St. Petersburg's Sobchak Dies at 62




ST. PETERSBURG -- Anatoly Sobchak, the law professor who convinced Leningraders to rename their city and elect him as their first mayor, died Sunday in a hotel room in provincial Russia, apparently of a heart attack. He was 62.


Sobchak was visiting the town of Svetlogorsk in the Kaliningrad region, where among other things he was delivering lectures to a local university. On Saturday he visited with Kaliningrad business circles and discussed a plan to develop a new pharmaceutical plant there.


By evening he began to complain of chest pain, and at 10 p.m. he returned to his hotel. After 11 p.m., according to Russian news agencies, one of his aides arrived to discuss the next day's itinerary and found Sobchak unconscious. An ambulance was summoned, but by the time it arrived Sobchak was dead.


His passing was mourned in public statements by former President Boris Yeltsin and acting President Vladimir Putin, by Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze and by the Estonian parliament, which declared a minute of silence in his honor.


"It's impossible to come to terms with this loss," said Putin, in a statement Sunday to Sobchak's family that was released by Russian news agencies. Putin came to politics as an aide to then-Leningrad city council chairman Sobchak, and before that was one of Sobchak's students in the law department of Leningrad State University.


The daily Moskovsky Komsomolets described Sobchak's death as "Putin losing a teacher," saying that Putin would still be "a nobody" were it not for Sobchak. Putin himself nodded toward the idea that Sobchak was his political godfather - saying the former mayor "will go down in history as a brilliant representative of the generation of politicians who founded the new Russian state."


Yeltsin, in a statement carried by Itar-Tass, praised Sobchak for helping to co-author the current Russian Constitution. Adopted in 1993 in the wake of a bruising clash with parliament, it gave first Yeltsin and now Putin broad powers to dictate national policy.


"Sobchak was an extraordinary personality, a highly educated person who firmly upheld his positions," Yeltsin said.


A CHILD OF 1989


Born in 1937 in the Far Eastern Siberian city of Chita, Sobchak was the leader of one of the pro-democracy movements in the late 1980s. An outspoken figure in Mikhail Gorbachev's campaign to reform the Soviet Union, he quit the Soviet Communist Party in July 1990, shortly after Yeltsin did.


It was at the Congress of People's Deputies - one of Gorbachev's democratic experiments - that Sobchak achieved national fame. It was 1989, the year of Eastern Europe's "velvet revolutions" and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Gorbachev ordered the affairs of the Congress televised - and while an electrified nation watched, Sobchak took the podium to skewer the failures of Soviet rule.


That same year, Soviet troops viciously put down an April protest in Tbilisi, killing 19 and wounding hundreds. Sobchak headed a parliamentary investigation that affixed the blame on top military officers.


That investigation alone, which Sobchak later spun into a book, earned him laurels among independence-minded figures from Georgia to Vilnius. On Monday, Shevardnadze called Sobchak's death "a great loss for both Russia and Georgia." Lithuania's parliamentary chairman Vytautas Landsbergis echoed that, saying Sobchak's snap Tbilisi investigation - while it did not prevent later violence in Baku and Vilnius - "nevertheless braked the repetition of similar clashes."


Sobchak became so popular that when the Leningrad City Soviet sank into a deadlock over choosing a chairman - a job then equivalent to the office of mayor - they sent Sobchak a formal plea begging him to return from Moscow and take the job. Sobchak did so, even though he never tired then or later of describing himself as a parliamentarian, not a chief executive.


As head of the Lensoviet, Sobchak championed the idea of establishing a democratically elected mayor's office - a job he won by a landslide, on the same day Yeltsin was elected Russian president - and also renaming the city St. Petersburg.


Just months after his election, Sobchak - as vocal and visible as Yeltsin himself - helped head off violence during the August 1991 coup attempt. "When the entire city was caught up in alarmed anticipation, his active moves prevented bloodshed in Leningrad," read a resolution adopted this week by St. Petersburg's city council. Local lawmakers are already talking of naming a street after Sobchak, of raising a monument to him and of other gestures of respect.


In his final years as mayor, Sobchak had been widely criticized as ineffectual and autocratic. He had promised to make the city Russia's banking and finance capital, a free economic zone and the Window on Europe foreseen by its founder, Peter the Great; but that was rhetoric.


The reality was an economically bleary-eyed city, run by a mayor who was jealously snappish with the city council. Sobchak favored non-transparent government, and his city budgets were just two or three pages long.


And then there were the corruption allegations. The most-discussed cases revolved around complicated allegations of apartments-as-bribes. But other abuses were suggested in sketchy media reports. Sobchak often sued over such reports. He picked his fights well and tended to win.


By 1996, Sobchak - with Putin running his re-election campaign - went down in flames at the polls.


Out of office, he was fair game for prosecutors. When they questioned Sobchak in October 1997, Sobchak - who had suffered a heart attack 10 years earlier - said he felt sick. He was taken to a hospital and soon after slipped out of town for Paris for unspecified additional treatment.


Many suggested then that Sobchak had faked his heart trouble, a fact that Duma Deputy Irina Khakamada of the Union of Right Forces noted Sunday. "Now I hope [critics] believe in the sincerity of those [1997 heart trouble] complaints," she told Interfax.


Since then, Sobchak's fortunes have risen with Putin's. By the summer of 1999, Putin was prime minister, the charges against Sobchak had been dropped and he was winging his way triumphantly back from Paris.


And suddenly the Russian media was filled with admiring talk for Mayor Sobchak's kollektiv of deputies - men now in national politics like Putin, national power company chief Anatoly Chubais and others.


Chubais on Sunday told a national television audience that Sobchak's heart attack was caused by "systematic badgering organized by people who should be named."


Chubais then named those people: suspended General Prosecutor Yury Skuratov, former Kremlin security chief Alexander Korzhakov and well-known journalist Pavel Voshchanov, who had written articles alleging Sobchak's corruption for Komsomolskaya Pravda (and lost a libel suit when he could not prove some of those charges).


LOOSE ENDS


In St. Petersburg, some politicians and media are already asking the taboo question: Did Sobchak die of natural causes, or could he have been murdered? "[A heart attack] is the sort of death that can be caused quite easily," noted local lawmaker Leonid Romankov.


Sobchak himself has provided ammunition for those who argue for foul play: Just five days before his death, on Feb. 15, national ORT television broadcast an interview with Sobchak where he criticized his arch-rival, St. Petersburg Governor Yakovlev - and then added, "If something happens to me, there is no need to look for the reason too far away. The roots will lead to [St. Petersburg's City Hall] and to the main chair there."


An autopsy was performed Sunday at the Kaliningrad morgue, but Interfax reported that morgue officials, citing doctor-patient confidentiality, declined comment.


St. Petersburgers will say their formal farewells to Sobchak at funeral services Thursday. His final resting place has not yet been decided, though tentatively the city plans to bury him in the Nikolsky Cemetery of the Alexander Nevsky Monastery - next to Galina Starovoitova, the Duma deputy who was a sometime-political ally of Sobchak's until she was murdered in St. Petersburg in the fall of 1998.