Bills drive top Russian scientist to suicide

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A senior Russian nuclear physicist is believed to have shot himself dead after spending months fighting for the survival of what was once the pride of the Soviet Union's top-secret nuclear weapons research industry, Chelyabinsk- 70, but which has now been engulfed by the financial crisis in Russia. The apparent suicide of Vladimir Nechai, who was the director of the centre, led news reports in Russia, where public anger over billions of dollars of unpaid wages and uncollected taxes has been mounting.

The 60-year-old scientist was found dead in his study at what is now known as the Federal Nuclear Centre in Snezhinsk, a town in the Ural mountains about 600 miles east of Moscow. A letter, found on his desk, was last night being examined by the police.

His deputy, Vladislav Nikitin, said Nechai was under constant stress bought on by his efforts to keep the centre running. Like most of Russia's scientific institutions, its funding has collapsed and its workers have not been paid since May. "We have sent letters to the President [Boris Yeltsin], to parliament, to [Prime Minister Viktor] Chernomyrdin, but there has been no reply," Mr Nikitin said, "But the situation has not improved".

Although neither Mr Nikitin nor investigators were in a position to say exactly what lay behind his death, it was being seen as an acute example of the human cost of the fiscal chaos in Russia, where there is a $5bn (pounds 3.3bn) wage-arrears bill.

It follows reports of a sharp rise in suicides among officers in the armed forces, where millions of members have also gone unpaid for months.

The impact of the crisis is particularly serious among Russia's string of so-called "secret cities" - nuclear-weapons research and development centres, which remain classified as "closed administrative territories".

As they were usually set up expressly for defence work, these communities are often wholly dependant on the federally funded centres, and face total collapse once the money from Moscow stops arriving.