The assassination of a popular television journalist pierced Russians' perpetual armor of indifference Thursday, plunging the country into mourning and rekindling fears among the prominent that anyone of them could be next.
The apparent contract killing of Vladislav Listyev stunned even jaded residents of this crime-ridden capital and spotlighted the dangers of life in a lawless metropolis, where corruption pervades the very security forces on which citizens once depended for protection.
President Boris N. Yeltsin, in a somber appearance before Listyev's colleagues at the Ostankino television center, condemned the killing as part of "an orgy of crime" convulsing this country.
Listyev was gunned down in the entry of his central Moscow apartment building late Wednesday by a gunman or gunmen using a silencer to muffle two shots.
He was the second high-profile journalist to be slain in Moscow in five months and the latest in a harrowing spree of mob-related assassinations of wealthy business people, bankers, entertainers, sports figures and members of Parliament.
Firearms and explosives were used in the murders of 1,600 Moscow residents last year, and the number of slayings across the country exceeded 16,800, Interior Ministry sources say.
Yeltsin condemned Listyev's killing as a vile, cowardly act and blamed himself for the collapse of security and order.
"I bow my head to you as one of the people, one of the leaders, who are guilty because they have not taken sufficient measures to combat banditry, corruption, bribe-taking and crime," an uncharacteristically contrite Yeltsin said in the appearance that was broadcast across the nation.
"We are afraid of ourselves, we are afraid of turning Russia into a police state and are afraid to toughen our struggle against these bands," he said, vowing to invoke new powers to strengthen law enforcement.
Yeltsin said he planned to fire Moscow's chief prosecutor and the head of security forces for failing to stem crime or apprehend gangsters.
But an official of the federal Interior Ministry, responsible for crime-fighting, retorted that the top-level bashing of Russian police and prosecutors has hastened the erosion of their credibility.
"The fact that the law enforcement system is unjustly lashed out at, criticized, humiliated, discredited, has resulted in a situation when the reputation and prestige of all the law enforcement bodies has been undermined," ministry spokesman Yevgeny M. Ryabtsev said.
With the killing of Listyev, "the mafia has overtly and impudently challenged the whole country, showing that it is omnipotent, that it can do everything it wants," Ryabtsev said.
With the exception of news updates, state-run television programming was shut off in a gesture of mourning for Listyev from noon until 7 p.m.--the hour of his popular "Rush Hour" call-in program.
He hosted the news-driven discussion show in the style of Larry King or Phil Donahue but was probably best known for his pioneering TV magazine "Glance."
It was one of the first programs to break out of the Soviet-era broadcast mold with the advent of glasnost.
Investigation of his slaying has been assigned to a special "broad-response crimes" section of the Moscow criminal-investigation department.
The section was set up last year to handle murders of parliamentary deputies and well-known bankers--an action telling of this city's epidemic of contract killings.
Although investigators refused to comment on suspected motives for Listyev's murder, Russian media speculated that it was his support of a temporary ban on advertising on his new Russian Public Television channel that provoked anger among organized crime figures who profit from the ubiquitous promotions. The Itar-Tass news agency said ads earned 35 billion rubles ($7.8 million) every three months for the network.
Rival political forces have been trying to buy or influence broadcast media ahead of December parliamentary elections. Listyev's network was at the center of a behind-the-scenes battle among commercial and political powerbrokers.
Hundreds of Russian and foreign reporters packed the central House of Journalists to hear tributes and accusations from leading writers and activists with the Committee for the Protection of Journalists' Rights.
And human rights crusader Yelena Bonner, widow of Nobel prize laureate Andrei Sakharov, hit out at officials she accused of turning a blind eye to social disintegration.
"Today we bury Vlada Listyev. Tomorrow we bury Russia," Bonner said in an interview with Echo of Moscow radio after tolling off other recent killings and the government's brutal assault on Chechnya.
Feelings of defenselessness against the rising tide of organized crime and violence were pervasive even before Listyev's death, and those likely to be targeted reacted fearfully to news the journalist had been killed.
"This is a shame on our country," pop music legend Alla Pugachova declared to a TV cameraman after laying flowers at the scene of the slaying. "People of culture, journalists, artists--no one is safe."
Yuri P. Shchekochikhin, a columnist with Literaturnaya Gazeta renowned for his aggressive political coverage, observed: "This is the way it is with us now. You never know what will happen or who will be next."