MOSCOW -- Sergei Dorenko, television news commentator, sighs as he considers the cross he bears: Every week, as 40 million viewers across Russia watch in disgust and satisfaction, he crucifies Moscow Mayor Yuri M. Luzhkov.
"I am a little tired of him," Dorenko says, "but I have to work. What can you do?"
Week after week, since September, Dorenko has toiled away. One week he accuses the mayor of taking millions of dollars in kickbacks; the next he assures his viewers the mayor pays off city judges; then he insists that the mayor lives on a vast estate far outside the city he governs, that his lawyer is a Scientologist, that the mayor's entrepreneurial wife gets sweetheart contracts from the city. Finally, he accuses the mayor of murdering an American businessman.
"I'm not sure he actually gave the order to kill," Dorenko explains off-air. "But the murder benefited him, and he created the kind of conditions that made it possible."
What's Dorenko doing, rolling around in so much mud? The answer, his enemies and admirers say, is simple: It's politics.
Today, the nation is voting on candidates for the lower house of parliament, the State Duma. In itself, the election is important enough, determining whether the Communists will keep their hold on the legislature, or if liberal forces will gain more sway.
But the race is also considered a barometer for next June's presidential election. Luzhkov joined forces this year with Yevgeny M. Primakov, the former prime minister, to create a new party called Fatherland-All Russia, which would field candidates for the Duma.
Last summer, they were so confident that Fatherland would win the presidency that they undertook delicate negotiations on which offices they would take -- Primakov would become president and Luzhkov prime minister, unless they decided to change the constitution and create a vice presidency. Primakov made the formal announcement of his candidacy Friday, generating some much-needed pre-election hype.
When they recruited numerous powerful governors to the new party, President Boris N. Yeltsin's Kremlin circles sounded the alarm. Yeltsin, once close to Luzhkov, had grown jealous and hostile toward him.
So in September, when Dorenko began attacking first Luzhkov and then Primakov on the government's mighty ORT television network, the common assumption was that the commentator was doing so on orders of Boris A. Berezovsky, a Yeltsin family friend and the oligarch who financially controls ORT.
"Berezovsky is a friend," Dorenko says. "He likes my program. I like flattery. And I am very dependent -- on 40 million viewers. Everything depends on them. If I come to work next week, and I don't have any viewers, I'll be fired. It won't matter who my friends are."
Luzhkov, of course, has been fighting back. The television station he controls broadcast an interview with Yeltsin's former bodyguard, Aleksandr Korzhakov, who said Berezovsky had once asked him to kill Luzhkov. Last week, the station was advertising a special with more scandalous revelations about Berezovsky.
The Moscow tax police have also assaulted ORT, accusing the station of irregularities and demanding to see its books. A newspaper controlled by the mayor published Dorenko's home telephone number and ran articles describing the television star as trying to cozy up to Luzhkov before turning on him.
The NTV television network, owned by oligarch Vladimir Gusinsky, who has fallen out with Berezovsky and the Kremlin, also has a point of view, though it is expressed more soberly than on Dorenko's program.
"Itogi," the NTV analytical program broadcast Sundays in the same 9 p.m. time slot as Dorenko, has been reporting that Yeltsin is too sick to govern and offers flattering reports about Luzhkov and Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin.
One Sunday, an angry Primakov called "Itogi" on air to complain about what Dorenko had just been saying about him on rival ORT. Dorenko, who brags that he is showman as much as newsman, had been broadcasting stomach-churning film of a hip replacement operation that he says was just like the one Primakov had undergone.
Viewers have found Dorenko's program both revolting and riveting -- his ratings have reportedly been soaring. At the same time, the ratings of the Luzhkov-Primakov party have been plummeting, going from a reported 22 percent to 9 percent since Dorenko began his attacks.
Many Russians say the real victim of the airborne assaults is any hope of developing an independent and responsible press. They are less sympathetic to the mayor, who quite easily managed to change his re-election date from June to today when he decided the move would position him better for presidential elections. Luzhkov expects to win the mayoral race and Duma seat today, but can cede his Duma spot to another member of his party.
After all, many people say, most of the charges and counter-charges are probably true. Some reports, which would get a politician indicted in the United States, don't even raise an eyebrow here.
The mayor's wife, for example, supplied a city-owned stadium with its plastic seats and supplies all the plastic cutlery and disposable plates to a city-owned restaurant chain. Luzhkov declared that he doesn't get involved personally in such city contracts, and that was that.
Luzhkov's wife, Yelena Baturina, is running for a Duma seat from Kalmykia, many miles away. In urging citizens to vote for her, one campaigner there reminded citizens that she could use her husband's influence to get things done. "Only personal contacts work today," he said.
Lies not necessary
"Is there anything in the avalanche of filth that the Kremlin and its opposition are heaping on each other that is 100 percent false?" Yulia Latynina, a respected newspaper columnist, wrote recently.
"Probably not. There is exaggeration, fact-juggling, slipshod blunders by journalists. But, almost without exception, there are no complete lies. Besides, who needs them?
"It's scary when journalists hunt presidential candidates as if they are hunting bears, with gun and spear in hand. But it's even scarier when their accusations prove to be absolutely true."
Of course, Latynina says, accusing the mayor of murdering American businessman Paul Tatum in 1996 is extreme. But what are people to think? Like all high-profile murders here, that one has never been solved.
Tatum was involved in a bitter fight with the city property committee for control of the Radisson-Slavyanskaya Hotel. Tatum's death resolved the dispute in the city's favor. Recently, Tatum relatives filed suit in Arizona against Luzhkov and the city property committee, accusing them of ordering Tatum's death, and seeking damages.
Sitting in his tiny office, mostly bare except for a small safe and piles of mail and faxes offering more dirt on Luzhkov and other officials, Dorenko blames the mayor's troubles on the mayor himself.
'He makes a star of me'
"He constantly speaks about me, criticizing me," says Dorenko, 40, a former correspondent for CNN's Spanish service. "I have to answer him. He makes a star of me. When Luzhkov is taken to prison, I'll be in despair. I would love to have Clinton criticize me -- I would be an international star. But he doesn't. So I'll have to be satisfied with Luzhkov."
The television campaign shows no signs of abating. Dorenko gets so many messages on his answering machine, offering more dirt, that his recording tells callers, "You can leave a message if you like, but I probably won't listen to it."
With his visitor departing, Dorenko is returning to work, philosophically.
"My younger daughter has a pet rat," he says. "'My older daughter has a parrot.
"I have Luzhkov."