A journalist's murder shakes Russia to the core

March 03, 1995|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

MOSCOW -- Deeply shocked by the murder of a popular television journalist, Russians worried yesterday that no one here was truly safe from the shadowy, seemingly fearless forces pursuing money and power.

Vladislav Listyev, the 38-year-old director of Russia's powerful national television network, Ostankino, was shot to death Wednesday night by gunmen waiting in the stairwell of his apartment building. He was the apparent victim of a bitter struggle over advertising revenues and control of the network.

The killing seemed to strike a blow at the national psyche, a blow so deeply felt that even President Boris N. Yeltsin felt compelled to visit the television station and speak to its workers.

"I bow my head," Mr. Yeltsin told the silent gathering, "as a man who has not done enough to fight banditry, corruption, bribery and crime."

Standing stiffly on a darkened stage in Ostankino's concert studio, a huge poster of Mr. Listyev to one side, Mr. Yeltsin spoke of a criminal underground taking control of vast portions of society, including the police; he conceded what many Russians have already accepted as the obvious.

"The mafia has merged with administrative bodies and certain police bodies," he said, and acknowledged that the situation was worst in Moscow. "Such an orgy of crime, such utter irresponsibility of the administrative authorities and such slovenliness cannot be found anywhere else."

He then announced that he was firing the city's chief prosecutor and police chief.

Mr. Listyev's death produced an uncommon chill in Moscow, which has endured seemingly more calamitous events with relative equanimity. Only a year ago, a furious gunbattle took place on the Ostankino grounds, the night before Mr. Yeltsin sent tanks against the Russian parliament. Only last fall, a journalist investigating army corruption was killed by a bomb.

But now there seemed to be no limit.

Hundreds of mourners clustered near Mr. Listyev's apartment building, piling flowers on the ground. A large crowd stood outside Ostankino, pressing against a tall iron fence and occasionally shouting for officials to explain events. Bystanders wept, and tied candles and flowers to the fence.

After Mr. Yeltsin's speech, Russia's most famous television personalities stood in somber knots in the Ostankino hallways.

"There is a certain echelon in Russian business that has only contempt for life," said Sergei Dorenko, an anchorman on the second network, Russian Television.

"Its only question is, 'How much?'"

In January, Mr. Listyev was appointed managing director of Ostankino with the mission of turning it into the reorganized Russian Public Television Co. beginning April 1. But the reorganization threatened various groups that had operated virtually independently within Ostankino and had been making a great deal of money, said Alexander S. Bevz, director of the new Civil Society Foundation.

"My own opinion is that someone wanted to slow down the reorganization," Mr. Bevz said. "It came down to money -- money and control."

Ostankino had recently created an in-house advertising department, and it increased the net- work's revenues to nearly $8 million a month, up from $1.1 million a month.

But the network had recently announced that it was going to suspend advertising as of April 1 until it could develop guidelines.

Alexander Yakovlev, chairman of Ostankino's board and a Politburo member in the Gorbachev era, suggested that the suspension was a likely motive for the killing -- that someone was unhappy about losing a source of cash.

For many Russians, Mr. Listyev represented their best hopes for the future. Over and over yesterday, friend and stranger alike used similar words to describe him: the best of the intelligentsia, talented, energetic and -- most of all -- honest.

"If this can be done to such a person, it can be done to anyone," said Tatyana Mitkova, an anchorwoman on NTV, a third network.

In protest, all the stations went off the air for seven hours. They resumed broadcasting at 7 p.m., all of them broadcasting a program that included highlights of Mr. Listyev's career.

Mr. Listyev first captured the public imagination in 1987, in the early, heady days of glasnost and perestroika, as one of the creators and hosts of "Vzglyad," or "Viewpoint," a news and talk show that introduced honesty to the airwaves.

He moved gracefully from serious news to pure entertainment and back. He created and emceed a Russian version of "Wheel of Fortune," then a Phil Donahue-like show that examined social issues, and, more recently, a Larry King-like interview show called "Chas Pik," or "Prime Time."

"Our hopes were killed with him," said Ludmilla Zavyelyeva, 37, who clung to the fence outside Ostankino. "Now we know everything is arbitrary. It can happen to anyone."

Nearby stood Irina Prokhanova, 40, holding two red carnations. Great tears rolled down her face.

"He was the best we had," she said. "He was our future. He was part of the younger, thinking generation. Undoubtedly he helped change our country. I can only hope something will finally be done, but I don't have many hopes."

Mr. Yeltsin spoke slowly, gravely and without notes in his 10-minute talk with Ostankino employees. He moved barely a muscle. His voice rose to a near snarl, however, when he spoke of the fight against crime.

He spoke of the government of Uzbekistan, which has executed officials found to be corrupt.

"We fear ourselves," he said. "We fear turning Russia into a police state. We shirk tougher measures because of this fear."

The crowd outside found Mr. Yeltsin's words neither reassuring nor threatening: Nothing will happen, they said.

"It took 70 years for us to destruct," said Gennady Petrov, 27, a bartender.

"It will take another 70 years to construct something new."

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