in Moscow: everything is expensive, except death. Life is the only commodity that is getting cheaper. Misha is a member of the fastest growing profession in the East.
Misha works for one of the leading bosses in the so-called "Moscow Mafia," although there are also Armenian, Georgian, Ukrainian, Uzbek, Czech, and Tartar Mafias in Moscow. He is afraid that the KGB will learn his identity and force him to betray his boss. Yet Misha is unaware that his Mafia boss is either working for the KGB or is the KGB. My contact, a distinguished, white-haired colonel in the organized-crime section of what used to be the KGB, owed me a favor. Sitting in his plush country house (or dacha) just outside Moscow, sipping Russian champagne and nibbling Caspian caviar in his bubbling Jacuzzi, I asked him if I could meet a Mafia boss or a hit man. He informed me that I could not meet a boss, but a hit man would be no problem, providing I never informed him that the KGB had arranged the meeting, never photographed his face, and never demanded his real name.…More caviar?
I had waited several days for Misha's call, which finally came at six in the morning from the lobby of my hotel. He said I may call him Misha, although he has other names if I am picky. He asked if I was alone, and, if so, said he would like to come up right away. He didn't want to waste time, he said. I understood that he was a busy man. He had people to kill. Time was money. Life was money, but there is gold in death for Misha.
My hotel room was a mess—clothes and papers on the floor. I immediately noticed that Misha was shocked. Misha disapproves of mess. He regards the debris of my things coolly but thoroughly, missing nothing. The mass murderer finds my mess distasteful.
Misha is a tidy technician of death. He is no thug. He is not even a Lucca Brazzi. He is young—28 years old—yet he has seen much, much more than any man should see in a long life. He has seen things no man should ever see. Misha has not only seen them, but he has done them without a second thought. After all, he is no philosopher. He has done unspeakable things with those very pale, dry hands that sometimes remind me of a surgeon's, sometimes a musician's, with fingers capable of beautiful things.
The moment I looked at Misha when he came in the door in his anorak, fur hat, boots, Levi jeans, sneakers, and polo-neck sweater, I could tell he was a soldier. There was a calm, almost innocent discipline in the way he held himself—the dry power of his handshake; the straight back; the cropped hair; and the pale, strong, impersonal expression of his face, with the gray wolverine eyes hollow of humor or humanity.
His English was not bad, so we could understand each other, but just in case he brought along a woman interpreter, whose English was far worse than his. She sat there, an anxious, bird-like creature, gripping two dictionaries with white knuckles. It was soon evident that she was far too afraid of Misha to interpret anything at all. She stammered, hesitated, and desperately thumbed through the dictionaries, until she finally sank altogether. As I became impatient, Misha calmly froze her with a sentence of Russian that she did not care to interpret and she never said another word. She just looked from me to him and back with a sad expression. I looked at her, reflecting that I might be irritated, but at least I was not capable of dispatching the poor girl to the next world. Unlike Misha.
So, after this tense start, Misha and I pulled up chairs face-to-face in the hot, messy little hotel room.
"When did you first kill a man?" I began.
"When I was 19, I joined the Blue Berets. Soviet Special Forces. They taught me many ways to kill a man, taught me languages and engineering. Looked after us. Best pay. Best food. Then they sent me to Kabul for seven years. There I killed the Afghans by mines, by hand, by dagger, pistol, rifle. We killed them every way. Like animals. And they also killed us that way. It was the wild. We felt we were alone. Forgotten."
"How many did you kill out there?"
"No idea. It was at distances. Often at night. We attacked villages and towns. Hard to tell. All I can tell you is that I only killed one man by hand, with a knife."
"But knives aren't very clean, are they?"
Immaculately dressed Misha, sitting uncomfortably amongst my messy belongings, shivered at the very suggestion of mess of any sort. "True;" he said gravely. "Very inefficient. Messy."
"Why did you kill all those Afghans?"
"It was our duty for our Motherland, Mother Russia."
When he returned from the war, Misha felt he was a hero. He believed that the Motherland would reward him for his service, but the Motherland was disintegrating.
"I am a very Russian thing because in America when you fight abroad, you return home and become a millionaire. But here, I returned home after seven years out in Hell, and I had to return to work in an electrical factory for a tiny salary. After the wild, after my life in Kabul, I couldn't do that work anymore." Misha obviously has not heard of our Vietnam…but this is no time for history lessons.
He became a hit man by chance. He and a friend were involved in a fight on the housing estate where he lives on the outskirts of Moscow. Misha killed a man by stabbing him in the throat. His buddy, another ex-commando, had just been released from jail and told another ex-con about Misha's skills. The ex-con was an enforcer for the Mafia. Misha found he had a new job.
"The idea came to me that I could kill for money. Why not? I had crossed the line long ago in Kabul. I wanted money."
"What was your first job?"
"I killed an Asian man, maybe he was an Uzbek. Someone showed me his face. His address. Never knew his name. About 35 years old. Narcotics business. It was dark. He was opening his door and I shot him close-range with a Makarov pistol and silencer."
"His head must have exploded."
"Of course, but he fell forward into the apartment. That simple."
Misha has carried out six hits in the last two months. He does not usually know why he is ordered to kill a specific man. In the complex gang wars now killing hundreds in the former U.S.S.R., hits are ordered for vengeance, greed, betrayal—but usually for the narcotics that are now flowing up from Central Asia through Moscow and Petersburg, via Latvia and Hungary, into Western Europe. Misha asks no questions. He just does the job.
He described each hit with the same ghastly serenity. There was the Godfather of the Czech Mafia in central Asia: "An old Czech with ten or so bodyguards. I killed him from the car with a rifle with telescopic sights. Hit him in the head. Only the head is precise. Tidy."
Then there was the man he shot in his car, just like that ("Makarov. Silencer. So tidy. No fuss."); the one he killed in his tool shed, again in independent Uzbekistan; and, most chillingly, there was the hit man whom Misha was ordered to kill in Minsk, the capital of the now independent Republic of Belorussia. "He had a contract on my boss. He was also an assassin, but it was not difficult because he didn't expect a thing. He was a long way from Moscow, in his own place."
"Aren't you afraid they could kill you like you killed him?"
Misha shrugged. "Yes. One day it will be me. Maybe. It's life."
"Hasn't anything ever gone wrong, ever?"
"No. It simply must not. Every case is different. Each needs a different plan. Patience. No one must see you. Any fool can kill someone. The skill of the profession is the plan, before and after. That is truly why I am a professional."
"What are you paid for a hit?"
"The first one I only got 20,000 rubles ($200) because I had no experience. But now I get 50,000 rubles ($500) because they know I am good and also I have a helper I must pay to do research on each client."
"That's what my boss calls them—clients. He pays me 25 percent before and the rest afterward. My boss calls me and says, "I have a job for you. A new client."
"Are you afraid to say no? Would he have you killed if you refused a client?"
"I am afraid to say no. You see, my boss is very clever man. He knows what I can do. But if I refused a job, I don't even want to think about it. My boss is in his fifties, very discreet, dresses well, but not like some black marketeer or currency dealer. He's no pimp. He's as clever as a professor. He drives a Volvo, but doesn't look rich. He never congratulates me on a job. He never mentions it again."
"Do you enjoy your work?"
"No. No one wants to work. But if you must, it is nice to have an interesting job with a high salary."
"Are you excited by killing?"
"I have a nice nature. I am not an animal. Yet I don't feel anything. I lost all my feeling in Afghanistan. I don't think about these men at all. I do not see their faces haunting me during the night."
"Are you religious? A patriot?"
"Yes, I love Russia. But I never pray."
"Do you ever wonder what happens to the souls of your clients?"
"Never. It's not my problem."
"If the Mafia ordered you to kill a woman or a child, would you do it?"
"Never. I'd rather die before I'd kill a woman."
"Do your mother, sister, or girlfriend know about your life?"
"Only two people really know the whole picture—my assistant and my boss. I have two lives. Killing is better than my electrical job, but I must keep both."
"What's your ambition?"
"To marry my girlfriend and have the money for a normal life."
"Will you go to Heaven?"
"Doesn't matter to me."
"Have you sinned by killing?"
"In a way, I must be the hand of God. God is all powerful. Someone must do my job and God chose me."
"Are you Communist or Democrat?"
"Neither, but in the August coup a year ago, I stood in the streets all night to defend Yeltsin. I just love my Motherland."
"One last question, why did you speak to me?"
"My boss ordered me. I must do as he says. He is a clever man—educated, a real intellectual."
Misha stood up to end the interview. The interpreter, who had been perched pathetically on my bed, stood up as well. She was very nervous because she had failed in her job and now she knew too much. Misha gestured that she should go ahead. She glanced at me one last time, with that imploring look, like a sheep on its way to the abattoir.
Misha offered me his hand with that surgeon's firmness, that pianist's sensitivity. He was very close to me, but I was not afraid of him. Perhaps all the movies I had seen about hit men have hardened me just as Afghanistan hardened him. I cannot imagine his victims as real men. Yet his very calmness and tranquillity chilled me. I had expected a swaggering Mafioso with rings on his fingers, not this scientist of death.
I wonder if his matter-of-factness is the "banality of evil" which Hannah Arendt noted in Nazi war criminals. As he shook my hand, I found it difficult to see him as evil. He was more like a laboratory assistant, conducting a boring list of humdrum experiments on faceless androids.
But in his cool practicality, I glimpsed the mythical power of the executioner that is such a potent psychological idea: Is he the Ferryman? If so, what is on the other side? And I found myself staring into his plain eyes, searching for where all the elephants lie buried, seeking the secrets of our existence, as if Misha might know something only Gods and dead men know. But he just stared evenly back at me, and I realized that he knows even less about life and death than I. That is why he finds it so easy.
He smiled for the first time.
"Don't worry," he said. "I won't kill you."
That really does scare me. My belly turned cold. Misha was peering around my cluttered hotel room, distastefully. I realized, with some amusement, that my untidiness disgusted him as much as his murders repulse me. He turns to go.
"Good-bye." Misha stopped, ordered me as if I were a soldier: "Tidy the room. Tidy it now!"
"I will," I say. "I will. I'll tidy it right away!"
When I finished tidying the room, he was gone