Thousands pay homage to Russian TV star

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The Independent Online
Alexei Leonov - twice hero of the Soviet Union and double winner of the Order of Lenin - is not a man to cry easily. But yesterday, 30 years after he stepped unflinchingly from an orbiting capsule of Voskhod-2 to become the first man to walk in space, his composure cracked.

"If there is a God let him punish the abominable people who committed this awful deed against the entire people of this country," spluttered the 60-year-old retired cosmonaut, one of tens of thousands of people who trudged through the slush of Russia's endless end-of-winter thaw to pay their respects before an open wooden coffin on a stage at Ostankino television studios.

"It is such a terrible shock, as if every one of us has been hit over the head with a hammer," Mr Leonov said. He was one of a galaxy of celebrities to parade by the bespectacled corpse of Vladislav Listyev, 38, a television star murdered by a two-man hit squad on Wednesday on the stairs to his Moscow apartment. "It is not possible to go on living like this.''

It was to express this same despairing message that less distinguished mourners waited for hours outside, many clutching carnations or candles, in a slow-motion queue stretching more than half a mile down the road to the studios - where, in October 1993, Interior Ministry troops fought a bloody battle with a rabble of neo-Fascists seeking to overthrow President Boris Yeltsin.

The murder of Mr Listyev, a fixture on Russian television since the early years of perestroika when he became an emblem of the hope and excitement of reform, has crystallised the helplessness and sense of betrayal felt by many ordinary Russians, whether liberal intellectuals or crusty conservatives who still found something to admire in Mr Listyev's forever optimistic ebullience.

"Here murders get solved only in films," grunted Yevgenny Sorokin, a chemist who waited nearly three hours for a five-second glimpse of the body. "There is no order. This country has sunk into complete lawlessness."

The last time he waited so long in a queue, Mr Sorokin said, was at a memorial ceremony for Andrei Sakharov, the dissident physicist whose natural death in 1990 stirred sadness but none of the despair and doubt triggered by the mafia-style killing of Mr Listyev.

After 12 weeks of awful, but for most still distant, bloodshed in Chechnya, every household with a television has lost someone they knew to a spiral of savagery. Beneath shared grief is a country polarised as never before. "This murder is extremely dangerous from the political point of view because the wave of just indignation triggered ... may be used by a right- wing extremist force to seize power," Sergei Shakhrai, vice-premier, warned.

While the killing is widely blamed on a turf-battle for control of television advertising, it has quickly taken on deeply political overtones as a symbol of the corruption and violence that torment Russia's fragmented and deeply disillusioned society.

"This is terrible. It is a shot into every home," said Bella Zhafanova, an elderly television producer from the Azeri capital, Baku, who sat weeping. "They want to terrify us all.''

There were dozens of soldiers in the queue. "Everyone sees now how the criminals have taken over our life," Andrei Pustukov, a 22-year-old from a Moscow army barracks, said. "The authorities are completely powerless. No one should be indifferent. The mafia thrives when society is indifferent.''

Mr Yeltsin has pledged to "make the mafia tremble" and mobilised six separate agencies to try to find the men whose identikit pictures were yesterday released by police. In a sign of how little authority the Kremlin really has, Itar-Tass said Moscow's police head and the chief prosecutor - both sacked by Mr Yeltsin on Thursday - were yesterday still at their posts.