Moscow's Wild West claims cowboy capitalist High-profile pioneer becomes 1st foreigner killed by contract

November 05, 1996|By Clara Germani | Clara Germani,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- Surrounded by bull-necked bodyguards and beautiful Russian women, American businessman Paul Tatum lived what his friends and associates say was a virtual movie script of a life as the original cowboy capitalist in the new Russia.

His attempt to fight the powers that be in this country's often violent commercial environment was marked by high-profile pugnacity. So no one was particularly surprised when he was murdered in the long shadows of a cold autumn afternoon Sunday, riddled by automatic rifle fire near a seedy train station.

Involved in a long dispute over ownership of the ritzy Radisson-Slavyanskaya Hotel and business complex he developed on the banks of the Moscow River, he was a local sensation.

A hard-driver, Tatum never let go of his stake. After one of several evictions and lockouts from his property, he drilled through the doors to get back in and barricaded himself there behind a retinue of gunmen.

The 39-year-old entrepreneur had worn a bulletproof vest in public for at least two years. But he prophetically told a journalist last year, "I'm here till they carry me out."

"He was careening toward his fate at a hundred miles per hour. It's exactly what was expected, it seems natural," said Samantha Hartley, an American marketing executive who set up a movie theater for Tatum's Americom Business Center from 1992 to 1994.

She and others described Tatum as an entrepreneurial visionary, but abrasive and egotistical in carrying out his ideas.

In an environment where most foreign businesses try not to make a commotion, quietly paying bribes to officials and protection money to gangs to avoid violence, Tatum was cacophony of complaint and denunciation.

Still, while the expatriate business community was not surprised, it was agitated with speculation, curiosity and jitters.

Murder in Russian business is not unusual. In more than 200 contract murders in Moscow last year, many of the victims were businessmen. But not foreign businessmen.

"People are upset because it crossed a line no one expected to be crossed, it's the first time a Western investor was the target of a contract murder. It sends a chill up your spine," said Peter Charow the director of the American Chamber of Commerce here.

"I don't expect to see people pulling out of the market. But I think it's very important for Russian government to act swiftly to bring whoever is responsible to justice. It'll bring a swift counter signal."

The U. S. government agreed. Nicholas Burns, the State Department spokesman, said yesterday that Washington hopes that "the Russian government mounts a very aggressive investigation, a criminal investigation, into this brutal murder."

But the violence here is practically overwhelming. Shootings, stabbings, poisonings, drownings and bombings of bankers, lawyers, executives and politicians happen with such regularity that they don't even make front-page headlines anymore, bemoaned the Moscow Times in a recent editorial.

After a British lawyer was shot and killed in the cross-fire of a contract murder as he ate breakfast in his St. Petersburg luxury hotel, the newspaper suggested snidely that restaurants should have "gangster and non-gangster seating" so innocent people wouldn't get hurt.

Tatum was the founding partner of the Radisson-Slavyanskaya Hotel, the first American-owned hotel in Russia where President Clinton has stayed, along with other visiting dignitaries.

Built on Moscow city property, the hotel was owned in partnership between the city, Tatum and the Minnesota-based Radisson chain.

Tatum's 40 percent interest was in the Americom Business Center, a sumptuous retail and office complex. Shops in the complex sell $6,000 evening dresses and $1,000 hip-high women's boots.

The office complex includes technical and personnel services well known for the secretarial pool called "Paul's girls," hired not just for their impeccable English but for their beauty.

The messy dispute over the ownership of the hotel started soon after the hotel was up and running and making big profits in 1992.

It had spilled into Russian and American courts and even a Swedish arbitration court.

Tatum's very public struggle to oust his partners gained him some grudging admiration.

In full-page newspaper ads this fall, he denounced the Moscow mayor and the Russian business community.

One American businessman here, who like many didn't want to be mentioned by name in the same article as Tatum, said people watched him the way they do a car wreck: They gawk but steer clear.

"This was a sorry end to what was a very heroic start. I met him when he started the project here before the fall of the Soviet Union. He had a very ambitious, grandiose and unlikely plan," said the businessman. "But he really brought off almost all of what he told us he would in spite of the odds."

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