MOSCOW - The owner of the nation's only independent television station was arrested last night and packed off to Moscow's most brutal prison, where he was being held incommunicado, unable to see his lawyer.
Vladimir Gusinsky, a banker who owns NTV television and publications that are often critical of the government, was summoned to the general prosecutor's office for questioning about 5 p.m.
Two hours later, authorities said he was being held in connection with the theft of $10 million of state property.
Dozens of liberal politicians, journalists and other public figures quickly gathered in the NTV studios for an impromptu two-hour talk show, criticizing the arrest as an act of political revenge.
Even some of his enemies hurried to the station to defend Gusinsky, one of the half-dozen "oligarchs" who rose to great power and wealth in the past decade.
Other figures summoned up the specter of the 1930s, when police came for citizens in the night on trumped-up charges and carted them off to the gulag, from which millions never emerged.
"Maybe some people who do not live as well as Gusinsky will think the oligarch deserves this," said Sergei Ivanenko of the liberal Yabloko party.
"This happened in the 1930s. Later they came to arrest the ordinary people. It started with big people then and ended up with small people."
Gusinsky's Media-Most holding company owns NTV, Ekho Moskvy radio, the Segodnya newspaper and Itogi news magazine, which have been critical of the war in Chechnya and somewhat skeptical of President Vladimir V. Putin, who spent most of his career as a KGB officer.
Last month, masked tax police toting submachine guns descended on the Media-Most offices in a raid that was widely interpreted as designed to intimidate. A court has ruled the raid was illegal.
The raid touched off concern here and in the West about Putin's commitment to freedom of speech. During a summit here June 4, President Clinton visited Ekho Moskvy and took questions from listeners for a half-hour in a show of support for press freedom.
In a statement last night, the prosecutor's office said Gusinsky was under investigation in connection with a St. Petersburg television company called Russian Video in which he owns stock.
The head of Russian Video, Dmitry Rozhdestventsky, was charged with misappropriation of state funds in 1998 and has been in prison pending trial.
Gusinsky has not yet been charged with any crime, and prosecutors can hold him for 10 days before charging him.
Officials sympathetic to Gusinsky said it was absurd to throw someone like him into jail, especially into the notorious 18th- century Butyrskaya preliminary confinement prison, where detainees are frequently beaten and have to sleep in shifts in overcrowded, lice-infested cells.
"I'd like to help Vladimir Putin and offer him the following advice," said Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov. "He should decide to let Gusinsky go free to avoid the awful reaction of the Russian people and the international public.
"Maybe they are afraid that Gusinsky will flee the country. If Gusinsky flees, I am ready to take his place in Butyrskaya."
Last night, Putin was eating salmon with the royal family of Spain, where he was on a state visit. He said he had not known of the arrest in advance.
"For me the arrest of Gusinsky is a gift of doubtful value," he said in remarks reported by Itar-Tass. "I hope that actions of the prosecutor general's office have sufficient grounds. I hope that everything is lawful."
Boris Nemtsov, a leading liberal politician, was among those drawn last night to the NTV studios.
"Why arrest him?" he asked. "Why? It demonstrates to all the world we're barbarians. We're not civilized."
Midway through the program, a rush of adrenaline stirred the amphitheater-like studio when Sergei Dorenko dashed onto the set.
"Ten years passed and we began to think something positive had happened in this country," he said. "The powers have taken Putin's election as a signal to attack. Now we in the press can't keep silent."
Dorenko works as a commentator for the state television network, ORT, controlled by Boris A. Berezovsky, a fierce enemy of Gusinsky.
Dorenko's support of Putin - and especially his savaging of political rivals - was considered to play an important role in Putin's presidential campaign.
Even Berezovsky supported Gusinsky, repeating the widely held view that almost any powerful figure here can be accused of anything, raising questions about why Gusinsky, why now.
"There is no doubt that any person who did business in Russia over the last 10 years broke the law, directly or indirectly," Berezovsky said, saying laws are not only confusing but ever-changing.
With its owner in jail, NTV showed no signs of being cowed last night. After the two-hour talk show, the station devoted nearly an hour to a longer-than-usual news program.
Excerpts from CNN and British Broadcasting Co. reports on the arrest were shown.