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Who Killed Martha Phillips? : Was it an assassin, a former lover or a thief? The death of the onetime Oakland activist is a Moscow mystery.

June 16, 1992|JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — The former candidate for the Oakland City Council was motionless on the bed when friends found her. She had a gaping chest wound.

Ignoring that and two shallower stab wounds on her neck, police at first said Martha Phillips, 43, had died of natural causes.

Later they flip-flopped, calling it murder by strangulation, the exact "blunt, hard" instrument of death unknown.

It has now been more than four months since the outspoken American English teacher and single mother was found slain in a two-room second-story apartment in central Moscow.

And investigators are no closer to solving the crime than they were after being called to the apartment that Feb. 9 morning.

So some nagging questions remain: Why was Phillips killed? Did she die in a crime of passion or as the result of a burglary gone bad?

Or, as her political comrades-in-arms hint strongly, might she have been assassinated to muzzle her political views, which included strident opposition to Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin? Or did a Russian xenophobe murder her because she was Jewish?

"Martha came to the Soviet Union in its greatest hour of danger," said fellow American Trotskyist Victor Granovsky. "And she died at her post."

According to friends, the case has been transferred to the city prosecutor's office, away from district officials whose initial probe has proven fruitless. The successor agency to the KGB is also said to be investigating.

"We are determined to find out who killed Martha," said another visiting American radical, Rachel Wolkenstein. "Whether what's involved here is police incompetence or a political crime, we want to know."

Some facts are bizarre:

* Odd items, including a sausage, her personal diary, a kitchen knife, a cheap Soviet-made watch and a small tape recorder, vanished from the apartment where Phillips had been staying. A bottle of vodka had been emptied. More valuable objects, however, including a computer and Phillips' handbag, which contained cash in both rubles and the U.S. dollars so coveted in Russia, were untouched.

* The bed was wet, said Granovsky, the apartment's customary tenant, but Phillips' clothing was dry.

* The flat on Zoological Street seemed to have been tidied up, as if to disguise a quarrel. The murder victim, friends said, had not been assaulted sexually. The lock on the door had not been forced.

By all accounts, Martha Phillips was a remarkable woman. She had a toothy, winning grin and bedrock-solid views, and after toiling two decades for leftist causes in California and fighting sexist bias to win work as a typesetter in the San Francisco area, she joined a handful of other American Trotskyists who elected to come to Russia.

Ironically, as the Soviet Union and Communist rule careered toward their demise, the small band of foreigners arrived to explain the true significance of communism and the Russian Revolution to the Russians.

Phillips, a Scarsdale, N.Y., native and former student of the University of Wisconsin, idolized Leon Trotsky, the revolutionary chased from the Soviet Union by Josef Stalin and ultimately murdered when a Kremlin agent drove an ice ax through his skull in 1940 in Mexico.

Until only recently, Trotsky was vilified in his homeland as the demon-like traitor to the Communist cause, so trying to revive his appeal to the Russian masses was tough work, probably impossible.

Friends said that at times, Phillips was very lonely. In a letter last January to a comrade in America, she wrote: "The main thing here is endurance--or, as Trotsky put it, tenacity."

Phillips, who in college dreamed of becoming an actress, is also remembered as stridently dogmatic. She belonged to the Spartacist League, a tiny American party that considers itself unswervingly loyal to the revolutionary legacy of Trotsky and V. I. Lenin.

Her favorite book, friends recalled, was Lenin's "The State and Revolution," a manual for the seizure of power. She once told someone she couldn't walk near San Francisco's waterfront without thinking of the 1934 general strike.

In today's Russia, where a continent-sized society struggles toward a supply-and-demand economy and multi-party democracy, that mind-set put Phillips at odds with almost everyone--including mainstream Soviet Communists.

"Martha was an opponent of both the Yeltsin regime and the pseudo-socialist red-brown (Communist-fascist) coalition," recalled Granovsky, who was raised in Hollywood and works here as a graphic designer. "She was a true Trotskyist, and the most effective one in the Soviet Union at that."

In California, Phillips had plugged left-wing causes, including campaigns against the Ku Klux Klan and the Vietnam War. She served on her party's Central Committee and was the Spartacists' unsuccessful candidate for the Oakland City Council in 1983.

In 1973, she went to Los Angeles and, living on welfare, tried to found a Trotskyist party office. But, her comrades' said, she was a terrible organizer who seemed to have alienated as many people as she attracted.

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