Thomas Topadze, director general of Varus Video, the Moscow-based distributor and one of the pioneers in Russia’s attempt to establish legal contact with foreign studios, was murdered in Moscow on Monday.

His killing follows Varus’ announcement at the end of February of a partnership deal with Warner Bros., under which Varus would distribute Warner’s homevideo catalog in Russia and other parts of the former Soviet Union.

At the time, Topadze described the deal as “a major step toward the day when all major American film companies will offer their complete homevideo libraries to consumers in Russia.”

Setting a new precedent for cooperation with Russia, it marked a major step forward for Varus, a Greek-Russian joint venture established in 1992. Up until then, the market had been limited to lower-quality product by the continuing boycott of the Russian market and fears of piracy.

Professional hit?

Topadze, 58, and his nephew and employee, Georgy Ilnadze, were killed at the door to the vid exec’s Moscow apartment. With the investigation ongoing, Moscow police could not suggest a concrete motive for the killings, but they did say it appeared to be a contract murder.

In the last two years, such killings have become common as a way for Russia’s businessmen to settle accounts with one another, and for Russian organized crime to dispose of uncooperative individuals.

Working from a well-guarded factory in south Moscow, Varus produced cassettes for distribution through more than 150 franchises throughout the former Soviet Union. Its equipment matched the quality of the best established pirates, while Varus paid special attention to product quality — by working, for instance, with professional actors for voice dubbing.

It has also been influential as a lobbying force on the Russian government to implement copyright and intellectual property laws passed last year. By explaining that having a catalog featuring many titles that were already available illegally on the street, Varus emphasized revenue losses to Russia’s lawmakers.

Possible pirate link

Neither Varus employees nor Moscow police sources would comment on the possibility of links between Topadze’s killing and pirate outfits. However, earlier in March, sources at Varus admitted off the record to Daily Variety that they had been contacted by one of Moscow’s Mafia groups.

The fact that a pistol and ammunition were found in Topadze’s apartment suggests he may have been aware of a potential threat. Police will make further announcements after questioning Topadze’s relatives and employees of Varus Video.

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