Russian academics are calling for the reinstatement of the death penalty after a spate of murders. Moscow police say that at least eight researchers and professors have been murdered or found dead in suspicious circumstances over the past two years.
Campaigners want to see the lifting of the moratorium on the death penalty, which Russia adopted in 1996 as a condition for membership of the Council of Europe. Although they say it is unlikely that scientists are being deliberately targeted, they blame the growing gulf between rich and poor for an explosion in crime since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Mikhail Kodin, vice-president of the Russian Academy of Social Science, deputy dean of Moscow State University's sociology department and a leading campaigner for the restoration of the death penalty, said tough measures were necessary to combat such lawlessness.
"Only a strong hand can rule over Russia's vast territory. The mentality of our people is such that they believe only God gives life to a person and that nobody should take it away. If that is infringed, the punishment should be irreversible."
Professor Kodin, who is an expert on post-Communist Russia, said the collapse in economic output, rigged privatisations, impoverishment and the enrichment of an elite-fuelled amorality.
A decline in industrial output, which dropped 55 per cent during the 1990s, and huge increases in the incomes of the richest 10 per cent relative to those of the poorest 10 per cent, has undermined social foundations.
Professor Kodin added that drug-related crime had increased 15-fold between 1990 and 2000 and that psychiatric illnesses were up by a factor of 11.
The murder rate has more than doubled from 14,300 in 1990 to 32,000 in 2002 and more than 100,000 people a year go missing.
"Scientists, who have always enjoyed a position of respect in Russian society, are increasingly identified as part of the establishment," Professor Kodin said.
The murders of members of the academy and their families had brought home the horrors of Russia's crimewave, he said. Victims include the 20-year-old daughter of a dean of the sociology faculty and her fiance, who were murdered by car thieves.
The case for reinstating the death penalty is supported by 70 per cent of Russians. Two years ago, 120 leading academics and public figures, including Nobel laureate Zores Alferov, wrote an open letter to President Vladimir Putin supporting the cause, but the government has done nothing.
"Those who illicitly acquired their wealth in recent years are against lifting the moratorium because they fear later prosecution. They are protected by politicians who helped them become rich," Professor Kodin said.
Russian scientists killed in the past two years include:
* Viktor Frantsuzov of Moscow State Institute for Chemical Technology, shot as he was driven to work
* Boris Svyatsky of the Russian State Medical University, shot in the chest and head as he walked to his office
* Andrei Brushlinsky, director of the Russian Academy of Science Institute of Psychology, beaten to death.
In the most recent case, Vladimir Fyodorov, a professor at Moscow State University, was found dead with multiple knife wounds to his chest in a one-room flat he rented close to the college campus.
Authorities believe he may have committed suicide. His wife and colleagues said that a drinking problem, for which he had been receiving treatment, had worsened since he was assaulted and robbed in a park near the university last year.