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Last Updated: Sunday, 8 October 2006, 15:57 GMT 16:57 UK
The hitmen who stalk Russia
By Patrick Jackson
BBC News

The killing of journalist Anna Politkovskaya bore the hallmarks of a contract killing, according to anonymous police sources interviewed by Russian media.

Russian actor Alexei Panin in the hitmen film Zhmurki (image: CTB film company website)
Russian films like Zhmurki have captured the world of the hitmen
The hitman or killer (pronounced "keeler" in Russian) is a phenomenon of the country's shock transition from communism to a market economy.

You would use the Russian verb zakazat' to order a pizza or a plane ticket but when you "order someone", in the popular parlance, it means you want them killed by one of these hired hitmen.

If Russian media accounts are to be believed, his wages can range from a modest $100 to sums running into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, depending on the target.

When Ms Politkovskaya was shot at her home, there did not appear to be any attempt at robbery and the presumed weapon, a Makarov pistol, was left at the scene together with its used cartridges.

When Russian television broadcast CCTV footage from the apartment block entrance, it showed the chief suspect to be a thin man in a baseball cap, his face a blur.

If this was a contract killing, identifying the perpetrator - and those behind him - will be difficult.

Open season

One of my memories of Moscow in the winter of 1996 was passing a set of bullet-holes in a subway on my way to work.

The late Anna Politkovskaya
October 2006 - campaigning Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya shot dead in Moscow
Sept 2006 - first deputy chairman of Russia's central bank Andrei Kozlov shot dead in Moscow
Oct 2005 - former bank head Alexander Slesarev gunned down near Moscow
July 2004 - US editor of Forbes' Russian edition Paul Klebnikov shot dead in Moscow
Oct 2002 - Magadan governor Valentin Tsvetkov killed in Moscow
Nov 1998 - liberal MP Galina Starovoitova killed in St Petersburg
March 1995 - leading journalist Vladislav Listyev shot dead in Moscow

Nobody seemed in a rush to fix the chipped tiles, just a short distance from a luxury hotel.

For those who knew, the holes marked the spot where US businessman Paul Tatum was machine-gunned to death.

The chief lesson from his unsolved death appeared to be that prominent foreigners could be targets too.

The death of much-loved TV anchorman Vlad Listyev the previous year had already established that fame was no protection from the hired guns.

A wave of contract killings washed through Russia in the 1990s, sweeping away new bankers and businessmen.

With the security apparatus in freefall and war raging in the Caucasus, the country seemed awash with guns. Another memory for me is descending an empty escalator in a metro station beside Red Square one night and seeing one "wide boy" slapping another on his knees as he held a pistol to his head.

By the early years of this century - with Vladimir Putin in power - the wave seemed to be receding.

And then came the murder of another American, Forbes journalist Paul Klebnikov, in 2004 and, this September, deputy head of the Central Bank Andrei Kozlov.

Both were shot dead - Klebnikov outside his office, Kozlov in his car.

Nobody has ever been convicted of their murders despite hopes for a while that the Klebnikov case would be solved.

But while "unsolved" is a word you associate almost automatically with contract killings in Russia, occasionally a killer is caught.

1990s survivors

Alexander Solonik, aka Alexander The Great, aka superkiller, confessed to assassinating a string of Moscow underworld figures in the early 1990s without, it is said, revealing his paymasters.

CCTV image of the suspected killer broadcast by Russia's NTV channel
The killer of Politkovskaya appears to have been caught on CCTV

He also cut a bloody swathe through the capital's police force before his arrest in 1994.

Solonik's main "qualifications" for the work of a hired killer appear to have been a period of military service, an early spell in prison, good physical fitness and a reputed ability to shoot with both hands.

Escaping from Moscow's famous Matrosskaya Tishina (Sailor's Rest) prison in 1995, he fled abroad only to be murdered along with his girl-friend in Greece a couple of years later.

Russian film director Alexei Balabanov's 2005 black comedy Zhmurki (Blind Man's Buff), about hitmen, begins in a morgue where some fresh corpses are soon added to the display.

Sub-titled "For those who survived the '90s", it struck a popular chord, capturing a grotesque world of casual killers, rapacious New Russians and cowed police.

There may be fewer raspberry-red blazers and long leather jackets in Moscow today, and the city now teems with hard-faced police, but it seems the phenomenon of the killer survived the '90s too.

What can Russia do to stem its tide of violent crime?

Your comments:

Russia is not a proper democracy, and this lack of transparency and legitimacy affects the entire country. It doesn't surprise me that crime flourishes in such a state. Andrew Lockley, UK

The news from Moscow is very said. However, taken their crime rate into comparison with Western European standards, they still appear to be civilised. Official statistics show that the Russian capital, as well as other places in Russia, are still a far cry from the level of killings we have here in Holland. Dart, The Netherlands

Russia appears to be evolving like America did in the roaring twenties with the gangsters. In a few years time, the winners of this power struggle will be the acceptable face of Russia that we will be doing business with. Barry, UK

When the value of a human life can be measured in rubles, and your average "hit" costs $1000, can you expect anything less? The naivety of some Western observers astounds me. Ed, Moscow.

Russia's current tide of violent crime is overt. In the West things are more subtle, so it's not obvious who the killers are. Many journalists have been killed worldwide in rather dubious circumstances where the killers are not held to account, let alone charged. Over time Russia's power groups will adopt more subtle means as the political climate there changes to being more democratic. Michael G Eaglemeare, The Netherlands

That is what happens when a country is persuaded to change its political system to the new religion of "market economy". Capitalism is the stuff of corruption and exploitation as the so called "west" knows to its cost. Thomas Lowry, UK

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