Murder Of U.s. Trotskyite Casts Shadow

May 14, 1992|By Howard Witt | Howard Witt,Chicago Tribune

MOSCOW -- To be sure, there were a lot of reasons for Russians to dislike Martha Phillips, a 43-year-old U.S. political activist. But it's a mystery why someone wanted her dead.

Ms. Phillips was a fanatic Communist, a zealous Trotskyite and a Jew. She had moved here from New York a year ago expressly to preach Marxist orthodoxy to a beleaguered people who have had more than their fill of it.

Like her extremist Trotskyite colleagues -- ideological purists from an arcane branch of Bolshevism -- she believed that the problem of the former Soviet Union wasn't that it was Communist. Rather, it was not Communist enough.

Three months ago, on the morning of Feb. 9, a friend discoveredMs. Phillips' body lying neatly on a bed in the Moscow apartment where she had been staying.

She had been stabbed once in the chest. There were no signs of any struggle, sexual assault or burglary. The only things taken from the apartment were her address book, a knife and a bottle of vodka.

Ms. Phillips was the first American murdered in Moscow in recent memory, according to U.S. Embassy officials. But her colleagues and relatives now say that neither Russian nor U.S. authorities in Moscow have much interest in solving the case. To them, this apparent inaction all adds up to a conspiracy.

They allege that Moscow authorities conducted a shoddy investigation into the murder, which police initially treated as a death by natural causes. An autopsy was delayed for two days after the body was found. When the results were released eight weeks later, they showed that Ms. Phillips had been strangled as well as stabbed.

The police have made no arrests. The prosecutor's office, which is supervising the murder investigation, refuses to comment.

Moreover, the Trotskyites charge, the U.S. Embassy has done little more than arrange for Ms. Phillips' remains to be transported back to the United States.

U.S. spokesman John Ohta responded that there is nothing the embassy can do beyond lodging occasional inquiries with authorities about progress on the case.

"At the minimum, what we have seen is buck-passing and incompetence," said Jon Branch, a Trotskyite spokesman.

"But we are now asking the question whether everyone is avoiding this for political reasons," he said. "There are many quarters here that are hostile to us."

Ms. Phillips was the leading spokeswoman for the International Communist League-Spartacist League -- the name the Trotskyites use in the United States. The Spartacist group is microscopic -- "a few hundred" members in the United States and a few dozen in Russia, according to Mr. Branch.

Trotskyites were officially reviled in the Soviet Union and are scarcely more popular in the new Russia. They despise the government of Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin, and Ms. Phillips led frequent demonstrations in Moscow denouncing Mr. Yeltsin's free-market economic reforms.

The Trotskyites think the list of potential suspects in Ms. Phillips' murder is long, and it includes both supporters and opponents of the Yeltsin government.

Nor do they dismiss the possibility that the murderer might have been a friend or colleague of Ms. Phillips.

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