Who Killed Martha Phillips? : Was it an assassin, a former lover or a thief? The death of the onetime Oakland activist is a Moscow mystery.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The former candidate for the Oakland City Council was motionless on the bed when friends found her. She had a gaping chest wound.

Ignoring that and two shallower stab wounds on her neck, police at first said Martha Phillips, 43, had died of natural causes.

Later they flip-flopped, calling it murder by strangulation, the exact "blunt, hard" instrument of death unknown.

It has now been more than four months since the outspoken American English teacher and single mother was found slain in a two-room second-story apartment in central Moscow.

And investigators are no closer to solving the crime than they were after being called to the apartment that Feb. 9 morning.

So some nagging questions remain: Why was Phillips killed? Did she die in a crime of passion or as the result of a burglary gone bad?

Or, as her political comrades-in-arms hint strongly, might she have been assassinated to muzzle her political views, which included strident opposition to Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin? Or did a Russian xenophobe murder her because she was Jewish?

"Martha came to the Soviet Union in its greatest hour of danger," said fellow American Trotskyist Victor Granovsky. "And she died at her post."

According to friends, the case has been transferred to the city prosecutor's office, away from district officials whose initial probe has proven fruitless. The successor agency to the KGB is also said to be investigating.

"We are determined to find out who killed Martha," said another visiting American radical, Rachel Wolkenstein. "Whether what's involved here is police incompetence or a political crime, we want to know."

Some facts are bizarre:

* Odd items, including a sausage, her personal diary, a kitchen knife, a cheap Soviet-made watch and a small tape recorder, vanished from the apartment where Phillips had been staying. A bottle of vodka had been emptied. More valuable objects, however, including a computer and Phillips' handbag, which contained cash in both rubles and the U.S. dollars so coveted in Russia, were untouched.

* The bed was wet, said Granovsky, the apartment's customary tenant, but Phillips' clothing was dry.

* The flat on Zoological Street seemed to have been tidied up, as if to disguise a quarrel. The murder victim, friends said, had not been assaulted sexually. The lock on the door had not been forced.

By all accounts, Martha Phillips was a remarkable woman. She had a toothy, winning grin and bedrock-solid views, and after toiling two decades for leftist causes in California and fighting sexist bias to win work as a typesetter in the San Francisco area, she joined a handful of other American Trotskyists who elected to come to Russia.

Ironically, as the Soviet Union and Communist rule careered toward their demise, the small band of foreigners arrived to explain the true significance of communism and the Russian Revolution to the Russians.

Phillips, a Scarsdale, N.Y., native and former student of the University of Wisconsin, idolized Leon Trotsky, the revolutionary chased from the Soviet Union by Josef Stalin and ultimately murdered when a Kremlin agent drove an ice ax through his skull in 1940 in Mexico.

Until only recently, Trotsky was vilified in his homeland as the demon-like traitor to the Communist cause, so trying to revive his appeal to the Russian masses was tough work, probably impossible.

Friends said that at times, Phillips was very lonely. In a letter last January to a comrade in America, she wrote: "The main thing here is endurance--or, as Trotsky put it, tenacity."

Phillips, who in college dreamed of becoming an actress, is also remembered as stridently dogmatic. She belonged to the Spartacist League, a tiny American party that considers itself unswervingly loyal to the revolutionary legacy of Trotsky and V. I. Lenin.

Her favorite book, friends recalled, was Lenin's "The State and Revolution," a manual for the seizure of power. She once told someone she couldn't walk near San Francisco's waterfront without thinking of the 1934 general strike.

In today's Russia, where a continent-sized society struggles toward a supply-and-demand economy and multi-party democracy, that mind-set put Phillips at odds with almost everyone--including mainstream Soviet Communists.

"Martha was an opponent of both the Yeltsin regime and the pseudo-socialist red-brown (Communist-fascist) coalition," recalled Granovsky, who was raised in Hollywood and works here as a graphic designer. "She was a true Trotskyist, and the most effective one in the Soviet Union at that."

In California, Phillips had plugged left-wing causes, including campaigns against the Ku Klux Klan and the Vietnam War. She served on her party's Central Committee and was the Spartacists' unsuccessful candidate for the Oakland City Council in 1983.

In 1973, she went to Los Angeles and, living on welfare, tried to found a Trotskyist party office. But, her comrades' said, she was a terrible organizer who seemed to have alienated as many people as she attracted.

One friend, George Foster, remembers her as a "real rebel"--someone so adventurous that she had to be talked out of going camping on Mount St. Helens a few days before the volcano erupted.

Coming to Russia, the motherland of the proletarian revolution, seems to have been Phillips' greatest challenge. She threw herself into learning the intricacies of the Russian language about four years ago.

Foster, whose eulogizing remarks were printed along with those of other Phillips' friends in an American Trotskyist journal, recalls joking with her that she was "the only Jew on the entire planet emigrating to the U.S.S.R."

Phillips flew to Moscow in May, 1991, got a job as an English teacher and found an apartment on the city's outskirts. The next month, the Russian people, electing their leader for the first time, chose Yeltsin as their president.

Phillips complained to a friend that the Siberian populist, a former top-ranking Communist apparatchik, was constructing "an unstable Bonapartist regime."

But preaching Trotsky's gospel in today's Russia was not without risk. In January, Phillips' colleagues claim, militants from Pamyat, the anti-Semitic Russian nationalist organization, grabbed her by the shoulders as she was handing out leaflets in front of the Kremlin and tried to throw her to the ground.

Feb. 9 was supposed to be a great opportunity for the tiny group of emigre revolutionaries--the day of a big anti-Yeltsin rally in the heart of Moscow. The night before, about 11, friends left Phillips at the apartment of Granovsky, who had gone to the United States.

Phillips didn't feel well; she had been hospitalized for kidney failure about 10 years ago and was so sick then that she almost died. In Moscow, her kidneys had become infected and again hurt. Nevertheless, she was adamant about going to the anti-Yeltsin rally.

When her friends returned at 8:30 on the morning of Feb. 9, they were puzzled by the eerie silence of the apartment. They found Phillips still in the fold-out bed.

Horrified, they realized she was dead.

They called police immediately. A medic who accompanied the officers said Phillips had died a natural death. When the frantic friends pointed to the wound in the woman's chest, the medic said it looked like an old injury, they say.

"No pictures were taken; no fingerprints made," Jon Branche, another American Trotskyist, complains bitterly. "Valuable evidence was destroyed or disturbed."

Police assured the friends that they would perform forensic tests, including fiber examinations of the bedding and Phillips' clothes, but they didn't, according to Toronto lawyer Yossi Schwartz, who was retained by Phillips' parents.

The reason for delaying an autopsy is also murky. The Trotskyists say they were first told by a U.S. diplomat here that one would be automatic. But the next day, they say, Russian officials told them that formal permission from the U.S. Embassy was required.

Meanwhile, Phillips' friends say, State Department officials in the United States were telling her parents that they had the right to refuse an autopsy, and the officials may even have recommended that they do so.

One official report from Russian authorities states that an autopsy was carried out March 24. In a written letter of protest, Yossie calls that statement "absurd" because the body had been cremated weeks before.

For Trotskyists, whose political mentor was slain by a Kremlin agent, there is great temptation to believe in a politically motivated murder that has been subsequently masked by an official cover-up.

But a Moscow lawyer retained by the Trotskyists sees nothing more sinister than a staggering degree of police ineptitude, of which, he says, there is no shortage in Moscow.

"I've known bodies to lie around an entire half day before police here get to them," said Gennady Yemelyanov. In probing the Phillips' killing, he says, "police let the crucial moment pass."

Leads that looked promising have not panned out.

A former lover of Phillips was held by police and questioned for several days but then released, Branche said.

Some other Trotskyists had keys to the apartment, but all were accounted for after the slaying, said Granovsky.

Phillips' comrades are outraged by the way the investigation has been handled. Branche charges that as a "smoke screen," police insisted on checking into the alibis and backgrounds of Phillips' acquaintances. At best, he adds, the U.S. government has been "indifferent."

Pavel A. Marchenko, the investigator in Moscow's Krasnopresnensky district who was in charge of the original investigation, hotly denies suggestions of official bungling or concealment and says there was only one delay--the autopsy was performed two days after death, on Feb. 11.

"The delay can be explained by the fact that we had to wait until that Monday to get the official permission from the U.S. Embassy," he says.

"As for her colleagues from the International Communist League, at first they were pretty aggressive and accused us of investigating their political activities instead of the murder. But then they changed their position and began to cooperate."

The murder investigation, so far, seems to have led nowhere.

"At this stage, we can't exclude the possibility of a political assassination, though there is no direct evidence of that," Marchenko says. "We also don't rule out a killing based on personal motives."

Sergei Loiko, a reporter in The Times' Moscow bureau, contributed to this story.

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