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Russian tycoon fatally shot in Moscow

Shabtai von Kalmanovic, who brought WNBA stars to Russia to play for his Spartak team during the American league's off-season, was in his car when assailants opened fire.

November 03, 2009|Sergei L. Loiko

MOSCOW — A Russian tycoon who organized a Michael Jackson concert in Moscow, was once jailed for spying in Israel and hired American female basketball stars to compete in his homeland was slain Monday by gunmen in the capital, television news reported.

Shabtai von Kalmanovic was killed near Moscow's Novodevichy monastery when a Lada sedan pulled up to his black Mercedes-Benz and the assailants opened fire. He died instantly; his driver was injured.

"Submachine guns and shotguns were used in the attack," Anatoly Bagmet, an investigator with the Moscow prosecutor's office, told Vesti television. "The car was in motion when shots were fired."

The attackers fired at least 20 rounds at the businessman's car, a police source told the RIA Novosti news agency.

Kalmanovic, 60, had invested millions in the Spartak, a women's professional basketball team that won the EuroLeague Women title the last three seasons. He hired stars of the Women's National Basketball Assn., including Tina Thompson, Diana Taurasi and Sue Bird, to play for his team during the American league's off-season, paying as much as 10 times their U.S. salaries.

New York Liberty center Janel McCarville, currently on the Spartak team, responded to the news on Twitter: " . . . This drama got me shook, hoping to go to bed, wake up n have it all be a dream..." During the 1990s, Kalmanovic organized tours in Russia of such artists as Jackson, Liza Minnelli and Jose Carreras, according to the Interfax news service.

Born in Lithuania during Soviet rule, Kalmanovic immigrated to Israel during the early 1970s. He was arrested in 1986, convicted of spying for the Soviet Union, and served nearly six years in an Israeli prison. He moved to Russia after his release and went into the construction business.

Igor Prelin, a former KGB colonel and spokesman, said Monday that he had always doubted that Kalmanovic was a full-fledged Soviet spy.

"He was 22 when he immigrated to Israel, so he couldn't by definition be a professional spy," Prelin said. "We did use the Jewish immigration at the time to plant some agents in Israel and in the West by compelling young people willing to leave for Israel to agree to help the KGB in the future," as a condition of being allowed to leave the Soviet Union.

"We didn't do anything to help Kalmanovic get an earlier release" from prison, he added. "That happened mostly thanks to a huge campaign of the Russian Jewish community at the time."

Adolf Shayevich, the chief rabbi of Russia and an acquaintance of Kalmanovic, said the tycoon "was a remarkable person and an active member of the Jewish community who attended all the Jewish holidays in our synagogue. He possessed an amazing collection of Judaica, definitely the biggest in Russia.

"This is all simply horrible," Shayevich said. "In the center of Moscow! Such things now happen all the time and the culprits are never found."

Bagmet said the slaying could be business-related or a case of "personal revenge."

Basketball, Kalmanovic said in a 2008 interview, was one of his greatest passions.

"You need, still, some crazy people to do some crazy things that are difficult for journalists and readers to understand," Kalmanovic said in explaining why he had poured millions of dollars into a sport that was not particularly popular in Russia.

"Misunderstanding is the price you pay," he said. "So what? So what if people think you're doing it to show off?"

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Times staff writer Mark Medina in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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