Al Capone's Chicago, but with onion domes Moscow becoming a lawless place

August 13, 1993|By Los Angeles Times

MOSCOW -- Thugs had been demanding protection money from the businessman for some time. Then one recent day, his wife opened the door of their apartment and a bomb went off. She bled to death in front of their two small children.

At Russia's fortress-like police headquarters, Officer Vladimir A. Petukhov, the harried and dour veteran lawman in charge of investigating contract killings, estimated that 100 to 150 businessmen have been murdered this year by extortionists, gangsters and free-lance hit men. As for the gangland-style bombing at the home of the manager of a Russian-Swiss venture, it raised no eyebrows.

"I wish I could tell you something," Mr. Petukhov said. "But, unfortunately, we have so many of such cases these days, I just don't remember it."

Moscow has become a lawless place, where former KGB agents hire themselves out as bodyguards to jittery Western business executives and where machine-gun slayings are a near-daily event. Muscovites compare their staid, gray city to Al Capone's Chicago -- with onion domes.

But to Russians, no new crime is more exotic, more thrillingly American, more chilling than murder for hire. Contract killing, especially of businessmen, has become emblematic of the broader breakdown of authority and the evolution of a market-driven economic free-for-all.

Capitalism thrives in the death-for-dollars racket. Some of the killers have been hired by business rivals to eliminate the competition.

The price for snuffing out a life ranges from a bottle of vodka -- if the deal is among friends -- up to several thousand dollars for a prominent or well-defended target, Mr. Petukhov said.

The killings have terrified the entrepreneurs who are supposed to be investing in Russia's new economy but who now must also invest in bodyguards and security systems. Though no foreign businessmen have been assassinated, there are growing concerns that the tide of crime may discourage their interest in Russian projects.

Crime of all kinds began skyrocketing across the former Soviet Union as soon as Big Brother stopped watching. Russia's murder rate has almost tripled since perestroika began and stood at 19.9 per 100,000 residents in the first six months of this year -- double the American rate.

In the Soviet Union, murder for hire was simply unheard of, except in decadent Western crime thrillers. Now, the Russian press runs splashy interviews with hit men known by the English word killer.

"Before," Mr. Petukhov said, "this was only in the realm of fantasy."

One group of free-lance hit men told the magazine Ogonyok that two-thirds of their clients are women who want to do in their men. Any person can be killed, even Yeltsin himself, they boasted, "if only it is paid for."

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