One of the attractions of Moscow is its so-called "lesoparki," a curious urban cross between a cultivated park and wild woodlands.
There are several of them, some even quite close to central Moscow. They are every city dweller's dream for a weekend picnic with friends, a fishing outing or just a jog. But they are also notorious for being an ideal setting for the serious crime that besets any large city.
In Russia last year, Moscow police recorded 1,000 cases of homicide. According to official statistics, in 2006, throughout Russia, 500 people are believed to have been killed by serial killers.
To any casual visitor, the Bitsevsky Park on the southern outskirts of Moscow is an idyllic scene. Escaping their polluted capital, Moscovites relish their weekends and time off on horseback, on bicycles or making the best of the large sports club situated just next to the park. But the single telltale sign of any Russian park, going back in history, are men playing chess, on long rows of tables, never mind the weather.
One such player was Alexander Pichushkin, 33, a supermarket shelf stacker whose trial opened in Moscow Thursday. Among Muscovites he is now known as the Bitsevsky Maniac, charged with the murder of no fewer than 49 people in that very park. Some of them were his fellow chess players. Pichushkin allegedly confesses to have known 20 of his victims "quite well."
Prosecutors say the Bitsevsky Maniac's first murder victim was a fellow student in 1992. In 2001 he went on a killing spree that ended June 18, 2006, when Moscow police arrested a suspect.
By any standards, this isn't an everyday Russian court case. This one gets a jury and is open to the public — not that frequent in Russia where people are usually banned from the courtroom and the institution of a jury is still a novelty.
Sixty-two of the 64 squares of the chessboard that police say they found in Pichushkin's one-bedroom apartment, which he shared with his mother, were marked with coins depicting the victims he allegedly confesses to have killed. He had two more to go to fill the chessboard, but perhaps many more to fulfill his killing instinct.
"If they hadn't caught me, I would never have stopped, never. They saved a lot of lives by catching me," he told NTV, a Russian TV channel that interviewed him shortly after his arrest last year.
Although charged with 49 proven murders, Pichushkin claims 13 more and says the markings on his chessboard are the real total.
In a Moscow court, the neatly clad and groomed Pichushkin complained that he had been denied the title of Russia's most-notorious serial killer because the police failed to attribute the other 13 to him.
At the opening of the trial, prosecutors said that Pichushkin, according to his testimony, had hoped to surpass the record of Andrei Chikatilo, Russia's worst serial killer to date, who murdered and cannibalized 52 women and children in 1992.
One of the prosecutors, Yuri Syomin, told the court that "Pichushkin dreamed of surpassing Chikatilo and going down in history." And according to a police spokesman, "In all likelihood, this case will turn out to be even bigger than that of the notorious maniac Chikatilo."