About World War 2: Stalin's Executioner Personally Killed Thousands

Updated on March 29, 2018
UnnamedHarald profile image

I try to make history readable and interesting, warts and all. We must look to the past to understand the present and confront the future.

Vasili Blokhin

World War Two: Major-General Vasili Blokhin. Stalin's chief executioner. 1926.
World War Two: Major-General Vasili Blokhin. Stalin's chief executioner. 1926. | Source

Vasili Blokhin: Stalin's Chief Executioner

During April and May of 1940, when Germany and the Soviet Union were still best friends and digesting Poland's carcass, the Russians quietly, systematically and efficiently murdered an estimated 22,000 Polish officers, policemen and intellectuals. Although the murders occurred in at least six locations throughout the Western Soviet Union, the Katyn Forest, where 4,400 were killed, lent its name to all those executed as the Katyn Massacre. In the NKVD headquarters in Kalinin (now called Tver) northwest of Moscow, Vasili Blokhin, Joseph Stalin's chief executioner, shot thousands of Polish officers. Blokhin did not have them shot, he personally shot 7,000 Polish officers.

In the 1920s, Blokhin rose rapidly in the NKVD, the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs, otherwise known as the Soviet secret police. Stalin himself noted Blokhin's mastery of assassinations, torture and clandestine executions-- “black work”. Blokhin soon found himself in charge of a small, special branch of the NKVD that specialized in “black work”, answerable only to Stalin himself and was made a Major General. As the Soviet chief executioner, he went about his work without a paper trail and a minimum of scrutiny.

Order to Execute Polish Officers

WW2: First page of Memo from Beria to Stalin, proposing execution of Polish officers. March 5, 1940.
WW2: First page of Memo from Beria to Stalin, proposing execution of Polish officers. March 5, 1940. | Source

Blokhin's Assignment

In early 1940, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin decided he wanted to eliminate Polish nationalists and “counterrevolutionaries” in order to remove obstacles to his future plans for Poland. The NKVD was tasked with eliminating 25,000 Polish prisoners. Vasili Blokhin was given the assignment to get rid of Polish officers held at the Ostashkov POW camp.

As was his custom, Blokhin carefully considered all the variables and made his plans. First, the prisoners had to be driven from Ostashkov to Kalinin, a distance of over a hundred miles, so trucks, fuel and drivers were allocated to ensure that each evening the Poles were delivered to Kalanin Prison. Blokhin calculated how many of his men would be needed to follow the execution procedures: getting the prisoners from the trucks into the prison, then escorting each one down to the execution chamber and removing each corpse to waiting flatbed trucks. Twice a night, the covered trucks would transport the murdered officers a short distance to freshly dug trenches, where the bodies were thrown. He allocated one bulldozer and two NKVD drivers to fill in the trenches.

At first, he'd hoped to kill 300 prisoners a night, but then determined that that rate would put a strain on himself and his men. He reckoned he could shoot a prisoner every 2 – 3 minutes continuously for the roughly ten hours between sundown and dawn and so revised his plans based on killing 250 a night for 28 nights.

Polish Prisoners

WWII: Polish prisoners of war captured by the Red Army after the Soviet invasion of Poland. September 1939
WWII: Polish prisoners of war captured by the Red Army after the Soviet invasion of Poland. September 1939 | Source

28 Nights of Shooting

Starting in April 1940, after the sun went down, the process started. A Polish officer was led to the “Leninist room”, painted red, where he was identified and handcuffed. Guards then restrained him and took him next door to the execution chamber. Its walls were padded, the floor sloped toward a drain; a hose was available. Waiting inside was Vasili Blokhin, decked out in a leather butcher's apron, a leather hat and large leather gloves. Without comment or formality, Blokhin put his pistol at the base of the prisoner's skull and shot him once. Blokhin's men then removed the body through another door to the waiting trucks. Then the process restarted with the next prisoner and the next, until the night's quota of 250 Poles were all dead and gone. With the night's work done, Blokhin provided vodka for all his men. This went on for for ten hours a night for 28 nights.

Mass Grave of Polish Prisoners

World War II: A mass grave at Katyn, 1943
World War II: A mass grave at Katyn, 1943 | Source

Blokhin's Career and Fall

Blokhin was awarded the Order of the Red Banner and a monthly bonus from Stalin for “his skill and organization in the effective carrying out of special tasks”. During his career, Blokhin is said to have personally killed, before, during and after the war, tens of thousands of prisoners, including Soviet officials who fell out of favor. His was the finger on the trigger for every high official Stalin had executed during the Great Purge of the Thirties. The highest official he personally dispatched was Marshal of the Soviet Union Mikhail Tukhachevsky in 1937 when Blokhin was just a captain in the NKVD.

After Stalin died in 1953, Vasili Blokhin was forcibly retired and stripped of his rank. According to Soviet records, he sank into alcoholism, went insane and committed suicide on February 3, 1955 at the age of 60. [Author's note: Readers can be forgiven for believing Blokhin was insane well before Stalin died.]

Massacre and POW Sites

A
Katyn Forest:
Katyn massacre, Smolensk Oblast, Russia

get directions

B
Ostashkov, Russia:

get directions

POW Camp

C
Kalinin (now Tver), Russia:

get directions

7,000 were executed here and buried a few miles away.

Katyn Forest Massacre (Warning: Graphic)

Questions & Answers

    © 2012 David Hunt

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      • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

        David Hunt 

        3 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

        You flatter me, Svetlana! I'm glad you enjoy my articles. I strive to present lesser known historical facts in a readable style and it is great to get such feedback. Thank you.

      • kalinin1158 profile image

        Lana Adler 

        3 years ago from California

        Wow your articles read like thrillers! Truly fascinating and bone-chilling, especially considering the historical accuracy of what you're describing. Stalin had many henchmen, this one, Blokhin - for some reason his name is unfamiliar to me, but then again, many of Stalin's atrocities remain sort of semi-official, under-played in Russia, with a greater focus on winning the WWII. Great article! Blokhin's cold mechanical efficiency with which he approached his assignments is very disturbing.

      • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

        David Hunt 

        5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

        Thanks for commenting, ahorseback. You're right about blame. No one gets off, no one is pure. That's what war does.

      • ahorseback profile image

        ahorseback 

        5 years ago

        The evils of WWII, ! Seems there's enough blame to go around for far too many people , govermonts and for the stupidest reasons ! The Russians , the Germans of course the Jewish . I was always a wwII buff , my Father was a us army infantryman in the bulge and and shared way too much of his war . That's okay though . The Russians really suffered tremendous losses both from within and without . I love this kind of history though !.....Ed

      • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

        David Hunt 

        5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

        You are right, mizjo. The butchers already know about history. It's the potential victims who need to become aware, before it's too late. Thanks for commenting.

      • mizjo profile image

        mizjo 

        5 years ago from New York City, NY

        And still ethnic cleansing goes on. Race against race, tribe against tribe, idealists against idealists, as enthusiastic and gruesome as ever. They say if you forget history, you are doomed to repeat it, but these monsters and sadists respect nothing. They are given the power of life and death over the helpless.

      • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

        David Hunt 

        5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

        Thanks for commenting, peternehemia. Yes, Kallini's comments greatly added to the hub and she is so articulate.

      • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

        David Hunt 

        5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

        Hi phdast7. Thanks for the comment. Can't even wrap my mind around a mind like that.

      • phdast7 profile image

        Theresa Ast 

        5 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

        Fascinating hub. I always knew there had ti be a "Blohtkin" but I never knew who he actually was or the extent of the crimes he committed in service to Stalin. Great Hub.

      • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

        David Hunt 

        5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

        Thank you for your comment, Funom. Yes, Kallini2010 really gave us many things to think about and it was a real pleasure to "meet" her. And you, of course.

      • Funom Makama 3 profile image

        Funom Theophilus Makama 

        5 years ago from Europe

        Nice hub, even though it is disheartening...... Also Kallini2010 has made this page more interesting and educating... So, Kallini2010, you are a Russian?

      • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

        David Hunt 

        5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

        Thanks, Gypsy. And because he was a human being and not some supernatural being makes the horror all the worse.

      • Gypsy Rose Lee profile image

        Gypsy Rose Lee 

        5 years ago from Riga, Latvia

        This is absolutely horrible. I know since I have heard a lot about these things and people telling about horrors they've faced if they have survived. These thing are worse than a horror movie because they are real. Thanks for this informative hub. Passing this on.

      • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

        David Hunt 

        5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

        Hi rcrumple. Thanks for the great compliment. Yeah, aren't these all great comments?

      • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

        David Hunt 

        5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

        Pavlo, I always welcome your comments, especially in this case, coming from the Ukraine. "Sadist" would seem the right word-- a word I've been searching for. Thanks for reading and commenting.

      • rcrumple profile image

        Rich 

        5 years ago from Kentucky

        From looking through all the comments, not a lot for me to add that hasn't already been said. I can say that I thought you did an excellent job here, as I've found on all your offerings. You are the expert, there is no doubt! Great Job!

      • Pavlo Badovskyy profile image

        Pavlo Badovskyi 

        5 years ago from Kyiv, Ukraine

        I newer heard of him. People like him were doing work often believing they do a proper thing. But in this case , participating personally in massacre looks much more like a desire of a sadist to satisfy his whim. great hub!

      • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

        David Hunt 

        5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

        Thanks for reading and commenting, rjbatty. Words aren't adequate, but it's all most of us have.

      • rjbatty profile image

        rjbatty 

        5 years ago from Irvine

        It's all really at a level that one is rendered speechless. What can one say in the face of such horror?

      • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

        David Hunt 

        5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

        kallini2010, I'm so glad you did take this rare opportunity to read and comment on history. Winning a war likened to winning an earthquake-- perfect. Acts of kindness and selflessness committed by otherwise ordinary people give us hope. As you might be able to tell, I can be somewhat cynical, given history's horrors-- hence my assumption that the Chinese treated their POWs poorly, based on no knowledge at all. But I learn. I also look for those acts of kindness and have written about them, also (my favorite, so far, is the one about the Polish doctors who created a fake epidemic to save villagers).

        Best wishes.

      • kallini2010 profile image

        kallini2010 

        5 years ago from Toronto, Canada

        UnnamedHarald, I was not arguing and I knew that you were not either - I have learned my lesson long time ago - not to argue! Quite pointless and the least enjoyable activity I can think of!

        It is the same lesson that I have learned not to be proud or ashamed of my country - I was born there and it is neither my achievement nor my fault. "Are you proud to be Russian?"

        No. Do I love my country? I don't know. I love people. But I love people everywhere no matter where they come from and living in Toronto - I have a unique opportunity to see the world come to me - I cannot HATE any nation. I did not study psychology or sociology and maybe I should have - that is where my natural tendencies are - humanities.

        The reason I mentioned Japanese Devils - just like everybody else (understandably enough) - Japan is too far for me to know anything about or be that interested, but there was that year that everybody remembers all too well - 2001...

        In September, in Toronto we have an International Film Festival and my ex and I used to attend every year. Documentaries were not necessarily on the list, but that year, my ex insisted that instead of me planning and choosing what we would see - he wanted this film - a documentary "Japanese Devils" - it was about Japan invading China.

        The film was prohibited in Japan because Japanese population was not SUPPOSED to know what happened during the war in China and they still don't. There was NO WAR FOOTAGE, no graphic anything - they only showed about five veterans telling the stories - for three hours... I was sick for maybe six months after the fact. A few days later it was September 11. It sort of solidified my memory into a nightmare.

        But the way Chinese treated Japanese POW was quite different. They treated them with humanity and that I could not forget either. I just could not. Just as I could not forget the faces of the wives of those Japanese soldiers coming out with those stories - the women did not know that they lived with monsters... the men who killed unnecessarily, tortured, killed pregnant women, threw children into wells... and, none of them were insane - it is that once the power and permission to kill is unleashed - you don't know what is going to happen.

        There were also stories my mom told me - she was born in 1942 and when she was growing up she saw German POW that worked in the camps - she described them and how Russians felt sorry - they would bring some warm clothes or some food - at the time when the whole country was hungry (permanently hungry) - but you know, people are people - we are empathetic.

        It's never so clear-cut - never black and white. There is one quote I love about wars - "it's impossible to win a war, just as it is impossible to win an earthquake". War is always a destruction - physical or moral or mental.

        To me the turning point in thinking about wars was the book "All is quiet in the Western Front" by Erich Maria Remarque.

        So, there are probably only two hubs that I have about a war - this one and about Kim Il Sung - the "evil" dictator. But again - he was not quite what most (even historians) thought about him.

        I am sorry, I am going on like this - but history does not seem to be a subject that I discuss often - I guess there was a certain need to say something!

      • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

        David Hunt 

        5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

        kallini2010, your comments, or conversations, are most welcome. You have a unique point of view and articulately state, in an easy to read conversational style, what you mean to say. I hope you understood that I was not arguing with you on a couple points but responding in a spirit of conversation. I think awareness, as you mention, is the goal of many students of history-- not sifting for facts that only support our preconceived ideas (that's merely propaganda).

        I must profess ignorance of the Chinese treatment of Japanese POWs, but I wouldn't be at all surprised to find that it wasn't good. I do know that after WW2 ended, the US changed German soldiers from POWs to some other classification, enabling up to 400,000 of them to be used in forced labor, such as clearing mine fields and stripping them of POW rights under the Geneva conventions.

      • kallini2010 profile image

        kallini2010 

        5 years ago from Toronto, Canada

        UnnamedHarald:

        I did not mean to say that there were "good" or "bad" - we don't know. I am not a big fan of history, because what I find is - history consists of too much of creative writing to my taste.

        I grew up in Russia learning one thing, watching too many war movies (movies about wars), some of them showing unspeakable deeds yet far from what had really happened, and, of course, Russians were the good guys, Germans were, well , the enemy.

        When I grew up, everything changed - the regime changed and with that the history.

        Don't forget the framework in which we always have to put information in order to understand it. We don't know, we perceive.

        But, later, when I was reading about the way people CAN be and what war makes them - I can't say I have too many illusions. Of course, I agree - not everyone can or will become an executioner. But remember how people were killed in the Middle Ages - i think it was compulsory to induce the most painful death, preferably making it a good show for the crowd as well.

        You'd be lucky if they decide to just cut off your head - that was one of the most humane things...

        Oh, I don't even want to remember...

        I don't know what made me go off yesterday - yes, I am not a big fan of history, yet, if more people would study it properly and try understanding what exactly it teaches us. But sometimes the generalizations fail us - even if we know the facts - we try to understand why...

        No, I don't believe in insanity at all. The whole nation has to be called insane, the one that goes to a war - for one or another reason.

        But I will not argue - that was not my point - as you have understood quite correctly - a conversation would be a good thing and just raising an awareness - that given the circumstances - there is always an opportunity for someone like Blokhin to rise.

        Speaking of treating prisoners-of-war - did you know how Chinese treated their Japanese POW?

      • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

        David Hunt 

        5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

        Hi Graham, always good to hear from you! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

        David Hunt 

        5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

        panpan1972, what a great video! Thanks much for referencing it. I'm going to incorporate it into the article-- it's perfect. Thanks again!

      • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

        David Hunt 

        5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

        Hi Mhatter99, thanks for commenting. Yes, good old Uncle Joe was our ally and Adolf was our enemy so let's not rock the boat.

      • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

        David Hunt 

        5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

        kallini2010, thank you very much for your thoughtful comment. I hope you don't have the impression that by writing an article like this I am in any way whitewashing the US or other countries. As a matter of fact I've been looking into the American treatment of Germans between the end of the war and the introduction of the Marshal Plan and the US doesn't come off as the good guy.

        What matters to me is the truth as far as I can discern it. No country gets a pass, whether it's Germany, Russia, America, Britain, Turkey... whoever. If they did wonderful things, that gets mentioned. If they commit atrocities, that gets mentioned. It's what happened that matters-- not what myths we've spun about good and bad.

        I am not a psychologist, just an interested amateur historian, so I certainly couldn't argue that Blokhin was insane from any point of authority. I just think that, in order to personally shoot tens of thousands of people in the back of the skull, a person would have to be insane. Or at the very least a monster.

        Regarding the Munich agreement: I think it was the desperate action of scared and weak nations, not an insane action of Neville Chamberlain-- just a terrible, fawning decision. I'd rather not get into politicians and insanity at the moment.

        To your point about most of us being capable of killing but we haven't crossed that line, I agree wholeheartedly. But even the law distinguishes between a crime of passion and a cold-blooded murder.

        Your comment certainly has got me thinking though and you make a lot of sense. I hope others also read it. Thanks again.

      • old albion profile image

        Graham Lee 

        5 years ago from Lancashire. England.

        Hi UH. Another first class illustration of research and presentation. Alcoholism, insanity and suicide were far to good for this revolting .......!

        Voted up and all.

        Graham.

      • panpan1972 profile image

        Panagiotis Tsarouchakis 

        5 years ago from Greece

        Very interesting, nice work. A very realistic reenactment of the process you described can be seen here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eefn1FyXC9w

      • Mhatter99 profile image

        Martin Kloess 

        5 years ago from San Francisco

        Thank you for this. No fan of either, but it seems to me that Stalin's atrocities outweighed Hitler's. But he was our ally

      • kallini2010 profile image

        kallini2010 

        5 years ago from Toronto, Canada

        I would disagree on insanity - most people agree that if a person is not a killer, so he is sane or not capable of killing.

        It is erroneous to think so - most of us, if not all are capable of killing. I agree that the barrier that we have to overcome is enormous, but there are inclinations in our psyches we are not quite aware of.

        So, depending on circumstances... and history alone is not enough to study. The best experiments are done in sociology and psychology.

        I think it is good to remember this. I don't think you can pin "insanity" on those who made the decision to bomb Hiroshima & Nagasaki, can you? Nor can you do so for the pilots? It's an easier job that personally execute...

        Remember, however, how Americas were conquered - slaughtered quite personally... most of those were "hand job"...

        The world history until this day is the history of blood, brutality and senselessness. But not insanity.

        I am not protecting Russians nor do I feel responsible for their actions. I only want people/readers always to keep things in perspective.

        Remember something closer to home. When your own nation did something shameful.

        My son "brought" from school - his "enemy" S. (a Chinese boy) said that a war is the best thing in the world. My son, not being interested in history or education, could not argue effectively and I said: "Ask S. about Japanese Devils. Sure somewhere down the family lines Chinese remember what Japan did to China. And then ask him how the war was the best for his family."

        I know - China, Japan, Russia, Poland.... - too far from here - but people are people, human - humane and cruel at the same time everywhere.

        Politicians who "fed" Czechoslovakia to Germany - were they insane?

      • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

        David Hunt 

        5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

        You're right, goosegreen. Although Khrushchev purged a lot of Stalin's programs and supporters, I believe it wasn't until the early 1990s before Russia actually admitted it was the Soviets and not the Nazis that killed the Poles. Didn't know about the bullets, but that makes sense. I do know that the Soviets used German Walther pistols, though. As did Blokhin. He had a briefcase full of Walthers during his murderous run because, he said, they were more reliable under heavy use than the standard Soviet pistols.

      • goosegreen profile image

        goosegreen 

        5 years ago

        Another well researched piece. Katyn is symbolic of the clash of dictators. Stalin blamed the Germans for Katyn in spite of the corpses being found to have being killed by Russian made bullets. I believe the Russians did not admit guilt until many years after the war.

      • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

        David Hunt 

        5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

        Thanks Faith. I wonder what his brain looked like, because, as Marty Feldman put it in Young Frankenstein, he was Abby Normal.

      • Faith Reaper profile image

        Faith Reaper 

        5 years ago from southern USA

        How surrel. I cannot even imagine how one mind can even think of such horrendous deeds and then carry them out in the manner he did---pure evil at its core. Excellent write and very insightful. Voted Way Up In His Love, Faith Reaper

      • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

        David Hunt 

        5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

        Hi, fpherj48. Thanks for reading and commenting. It is mind-blowing and creepy, knowing one man could do all this and live with himself. One might imagine that his loss of station pushed him to suicide, because I can't imagine Blokhin having the slightest molecule of conscience. Of course, given the nightmare world he lived in (like George Orwell's doublespeak), sometimes suicides weren't self-inflicted. Oh, and I totally agree that his careful and methodical approach did nothing but add to the horror.

      • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

        David Hunt 

        5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

        Hi, The60life. Those were horrific times with unbelievable monsters coming and going. How does a child grow up to become one? But they do. Although the Nazi Holocaust and Stalin's purges eclipse this one man's deeds by orders of magnitude, the sheer number of people he shot to death beggars understanding. I wonder, what have we learned? At the very least, being aware of these monsters is a start.

      • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

        David Hunt 

        5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

        ata1515, you are indeed correct. Both the US and Britain, at the very least, strongly suspected (but probably knew) the Soviets were responsible, but, as you say, they didn't want to upset good old Uncle Joe. When the Germans discovered the massacre in 1943, they allowed/encouraged journalists and neutral nations from all over the world to inspect the evidence. It made great propaganda for them, as well as deflecting from their own atrocities. Thanks very much for your interesting comment.

      • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

        David Hunt 

        5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

        nightnight, thanks for your comment. I thought about adding "monster" somewhere for a keyword but decided to let the "ordinary" facts speak for themselves.

      • fpherj48 profile image

        Paula 

        5 years ago from Beautiful Upstate New York

        Harald........Positively mind-blowing and heart wrenching....to know that a man rose in rank, power and admiration for the number of his brutal murders.....mass executions.......Really causes the mind to reel.

        I am appalled at the great care and organization he took to "arrange his bloodthirsty killings " on a well-thought-out schedule, so as not to over work or wear down his strength and that of his co-killers.

        Very well-written, and certainly educational. An awakening I will try to put out of my mind.......How does it happen that humans become so viciously savage?

      • The60life profile image

        The60life 

        5 years ago from England

        Hi UnnamedHarald Another awesome hub, but oh ,what a gruesome central character. Although these events happened a long time ago what is difficult to understand is how the Poles and the Russians have any sort of relationship at all today, other than a very bad one.It is hard to understand also how so many vile characters emerged during the immediate pre and post World War 11 period. We have Stalin and his 'pet' executioner, Mussolini, Hitler, Goebbels, and so on.Another important piece of Second World War history...but what have we (the so-called civilised modern world) learned? Best wishes , Michael

      • ata1515 profile image

        ata1515 

        5 years ago from Buffalo, New York.

        Interesting fellow from a terrifying period of history. I recently heard that the United States had known about the Katyn Massacres and Soviet involvement, but they didn't want to anger their wartime ally so they blamed it on the Nazis government.

        One starts to wonder if the Nazis were the worse of two evils when you look at what the communists did.

      • nightnight profile image

        nightnight 

        5 years ago from UK

        Thanks for the really interesting Hub, I didn't know much about this. Its really horrible especially the Leninist room bit :(

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