(FORTUNE Magazine) – What is healthy for a Russian is deadly for a foreigner. --Russian proverb

Not for the first time in his life, Paul Tatum needed money. The hotheaded American entrepreneur had reached the final round of a court fight against his Russian business partners, and a decision in his favor looked promising. But his cash had dried up, and Tatum had gone to ground in his seventh-floor office in Moscow's sleek Radisson Slavyanskaya hotel and business center. He had a double bed, a cellular phone, a collection of Star Trek videos, and 18 bodyguards. He lived on room service until it was cut off; then he relied on takeout.

The Radisson was something of a gem, by Moscow standards. Tatum and his partners had taken a desolate, pre-perestroika concrete skeleton and transformed it into a gathering place for foreign and Russian entrepreneurs, with a steak house, Parisian fashion boutiques, and a glittering lobby bar. In 1990, Presidents George Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev had blessed the 430-room riverfront tower as a shining example of the role joint ventures could play in Russia's slow, sanctioned march away from Communism.

But by 1996, the Radisson had become a model of how severely such ventures could go wrong. The Russian stake had changed hands three times and was being administered by a charming young Chechen whom Tatum suspected of having ties to the mob. Western lenders, fearful of Moscow's deteriorating business climate, had turned down Tatum's loan applications. Tatum had appealed to the public for funds to pursue his lawsuit, hoping other Western businessmen would, in effect, invest in his $35 million damages claim.

So when a call came late on a Sunday afternoon last November from someone with information--or offering to help finance his case, was it?--Tatum leaped to the phone. After a rapid conversation in English, he grabbed his coat and headed with two bodyguards for the dingy metro station a stone's throw from the Radisson. Tatum's Russian partners long before had taken away his cream-colored Mercedes. Lately the metro was the safest means for him to get around anyway, and certainly the cheapest. Bankers and other important people "got killed in cars," he reminded anyone who would listen.

The three men--Tatum in the middle, a bodyguard fore and aft--hustled out the hotel gates and past the Kievsky train station's pageant of kiosks, cabbies, and street vendors. They took the first steps down to the seedy underpass below, and in the darkening five o'clock hour, Tatum's killer, his Kalashnikov rifle wrapped in a plastic bag, took aim.

Very few, except perhaps Tatum himself, foresaw that the son of Edmond, Oklahoma, would die by violence. True, in the seven years he spent in Moscow, friends came to see Tatum as a sort of crusader defending foreign investors' rights in the ever more barbarous Russian business environment. And critics--he had many--felt his inability to let go of a project that outgrew him had drawn Tatum into an obsessive, deliberately public battle for control. But until now, Western business people had been mostly immune from the gangland brutality passing for commerce in Russia. Tatum often said he carried a shield: He believed that if he kept his case firmly in the public eye, he might safely wage the kind of anti-mafia battle that other businessmen only wished they could. He took out newspaper ads, gave interviews promiscuously, and sought out politically connected Muscovites. "In our joint venture, and in most cases where there are problems, there is fringe or deep mafia involvement, and people are scared to put themselves at risk," Tatum said in an interview seven weeks before his death. "I have put myself so much in the open that it's only later when I'm going to have to worry."

For a Westerner, Tatum was reasonably well connected in Moscow--among other things, he had scrambled over the barricades of the besieged parliament building during the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991 to offer Boris Yeltsin's aides the use of his cellular phone--but he remained a naif in many ways. He ended up running a multimillion-dollar venture more on the strength of persuasive charm than of expertise. "Paul had not had any business experience running a company," says Bernie Rome, one of Tatum's original backers.

But Tatum was a convincing talker from his earliest days. When he was an undergraduate at Oklahoma State University, he persuaded friends to pool the money to send him on a "semester at sea" aboard a sort of sailing classroom. He tasted travel, and commerce too: On the streets of Tunis, he earned a quick 300% profit and a few thousand dollars selling cigarettes bought from the captain of his ship.

Tatum dropped out of college after his junior year and made what was, for a young person, a clever but genuinely odd career move: He borrowed $10,000 and donated it to the Republican National Committee. A donation that size made a person a "Republican Eagle" and guaranteed a certain amount of access. Tatum, perceiving a route to prominence, plunged into GOP fundraising in Oklahoma.

It was on an Oklahoma trade mission to Russia in 1985 that Tatum fell under the spell that Gorbachev's perestroika had cast on much of the West: a market of nearly 200 million Russians hungry for Levi's jeans, and Detroit cars with automatic transmission. Tatum took special note of the bewildered foreign businessmen negotiating million-dollar deals on crackling phones in drab Soviet hotel rooms. What Moscow needed, he was sure, was a place for these people to do business: a shiny, Western-style hotel and business center in the heart of the capital, where corporate cowboys could get a room, buy a bourbon, rent an office, do a deal. "It was as if I found myself standing on a mountaintop from which I could see everything; my past, my present, and my future," he said later.

Tatum knew his deal had to be a joint venture. Gorbachev had just legalized them, and about the only way Western businessmen could penetrate this market was to take a Russian partner. Tatum needed a Western partner too: he had no money and no idea how to build or run a hotel. Now his Republican Party ties paid off. Tatum formed a company called Americom Business Centers in 1989, and H.R. "Bob" Haldeman, Nixon's former chief of staff, out of jail and dabbling in hotels, hooked up Americom with Apollo Acquisitions, a tiny holding company in Florida that was publicly traded, had cash to invest, and was looking for a good idea. Apollo and Americom merged.

That same year, Tatum found his property: a gray, half-finished monstrosity on Moscow's Berezhkovskaya Embankment, facing east toward the Moscow River. It was owned by Intourist, the Soviet tourism monolith, which wanted to erect a hotel that could earn hard--that is, foreign--currency.

Tatum started talking to big U.S. hotel chains and found that Radisson Hotels International was itching to establish a beachhead in the Soviet Union, then a closed market. And so a three-headed joint venture was born: Tatum's Americom held a 40% stake, Radisson 10%, and Intourist 50%. Radisson would manage the hotel's rooms and restaurants, and Americom would manage its retail shops, office space, and other services. The venture was called Intourist-RadAmer Hotel and Business Center.

Of course, there were problems, as there always were in Russia. Intourist was still run by Soviet bureaucrats; the Yugoslav construction company refused to hand over the master keys after finishing the hotel, wanting to cut itself in on the deal; Radisson was testy about which floors would serve as hotel rooms and which Americom would lease as office space to business clients.

But by 1990 the Radisson Slavyanskaya (meaning "Slavic") was up and running, and it quickly became Moscow's poshest new address. Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Warren Christopher, and their armies of security men swarmed over the hotel during summits with Yeltsin; Sharon Stone sashayed across its polished marble floors; the NBC and Reuters Moscow news bureaus anchored the high-hat tenant list. In the hotel's European restaurants, expatriates clinked imported beers and ate sirloins, grateful to escape the slog of daily life in Russia, if only for a few hours.

Then, the ground shifted.

Western businesses learned quickly that the "Wild East" held many perils, and all of them seemed to befall Tatum's venture. First, the Soviet Union came apart. No one knew what belonged to whom, or whether contracts signed under Soviet rule would remain valid. In Radisson's case, the new Russian Federation fell to sparring with the old Soviet tourism machine about who owned the Slavyanskaya property. After months of wrangling, ownership was transferred to the Moscow City Council, and Tatum found himself with a new Russian dance partner. That spooked Tatum's banks in the West, which withdrew their promise of roughly $20 million in commercial loans. Tatum decided to run the Americom business center from cash flow, violating the original joint venture charter and enraging his new Russian partners. But Tatum felt he had no choice: There were offices to renovate, furniture to buy, salaries to pay.

Outside the Slavyanskaya's climate-controlled opulence, a new class of biznesmeni--some of them legitimately self-made millionaires, most of them not--cropped up almost overnight. Once-underground mafia like Moscow's Solntsevo ("Sunny") gang, bosses of the shadow economy in the Soviet years, were criminalizing nearly every facet of Russia's economy. The new musclebound tycoons donned black turtlenecks and Armani blazers to party in members-only night spots like the Metelitsa casino and the exclusive Up and Down club. Foreign cars of every make cruised like sharks over Moscow's crumbling streets. Hoods murdered elderly pensioners for their newly privatized apartments. When consumer price inflation hovered around 1,600% between 1992 and 1993, housewives worked late shifts as casino prostitutes to make ends meet; policemen would sometimes give them a lift to their shifts, if bribed on time.

Murder evolved into a business strategy, and high-profile killings were an early part of Russia's post-Communist collective memory. Vladislav Listyev, the popular television journalist, was shot dead outside his apartment in a crime linked to control of the lucrative TV advertising market. Ivan Kivelidi, chairman of the Russian Business Round Table, was killed by nerve toxin, applied, it was said, to his telephone receiver. The year 1995 produced roughly 560 recorded contract killings. Police solved just 60; of them, two-thirds were found to have been committed by the victims' bodyguards.

The Russian business community was decimated. "I take a look around this room," says Oleg Kiselev, the new president of the Russian Business Round Table, "and I see about a dozen empty seats. All my friends."

The deliberate, gangland-style killing remained a Russian affair, however. When Western businessmen were threatened, they generally fled. A few, though, like Tatum, clung to the peculiarly American belief that Russia would bend to the inevitability of progress, free markets, the rule of law, and the force of their will.

In a baldly political move, President Yeltsin in 1993 handed Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov exclusive control over privatization of property and businesses within the city limits, in effect a monopoly on one of Europe's most lucrative real estate markets. So Tatum had a new Russian partner once again: the Moscow City Property Committee, which overnight rose up as the most potent agency in town, a smoothly running profit center with a percentage cut in nearly every Russian and foreign business setting up shop. The Property Committee eventually settled on a dapper Chechen businessman, Umar Dzhabrailov, to represent its interest in the Radisson Slavyanskaya.

For the moment, though, Tatum's major problem was with his American partners, who accused him of using money from the company to live above his means. Nights he could be found at Moscow's decadent hot spots seated at a front table, waving hundred-dollar bills at Russian ecdysiasts. Tatum's backers sued him in Florida, alleging misuse of company assets. "Tatum told investors what they wanted to hear until he got what he needed," says James McDonough, founder of Apollo Acquisitions, the company that merged with Americom. "The court was his friend when it could fend people off, but the law didn't apply to him. When he broke it, he'd say, 'Go ahead and sue me. I'm in can't do anything to me.' "

Radisson too was flexing its muscles. It provided stopgap funding during the venture's cash crunch, and it claimed that in return it was owed a larger stake in the RadAmer partnership. Tatum sued Radisson, and that same day, Radisson sued him back. John Norlander, then president of Radisson Hotels International, says, "We wanted to manage a hotel and ... to expand globally. He wanted the same thing, we thought, and to manage the business center for fees." But the headstrong Tatum hated ceding as much as a hint of control, even when his financial straits called for compromise. Radisson and Americom began to clash over everything, swapping accusations of bad management and shoddy bookkeeping. Eventually, in 1994, Radisson went to court in Minneapolis and sought to have its partnership with Americom dissolved. As Norlander describes it, "Paul had a personal problem that spilled over into a business problem."

Tatum began to tell associates about plans to bring in a deep-pocketed rescuer to solve his cash difficulties. "As soon as he gets here, you'll see," Tatum said of a reputedly wealthy Pakistani he'd invited to Moscow. The investor never showed up, getting only as far as Frankfurt's airport before being arrested for shoplifting.

In 1995, a federal judge in Minneapolis ruled that Radisson and Americom should sever their partnership, each retaining independently its stake in the Moscow property. In his ruling, the judge said the partnership should be dissolved, partly because the parties were "unable to trust each other." By that time, though, Tatum had much bigger problems.`

Inside the hotel, the tone had changed. Tatum's Russian partners kicked out the nonprofit International Press Center for nonpayment of rent and talked of filling the space with a disco, or worse, a casino. The lobby bar had a new clientele. Men in black turtlenecks with lumps under their blazers began to outnumber the ex-pats in suits and ties. Leggy Russian jezebels strolled in and out of the hotel's retail stores, looking bored and fetching in Chanel suits and impossibly high heels.

In the spring of 1994, Tatum accused the joint venture's general director, a man named Vladimir Draitser (whom Tatum himself had recruited) of embezzling funds. Tatum cut Draitser's phone lines and access to bank accounts, barred him from the hotel, and declared his contract expired. Draitser posted a brigade of guards at the Slavyanskaya entrance to keep Tatum out. Not long afterward, a crack team of Moscow police raided the hotel lobby bar and held ten alleged gangsters at gunpoint.

"There has been a putsch," Tatum reported breathlessly at an impromptu press conference that day in the hotel driveway. No one could figure out who called the police. But suddenly there were lots of guns being pointed around the Slavyanskaya.

Tatum won a court order allowing him back into the hotel. He returned with a battalion of bodyguards and refused to leave, camping out in his office. He might have left the country, but as his old friend Matt Seward puts it, "It was still Paul's dream, and still Paul that made it happen. If it were your dream, and your tens of millions of dollars, would you leave?"

Tatum didn't have the kind of formal government support enjoyed by multinationals like Exxon or British Telecom, with billion-dollar investment carrots to dangle in front of Russian industry. Seward, for one, believes that "if Paul had been an executive at a Fortune 500 company instead of an entrepreneur, he'd still be alive." But he wasn't, so he bet his life on the courts, and on the power of publicity.

Tatum began telling reporters that Umar Dzhabrailov, the city of Moscow's representative on the joint venture's board, was a Chechen mafia lord. (Much later, Dzhabrailov was identified by the Russian Interior Ministry as a "known contract killer, and one of a handful of Chechen mafia bosses operating in Moscow.") When President Clinton arrived at the hotel for a summit meeting, Tatum handed out 300-page binders documenting his legal battles and accusing Moscow officials of corruption in their dealings with the hotel business. He titled this tome The Environment for Business Success in Russia; on the cover, in bold red letters, was printed the word DECEASED.

On Valentine's day 1995, one of Tatum's bodyguards, on his way back from the bathroom to Americom's offices, was stabbed in the chest with a penknife. His assailant said, "Tell Paul it's high time he left for home." Tatum hired a 24-hour brigade of guards, started wearing a bulletproof vest, and began using a cellular phone exclusively, contending his phone lines were bugged.

For the better part of a year, the Slavyanskaya resembled a chessboard. The Russian side forced out tenants that hadn't paid; Tatum let them back in with his master key so they could continue supporting him in his fight against the joint venture.

That April, Tatum decided to pitch what he hoped would be a decisive battle, filing a $35 million lawsuit against the Moscow City Property Committee for discriminating against foreign investors. The case would be heard in Stockholm at an international arbitration court, which increasingly had been sought out by embittered Westerners seeking an escape route from deteriorating joint ventures. But Tatum needed $150,000 to pay court costs. So he took out full-page ads in Moscow newspapers offering to sell investors "Freedom bonds," promissory notes that would pay back a 100% return in six months, when he expected to be flush with court-awarded winnings. The bonds were to mature on April 2, 1997, his 42nd birthday.

In an interview at the Slavyanskaya shortly before he was killed, Tatum was asked whether, considering the circumstances, Freedom Bonds might be a bit of a risk. "In one sense, they're risky," Tatum sighed, as if he had considered it for the first time. "But in another sense, they're something that people can support without being noticed. You can vote for the good guys and get rewarded." Then he smiled winningly. As Star Trek music played on his computer, he said, "Like war bonds, which provided money to fight World War II, Freedom Bonds allow us the right to fight for freedom of investment, safety in investment, all of the words of investors' rights. Is this society one of the rule of law and of civil means, or is it a society of whoever has the biggest gun or the most money to pay people off? This case can be the first example showing that the rule of law can be enforced, and can make a difference in creating a civil, safe investment environment."

Tatum's killer took considerable care even with the date, according to Alexander Fefelov, a former KGB agent with his own security firm and an adviser to the American Chamber of Commerce security subcommittee. Sunday evening, November 3, was the perfect time for murder. Because of an upcoming midweek Wednesday holiday, many people were stretching the weekend into five days. Thomas Pickering, the longtime American ambassador in Moscow, had recently left his post; an interim ambassador was on duty. The U.S. embassy would close Tuesday to observe Election Day back home.

The 5.45-caliber Kalashnikov assault rifle was fired so expertly as to rule out a nonprofessional. Five of the 12 bullets entered at the neck, indicating the killer knew Tatum might be wearing his bulletproof vest. Whoever fired was well trained in preventing the weapon's powerful kick from spraying passersby. Both Tatum's bodyguards were unharmed.

The shooter threw down the rifle, serial numbers filed off, and leaped into a white Zhiguli sedan, perhaps the most common make in Moscow. The same day the car was found ten minutes from the scene on Rostovskaya Embankment, unlocked and empty. A week before, police said, the owner had sold it for $5,000 cash at an outdoor market to a man who did not give his name.

On January 27, the Stockholm tribunal handed down its judgment--in favor of the Russian partners' claims that Americom had diverted funds to offshore bank accounts and failed to keep proper accounting records. Americom's management contract to run the retail shops and business center is to be "terminated," and Americom to pay $2.6 million in damages to the Russian partners.

Few expect Paul Tatum's killer to be found. Russian Interior Minister Anatoly Kulikov, who has said he is personally supervising the investigation, pointed to the long-running dispute over control of the joint venture as the likely motive. But he did not rule out the curious theory that the killing was somehow connected to the U.S. presidential elections. Moscow Western District prosecutor Alexander Yegorov says that in view of Tatum and Dzhabrailov's well-known "conflict," Dzhabrailov remains a suspect. Dzhabrailov says he had nothing to do with it. "It's nonsense," he said not long after the shooting.

Congressman Christopher Cox (R-California) has been pushing to keep the case on front burners at law-enforcement agencies in Russia and the U.S.; Tatum had been appealing to Republican congressmen, through his old RNC contacts, before he was killed. But even Cox is pessimistic. He wrote to FBI director Louis Freeh that "the grip of organized crime on Moscow's city government is so pervasive that, absent intense outside scrutiny, [Tatum's] killers will never be brought to justice."

Whoever shot Tatum is "probably no longer alive," says Natalia Bokadorova, a longtime girlfriend who believes his death could have been sanctioned only by someone at "the highest levels" of the Russian government. It's even possible, she contends, that Tatum stepped into the middle of some unknown battle between the city of Moscow, mafia groups, and the federal government--all of which would like a slice of the Radisson gem, with its lucrative, cash-rich operations. In his final months, Tatum had appealed to a lot of powerful people about rescuing his vision. Bokadorova figures that someone offered coercive terms to Tatum and sent an assassin when Tatum wouldn't bend. Whoever committed this crime, she says, "had a plan, but Paul didn't accept it. He told me, 'I don't want to change one mafia for another.' "