What Person Has Murdered the Most People Directly By Their Own Hand, And Who Has Saved the Most Lives?
While many a historic leader can be credited with sometimes even millions of deaths via their orders, with perhaps the poster children of this in modern times being the likes of Hitler and Stalin, these individuals themselves only killed in a somewhat abstract way- not by their own hand directly. Which brings us to the topic of the day- who killed the most people directly by their own hand? And, on the more positive side of things, what bastion of awesome saved the most lives directly by their own hand?
As for the negative side of this lively coin, one could argue that Brigadier General Paul Tibbets and Major General Charles Sweeny (or their respective bombardiers, Colonel Thomas Ferebee and Captain Kermit Beahan) hold the record here with their respective bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing somewhere in the vicinity of 70,000-140,000 people in the former, and 60,000-80,000 in the latter. However, arguably a more darkly impressive spree of mass murder, and fitting slightly more firmly in the “directly by their own hand” classification would be the man who is, according to Guinness World Records, the “Most Prolific Executioner” of all time- Stalin’s own Vasili Blokhin.
Born to a Russian peasant family in 1895, as a young man Vasili quickly earned a reputation for “chernaya rabota”, or “black work”, while serving in the Tsarist army during World War I- gaining recognition from Stalin himself for his covert assassinations, torture, and executions. Blokhin quickly rose through the ranks of Russia’s secret police at the time—the NKVD—eventually becoming the head of the Kommandatura department, members of which were all approved by Stalin and took orders directly from him, carrying out black work missions specific to furthering Stalin’s cause.
Among other things in this role, Blokhin oversaw many mass executions and executed several high-profile individuals himself, including Mikhail Tukachevsky, Marshal of the Soviet Union, and two of the former NKVD chiefs under whom he had previously served.
But Blokhin’s most infamous deed was performed at the bloody Katyn Massacre. In 1939, just over two weeks after Germany invaded Poland, Soviet forces entered the eastern side of Poland. Though they didn’t officially declare war, they captured over 20,000 Polish officers and detained them in Soviet prison camps.
But what to do with them? Well, Stalin being Stalin, on March 5, 1940, Stalin ordered the executions of all Polish officers being held…
This brings us to why Vasili Blokhin is arguably the biggest direct mass murdered in human history. Helping out in killing off these 20,000 or so officers, over a twenty-eight day period, Vasili personally performed over 7000 of these Polish executions at Katyn, averaging killing almost 300 people a night by his own hand…
On this note, usually, the executions would take place from dusk til dawn, with Blokhin working nearly uninterrupted each night. As to how he managed so many murders in such a short span by his own hand, the system setup was extremely efficient. The executions would go like this: after signing identification papers, officers were led with their arms bound into a small room that was equipped with soundproofed walls, a drain, and a hose. Forced to their knees, a single shot was delivered to the back of the prisoners’ heads, killing them instantly. Their bodies would then be dragged through a second door away, the room would be hosed down, and the next prisoner would be brought in.
As for what he used for this, Blokhin favoured the 7.65 mm Walther PPK pistol. For Blokhin, it didn’t have as much of a kickback as other guns, which meant less pain in his wrist after performing hundreds of executions every night. The pistols also rarely misfired, which meant the victims could be killed with one shot nearly every time someone pulled the trigger.
This gun was also favored for these executions because the pistols were the make carried by German officers. Thus, in the event that the mass graves were discovered, the bodies would contain bullets from a German-style pistol and the Soviets could deny responsibility for the deaths.
Going back to Vasili, on April 27, 1940, Blokhin was awarded with the Order of the Red Banner for carrying out this amazingly bloody organized mass killing. The Order was traditionally given to military personnel who displayed “exceptional courage, self-denial, and valour during combat”. That said, given the Soviets didn’t exactly want to advertise what Vasili had done, he was given the Order secretly.
On that note, in 1941, Stalin found himself in an alliance with the Polish government after the Germans invaded Russia. At this point, he released hundreds of thousands of Poles from prison camps, and was pressed on several occasions to account for the many thousands of missing POWs. Stalin pled ignorance on this, but in 1943 the truth began to emerge with the discovery of the mass graves at Katyn. As was the plan from the beginning if discovered, the Soviet government denied all responsibility and blamed the Germans. It wasn’t until 1990 and Mikhail Gorbachev’s institution of openness that the truth was revealed through a series of documents highlighting the country’s role in the massacre.
As for the man himself, Blokhin didn’t live to see his deeds publicly recognized. Following Stalin’s death in 1953, he was forced to retire. During the deStalinization campaign that followed, Blokhin was stripped of his rank and turned to alcoholism. A combination of drink and insanity reportedly led to his death in 1955, the cause of which is officially listed as suicide. If true, and not simply suicided, this means he can add his own life to his record murder tally.
As for that tally, along with the approximately 7000 prisoners of war Blokhin personally executed at Katyn, he is reportedly directly responsible for the deaths of many thousands of other people in prison camps during the Second World War, aptly earning him that title of “Most Prolific Executioner” in the Guinness Book of World Records and, as far as we can find, caveats about pushing a button to drop a nuke aside, also the human in history who has the notorious distinction of killing the most people directly by his own hand.
So what about the other side of this coin? The person who has directly saved the most lives? Once again various arguments could be made about world leaders, such as Teddy Roosevelt who, among other things, negotiated the end of the Russo-Japanese War, earning him the Nobel Peace Prize, and then followed this up more significantly by preventing what would end up being WWI, at least for several years.
On this one, in 1905 tensions were mounting between the somewhat allied France and Britain, with Germany on the other side, thanks to the First Moroccan crisis. In a nutshell, this was on its face an issue of which European power should hold sway over Morocco. But more deeply, this was about Germany getting a little nervous over Britain and France buddying up to one another during the crisis, French expansion of influence, and how this all shifted power in Europe.
As tensions rose, Germany attempted to get an official position from the U.S. and Roosevelt, but the general contention at this time in the U.S. was that the country should stay out of the conflict. So Roosevelt stayed more or less neutral publicly.
Eventually Germany considered simply going to war with France, but were concerned that the British would ally with the French in retaliation. In part thanks to Roosevelt’s previous good work helping to mediate the Russo-Japanese War conflict resolution (which, again, earned him the Nobel Peace Prize), Roosevelt was turned to to help convince France to agree to the conference between the different countries in this conflict (13 in total attended).
After securing a promise from Germany that it would back the Roosevelt’s decisions during the conference- at this time, Germany was under the impression Roosevelt would favor them, rather than be neutral- Roosevelt agreed to help and was able to convince France to attend.
This was a key point because the conference almost devolved completely at one point, at the same time France was beginning to march troops towards the German border, with Germany in turn mobilizing its own forces in response.
But once Roosevelt joined in the conference, after securing Frances’ attendance, he then put forward a proposal to resolve the conflict, which heavily favored France. Naturally, Germany rejected it. However, with little support outside of Austria-Hungary, and the U.S. not backing them as they’d thought, along with their previous promise to Roosevelt to back the U.S.’ decisions, Germany finally gave in.
Ultimately the conference had a peaceful ending, with France’s position more or less winning out, though there were a few face saving provisions thrown the German’s way.
Without Roosevelt helping to convince the French to attend the conference and his work in it, or had the conference broken off, the conflict would have likely escalated to war, which given many of the treatise that led to the escalation of WWI and the two sides involved here, this may well have seen some version of WWI happen almost a decade sooner than it eventually did.
Granted, given that many millions ultimately died anyway when the war did eventually kick off about a decade later, one could argue that Roosevelt did not save millions by his efforts in this peace conference, but simply delayed some people’s deaths who ultimately fought in WWI and were old enough in 1905 to have fought in that one too, had it come to be.
Other arguments for the individual who saved the most lives directly could be made about various scientists, particularly in the medical end of things, such as Jonas Salk and his polio vaccine, among countless other scientists and inventors out there who have saved millions of lives by their direct actions.
A perhaps more obscure individual who has saved millions to date is one James Harrison of Australia- the man with the golden arm. As to how he’s saved so many, Harrison’s blood contains an antibody called Rho(D) Immune Globulin that is used to treat Rhesus disease, a severe form of anemia where antibodies in a pregnant woman’s blood destroy her baby’s blood cells.
James Harrison may never have discovered this quirk in his bloody if it were not for the fact that when he was 13 in 1949, Harrison had major chest surgery. The surgery required transfusions of almost three-and-a-half gallons of blood. During the three months he spent recovering in the hospital, grateful for the donated blood that had saved his life, he pledged to start donating his own as soon as he was legally old enough as a way to pay back the kindness of the strangers who donated the blood he used. (At the time, one needed to be 18 to donate blood.)
In 1954, when Harrison turned 18 and started giving blood, it was quickly discovered that his blood contained a rare, very valuable lifesaving antibody that could be used to treat Rhesus disease.
At that time, Rhesus disease was killing tens of thousands of babies per year (around 10,000 annually in the U.S. alone), as well as causing major birth defects such as brain damage. Most people (about 85%) have a special protein in their blood cells called the Rh factor, which makes them Rh positive (positive blood type); the remainder, who lack Rh factor, are called Rh negative (and have a negative blood type).
Women who’ve been pregnant may remember the Rh blood test, which screens to detect any incompatibility. As to why this is important, as noted by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, “If [mother] is Rh-negative and . . . baby is Rh-positive, [mother’s] body will react to the baby’s blood as a foreign substance. [Mother’s] body will create antibodies (proteins) against the baby’s Rh-positive blood . . . . Rh incompatibility is more likely to cause problems in second or later pregnancies [when] Rh antibodies can cross the placenta and attack the baby’s red blood cells . . . lead[ing] to hemolytic anemia in the baby.”
Luckily, if an incompatibility is found early on, there is a prenatal treatment (Rh immune globulin) that will prevent any problems before they start. This works by introducing antibodies that will attach to Rh-positive red blood cells. This effectively makes it so the mother’s immune system won’t detect and then try to destroy them.
Going back to Harrison, when the discovery was made about Harrison’s blood, he agreed to undergo extensive tests and experiments that eventually led to the development of a vaccine called Anti-D. Harrison said he was eager to help but some precautions were taken in case something happened to him during the testing. “They insured me for a million dollars so I knew my wife Barbara would be taken care of. I wasn’t scared. I was glad to help,” Harrison said in a 2010 interview.
Besides letting himself be used as a guinea-pig in the development of the Anti-D vaccine, Harrison has donated an extreme amount of plasma. Plasma can be given every two to three weeks, unlike whole blood, which is only recommended to be donated every six weeks. This allowed Harrison to donate 1,173 times in the around six decades he did it, only stopping in 2018 because Australian policy does not allow people over 81 to donate.
In all, it is estimated Harrison has helped save about 2-2.5 million people so far through his actions. Among that number, his own daughter, Tracey, had to have the Anti-D injection after the birth of her son.
But all of these individuals, while their direct actions may have saved even upwards of millions cannot compete with yet another individual who bears the name Vasili, in this case one Vasili Arkhipov, the man who quite literally saved the world.
For reference here, when he did this, there were approximately 3.2 billion people on Earth, a rather large percentage of which arguably would have perished without his actions, and humanity and Earth forever changed after.
So how did Vasili save the world?
In 1962, the U.S. and the Soviet Union were on the brink of possible mutual destruction- the world as a whole was facing a possible nuclear winter and all the devastation that would come with it. The Cold War had been escalated to “tepid” and was close to becoming hot with the failure of the Bay of Pigs in 1961 and the ensuing Cuban Missile Crisis.
In May 1962, Soviet President Nikita Khrushchev and Cuban President Fidel Castro reached a “secret” agreement that allowed the Soviets to start building missile sites in Cuba, including stocking them with nuclear missiles- 42 of them.
It should be noted here that the U.S. at this time had nuclear missiles in Turkey and Italy that could hit Moscow within 16 minutes of being launched. On the flip-side, the Soviets had plenty of nukes pointed at and perfectly capable of destroying the U.S.’ allies throughout Europe. However, the Soviets did not have nearly the capability to destroy targets in the U.S. itself. Certainly, they had enough nukes to destroy all the major cities in the U.S. and more, but they were lacking in reliable intercontinental ballistic missiles to adequately function as a “mutual destruction” deterrent. Indeed, there were some among the U.S. brass that felt the loss of allies throughout Europe and the lesser direct causalities from long range nukes that managed hit their targets in the U.S. were acceptable losses given the payoff would be the annihilation of the Soviet Union and the end of that threat to the United States. So if the Soviet Union had nukes in Cuba, that tipped the balance in the Cold War back to near even, rather than in the U.S.’s favor as before.
In the fall of 1962, the United States sent a US U-2 aircraft to fly over Cuba to attempt to confirm the rumors that they had heard about the Soviet missile sites in Cuba. On October 14th, 1962, the U-2 arrived back with pictures of these missiles sites. A day later, the pictures were presented to President Kennedy. Tensions rose and alarms were sounded. And, thus, on October 15th, 1962 the 13-day ordeal that became known as the Cuban Missile Crisis began.
This brings us to the man of the hour Vasili Arkhipov.
Arkhipov was born on January 30th, 1926 to a poor, peasant family near Moscow in the town of Staraya Kupavna. At the age of 16, he began his education at the Pacific Higher Naval School. Vasili saw his first military action as a minesweeper in the Pacific Theater at the tail end of World War II. In 1947, he graduated from the Caspian Higher Naval School and served on submarines in the Soviet Black Sea, Northern, and Baltic fleets. In 1961, Vasili got his first taste of crisis management in an incident that, while extremely momentous, wasn’t even close to what he’d help with later.
This first incident happened when Vasili was appointed deputy commander of the new K-19 sub (known today as “the Widowmaker” thanks to the 2002 movie K-19: The Widowmaker, but in its day nicknamed by the Russians “Hiroshima”). This sub was one of the first Soviet nuclear submarines, which was also equipped with a nuclear ballistic missile. On July 4th, 1961, as the sub was conducting exercises near Greenland, a major leak was discovered in the radiant cooling system. Since no backup cooling system was installed pre-sail, the reactor on the sub was in real danger of a nuclear meltdown. In order to prevent a nuclear accident unlike any the world had ever seen before, the captain of the sub sent workers into high-radiation areas to build a cooling system on the spot. Every member of the sub did what they could to prevent disaster, including Vasili, lending his engineering expertise to help contain the overheating reactor. The crew succeeded, but not before these workers and many on the crew developed radiation sickness. Every worker that was sent as first responders into the high-radiation areas died within days. Due to this, a mutiny nearly erupted on board the K-19 sub. Vasili backed his captain in continuing the work and was, eventually, awarded a medal for his bravery in a time of crisis and loyalty to the Soviet Union. All of this was a precursor to the day Vasili Arkhipov saved the world.
After his time on the K-19 sub, Vasili was made second in command on the B-59, one of four attack submarines that was ordered to travel to Cuba on October 1st, 1962. The sub contained 22 torpedoes, one of which was nuclear, holding approximately the same yield as the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima. The captains of each of the four subs were given permission to fire their nuclear torpedoes at their own discretion, so long as they had the backing of the political officer on board. Unknown to the crew of the B-59, the United States began their naval blockade of Cuba on October 24th and informed the Soviets that they would be dropping practice depth charges (think warning shots) to force subs to surface and be identified.
Moscow could not communicate this information to the B-59 due to it being too deep underwater to receive radio transmissions.
And so it was that on October 27th, 1962, US destroyers and the aircraft carrier USS Randolph located the sub, trapped it, and began dropping depth charges to force it to surface. The sub’s crew, which had been traveling for nearly 4 weeks with very little communication with Moscow, was very tired and not aware of the circumstances. The sub’s captain, Valentin Savitsky, believed that nuclear war had already broken out between the Soviet Union and the US and wanted to fire the nuclear torpedo. The political officer concurred. All that was normally needed to launch.
Fortunately, particularly given the heightened tensions at the time, in this case, one other person had veto power over firing besides the captain and the political officer- the second in command Vasili Arkhipov. You see, Vasili, despite being second in command on the B-59, was the leader of the fleet of the four Soviet subs sent. Had Vasili not been present, nuclear war would have likely happened as both the captain and the political officer wanted to launch the nuclear torpedo and would otherwise have been able to.
However, Vasili vehemently disagreed, arguing that since no orders had come from Moscow for many days, such a drastic action was ill-advised and the sub should surface to contact Moscow to assess the situation. A heated argument broke out- legend, probably false- says punches were thrown. Eventually, though, Vasili won the day (his reputation as a hero in the K-19 mutiny reportedly helped in the debate) and the sub surfaced. Upon surfacing, they were met by their American enemies and instructed to head back to Russia. They obliged, (additionally, they began to have mechanical issues on board the sub) and headed east. Nuclear war was averted. Vasili Arkhipov was a hero… again.
When the sub arrived back in Russia, the crew of the B-59 were met with trepidation, however. After all, they had pretty much surrendered to the Americans. Said one Russian admiral to the submariners, “‘It would have been better if you’d gone down with your ship.”
Despite the not-so-hero’s welcome he originally received from the Soviets upon his return, Vasili continued serving in the Soviet Navy and ultimately in 1975 was promoted to rear admiral. Later, he would become the head of the Kirov Naval Academy. He retired in the mid-1980s, and passed away in 1999 at the age of 73 as the result of complications due to radiation poisoning from back aboard the K-19.
Despite few in the wider world having heard of him or ever giving him credit, at least one person recognized the significance of what Vasili had done that 27th of October, 1962- his wife, Olga, Vasili, who always recognized him as the man who saved the world, stating,
“The man who prevented a nuclear war was a Russian submariner. His name was Vasili Arkhipov. I was proud and I am proud of my husband, always.”
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