Russian revolutionary Rosalia Zemlyachka (1876 – 1947) has often been labeled “history’s deadliest woman”. Surprisingly, relatively little is known about her, because most of her notoriety can be traced to a period of revolutionary upheaval, during which record-keeping was spotty at best. Much of what did exist was destroyed in the turmoil that engulfed the country during her lifetime. Also, being a woman, neither her Bolshevik Party nor English-speaking Soviet scholars and historians, have put that much effort into researching her activities.
Be that as it may, Zemlyachka was one of the key figures in the abortive 1905 Russian Revolution. Twelve years later, during the Russian Civil War, she emerged as one of the main organizers of the Red Terror after the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917. Particularly in 1920 – 1921, she played a key role in mass killings that claimed the lives of tens of thousands at the low end of estimates, and hundreds of thousands at the high end.
She was born Rosalia Samilovna Zalkind into a Jewish family in 1876, in today’s Belarus. Given the Tsarist government’s antisemitism, it was unsurprising that her parents had radical tendencies. Years later, the future killer recalled that one of her earliest childhood memories was of her parents approving the assassination of Tsar Alexander II by revolutionaries in 1881.
Rosalia was introduced to peasant populism by an older brother and left school in 1891, when she was just fifteen, to dedicate her life to the revolution. She was arrested by the Okhrana, the Tsarist political police, soon thereafter. By 1896, hardened by stints in Tsarist prisons, Rosalia had moved from populism to Marxism. By 1902, she had adopted the revolutionary name Rosalia Zemlyachka, and that year, she joined Lenin’s faction of the Communist Party, the Bolsheviks.
Upon joining the Bolsheviks, Rosalia Zemlyachka proved herself a tireless party organizer. She spent most of her time bouncing between Saint Petersburg, Odessa, and various cities abroad to meet with exiles. She was a prominent radical figure in Moscow during the 1905 Russian Revolution, and played a key role in organizing that city’s barricades.
As a known revolutionary, Zemlyachka came in for a rough time in the subsequent Tsarist crackdown. She was arrested and jailed numerous times in subsequent years, and caught tuberculosis and developed heart disease behind bars. She finally fled Russia in 1909, her health broken, to join Lenin and other Bolshevik leaders in exile. She returned to Moscow in 1914, seemingly a spent force, only to spring back to life during the 1917 Russian Revolution.
As a founding member of the Executive Committee of the Moscow Soviet, Rosalia Zemlyachka was on the ground floor when the Bolsheviks hijacked the 1917 Russian Revolution. Indeed, she ended up playing a key role in securing Moscow for the Bolsheviks during the October Revolution. In the ensuing Russian Civil War, she split her time between Moscow and various Bolshevik field armies, where she bucked up the troops as an electrifying speaker and political agitator.
Lenin made her chief political commissar for the 8th Army in Ukraine, then for that of the 13th Army. Her most famous – or infamous mark – however, was made during the Red Terror – a period of extreme repression and mass killings carried out by the Bolsheviks during the Russian Civil War. It began in 1918, after a failed attempt at assassinating Lenin. Zemlyachka was involved in the repression campaign from the start, advocating for the annihilation of class enemies, and taking part in the first batches of executions in Moscow.
Rosalia Zemlyachka’s zeal and methods alarmed even Felix Dzerzhinsky, head of the Cheka (forerunner of the NKVD and KGB). Considering that Dzerzhinsky was known as “Iron Felix“, alarming him took some doing. So in 1920, she was bundled out of Moscow and sent to the Crimea – one of the last enclaves of resistance to Bolshevik rule – as Secretary of the Crimean Regional Committee of the Russian Communist Party.
She was determined to stamp out opposition, once and for all, and to economize on mass murder while doing so. At a time when the Bolsheviks were running low on munitions, she decreed that wasting bullets on those marked for execution was unreasonable. One of her cost-cutting measures was to tie rocks to the legs of the condemned, then toss them off barges into the sea. Tens of thousands were killed that way, and when the waters were calm and visibility was good, rows of standing bodies could be seen like a horrific underwater forest, swaying with the currents like kelp on the sea bottom.
Upon her return to Moscow from the Crimea, Rosalia Zemlyachka was awarded the Order of the Red Banner – then the highest Soviet military award. She spent the rest of her life climbing the Communist Party’s rungs, joining the Central Control Commission – the organization that kept a watchful eye on the party. She worked closely with the NKVD during the Great Terror, and so impressed Stalin with her ruthlessness that he made her head of the Control Commission in 1939.
That made Zemlyachka the only woman in the USSR’s highest administrative body, the Council of People’s Commissars. She died of natural causes at age 71 in 1947, and was honored with a burial in the Kremlin. However, deadly as she was, the claims that Zemlyachka was “history’s deadliest woman” are overstated. As seen below, another woman exceeded her death toll, many times over.
Gilles de Rais, real name Gilles de Montmorency-Laval, Baron de Rais (1404 – 1440), was a French national hero who turned out to be a first-class fiend. A nobleman from Brittany, de Rais was a respected knight who rose to prominence during the Hundred Years War as Joan of Arc’s chief captain and right-hand man. Then his true nature was revealed, and his celebrated career was cut short, along with his head, when it was discovered that, away from the limelight, he was an outright monster.
De Rais’ family, the House of Montmorency, was one of France’s oldest, most respected, and most distinguished aristocratic families. From an early age, he seemed to live up to the high expectations of a scion of such an illustrious clan. By age fifteen, de Rais had distinguished himself militarily during a series of wars of succession that wracked the Duchy of Brittany. He distinguished himself even more in Anjou, fighting for its duchess against the English in 1427.
Despite his youth, Gilles de Rais was already one of France’s most celebrated warriors by the time Joan of Arc emerged on the scene in 1429 to challenge the English. He became one of her guards and fought in several battles at her side. He particularly distinguished himself in her greatest victory, the lifting of the Siege of Orleans. De Rais then accompanied her to Reims for the coronation of King Charles VII, and the king made him a Marshall of France – a distinction awarded to generals for exceptional achievements.
De Rais inherited significant landholdings and estates, and married a rich heiress – a match that brought him more vast properties, and made him one of France’s greatest magnates. He retired from the military in 1434, but he was not as good at managing money as he was at managing men in battle. Before long, he had dissipated his fabulous wealth with a lavish lifestyle that rivaled that of the king.
De Rais lost most of his lands within a year of his retirement, and his family secured a royal decree forbidding him from mortgaging what was left. To raise more cash, he turned to alchemy, hoping to figure out a way to turn base metals into gold. De Rais also turned to Satanism, hoping to gain knowledge, power, and riches, by summoning the devil.
Another thing he turned to was the serial rape, torture, and murder of children. In 1440, an increasingly erratic de Rais got into a dispute with local church figures, and things escalated until he ended up kidnapping a priest. That triggered an ecclesiastical investigation, which unearthed some horrific stuff. It turned out that the once-celebrated national hero had been murdering children – mostly boys, but also the occasional girl – by the hundreds.
As investigators discovered, de Rais routinely lured children from peasant or lower-class families to his castle with gifts, such as candies, toys, or clothing. He initially put them at ease by feeding and pampering them, before leading them to a bedroom, where they were seized by de Rais and his accomplices. As he confessed in his subsequent trial, de Rais got a sadistic kick out of watching their fear, when he explained what was to come. And what was to come was nothing good. Suffice it to say that it involved torture and sodomy, and ended with the child’s murder, usually via decapitation.
The victims and their clothing were then burned in the fireplace, and their ashes dumped in a moat. After de Rais confessed to his crimes, he and he and his accomplices were condemned to death. He was executed on October 26th, 1440, by burning and hanging, simultaneously. His infamy inspired the fairy tale of Bluebeard, about a wealthy serial-wife killer.
Madagascar’s Queen Ranavalona I (1778 – 1861), who had a tongue twister of a birth name, Rabodoandrianampoinimerina, ruled from 1828 until her death in 1861. Nicknamed “Ranavalona the Cruel”, she was probably a certifiably insane madwoman, and her 33-year reign was a complete and utter disaster for the people of Madagascar.
Between murder, massacre, mass enslavement, repression, and resultant famines, millions of her subjects perished. During the craziest stretches of her reign, it is estimated that half the population of Madagascar died, either directly according to her orders, or as a result of her disastrous policies.
Ranavalona’s rise began when her father informed Madagascar’s king Andrianampoinimerinandriantsimitoviaminandriampanjaka (they had ludicrously long names in Madagascar) of a plot against his life. So the king showed his appreciation by selecting the informant’s daughter to marry his son and heir. The marriage proved loveless and produced no issue.
When Ranavalona’s husband died childless in 1828, she engineered a coup and seized power, inaugurating her reign by massacring all potential rival claimants to the throne. She then proclaimed herself Queen Ranavalona I. It was a bloody start to what would prove a bloody reign, that began with her killing every member of the royal family she could get her hands on. Spilling royal blood was taboo, so she had them strangulated, or locked in a cell and starved to death.
Having secured her throne against domestic challengers, Ranavalona turned her attention to encroachments from European colonial powers, and killed or expelled nearly all foreigners. She nullified all treaties with Britain and France, and also banned Christianity.
In lieu of a legal system, she introduced trial by ordeal: the accused were fed poison and three pieces of chicken skin. If they vomited all three pieces of skin, they were innocent. If they did not, they were not, and were accordingly executed. She also isolated Madagascar from the outside world, and turned it into a hermit kingdom.
Ranavalona turned Madagascar into a nineteenth-century version of North Korea. She introduced widespread forced labor, whereby the poor – the majority of the population – were made to toil in lieu of high taxes they could not afford to pay. These de facto slaves were used to build houses and palaces, clear lands and maintain roads, carry nobles and royal dependents in litters, serve in Ranavalona’s army, and perform any other tasks set them by the queen. They were unpaid, poorly fed, if at all, and they died in droves.
In the meantime, the British and French were unhappy with being shut out of Madagascar, where they had been welcomed by previous rulers. So they mounted joint punitive expeditions, but the attempts ended in failure. When the Europeans retreated, Ranavalona beheaded the corpses of their dead, put the heads on stakes, and lined them up on Madagascar’s beaches, facing the ocean.
Ranavalona sent her army on numerous punitive expeditions into those parts of Madagascar resistant to her rule or expressing anything less than enthusiasm for her overlordship. The queen’s men engaged in scorched earth policies and devastated insufficiently obedient regions. As object lessons, Ranavalona’s soldiers routinely massacred the inhabitants of towns and settlements that were deemed disloyal.
Those spared from the mass executions were enslaved and brought back to the queen’s domain, to toil the rest of their lives away on her projects. Between 1820 to 1853, over a million slaves were seized, and the percentage of slaves rose to one-third of the population of Madagascar’s central highlands, and two-thirds of the population of Antananarivo, Ranavalona’s capital.
Between massacres, mistreatment, forced labor, and widespread famines resulting from Ranavalona’s scorched earth policies and heavy-handed repression, Madagascar’s population crashed. During just a six-year stretch from 1833 to 1839, the island’s population is estimated to have declined from 5 million to 2.5 million inhabitants. In Ranavalona’s own home district, the population took a nose dive from about 750,000 in 1829 to a mere 130,000 by 1842.
Those were genocide-level figures, comparable to the toll inflicted by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge upon the people of Cambodia a century later. Unlike Pol Pot, however, Ranavalona was not chased out of power. After a 33-year reign, she died in her sleep of natural causes, at age 83.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading