Leading Article: A sickly nation - but there are signs of hope

THE PATTERN is always the same: just when things could not get any worse, they do. The murder at the weekend of one of the most popular members of the Russian parliament is a vivid reminder of the lunacy of the country today. Galina Starovoitova, assassinated outside her home in St Petersburg, was one of the most respected politicians in Russia. Her death is a historic loss. The Russian prime minister, Yevgeny Primakov, yesterday promised a new crackdown on crime and extremism. But few Russians will believe him. Crackdowns on crime have become almost as familiar as violent crime itself.

Meanwhile, President Boris Yeltsin is back in his invalid's chair. He is still at the centre of power, but politically and physically weakened. In the rest of the country, too, there are yet more signals of everything that is going wrong. In the south, a pro-Communist, anti-Semitic bloc has just won an election. In the Urals, a local Communist Party leader has ordered the erection of a statue of Stalin in a local school.

But, despite all the dark headlines, Russia is not yet a definitively lost cause. It will not receive much in the way of Western loans for some time to come. But Russia's salvation must come from inside, not outside the country.

Russia is still in the political intensive care ward. But the prognosis is marginally better than it was a few years ago. For the younger generation, at least, new opportunities are there. Too many people now hope for something better - and know that there is no simple way out.

Starovoitova's murder will not be the last of such horrific acts. Seen in a historic perspective, however, it may come to be regarded as one of the final lashes of the old totalitarian monster's tail, and not the first stirrings of a new nightmare.