Izvestia” said it best. As the body of democrat Galina Starovoitova lay in the Aleksandr Nevsky Lavra monastery in St. Petersburg with three bullets in its skull, the newspaper tallied “the cost of anarchy.” “Not one high-profile contract murder has been solved. Homeric embezzlement and bureaucratic tyranny go unpunished…. Nazis, multiplying like plague rats, encounter no rebuke. In Russia today, there is no state. It is dead.”

Starovoitova, assassinated November 20, is the sixth member of the Russian Duma to be murdered since 1993, and the first whose death is attributed to political activity rather than business dealings. Speculation about motive abounds, fed by spinners hoping to turn public outrage to political advantage. She led the fight in the Duma to censure a member for anti-Semitism. Did the anti-Semites kill her? Or was she killed over her role in next week’s local legislative elections in St. Petersburg, the most deeply corrupted city in Russia? Or because she might have run for governor of the St. Petersburg region in 1999? Is there a link to the murder last month of the head of the St. Petersburg fuel-supply company? Or to the assassination of the city’s deputy mayor? Or to the murder of Larisa Yudina, a reporter killed last summer while investigating corruption in the southern republic of Kalmykia? Did democrats have her killed to create a martyr, or did the communists have her killed to create a pretext for a state of emergency and suspension of the constitution? All these theories and more are in current circulation.

Small comfort that Starovoitova’s one-time democratic ally Boris Yeltsin, through a spokesman, promised to take “personal responsibility” for the investigation. Russia’s president, hospitalized with pneumonia, failed even to attend her funeral. Yeltsin plays a critical but now almost totally passive role in the country’s politics: As long as he is president, no one else can be. Meanwhile the enormous power the constitution bestows on the presidency is largely unexercised.

Nature abhors a vacuum, and human nature abhors a political vacuum. The vacuum in Russia may not last long. While the political class in Moscow jockeys for position, presidents and governors in the republics and regions of the Russian Federation increasingly ignore the Kremlin, which recently has failed to pay the subsidies on which most local governments rely. On another level, nongovernmental organizations–of a sort–dominate more and more of Russian life. These are gangs and criminal societies that use violence and corruption to gain control of businesses and public services as well as criminal activities like prostitution and bootlegging. Former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov says that the official security services have been “privatized”–that is, suborned–by “Nazis, communists [and] oligarchies.” One of the oligarchs said much the same thing. Boris Berezovsky, the financier and media baron who by some accounts is the richest man in Russia, claimed that senior officers of the Federal Security Service–the former KGB–ordered his murder in late 1997. Several officers attached to the organized-crime unit of the Federal Security Service came forward to support Berezovsky’s story. If you want to organize a crime, it seems, the organized-crime unit is the place to go.