MOSCOW - The man who controls Russia's largest television network said yesterday that the government was trying to take it away from him, but he vowed to give it away to others before allowing the Kremlin of Vladimir V. Putin to seize control.
"If I cede to the ultimatum," Boris A. Berezovsky told Putin in a letter that he made public, "TV information will cease in Russia and will be replaced by TV propaganda controlled by your aides."
Berezovsky, who assembled a business empire in oil and car sales, developed close and apparently profitable ties to former President Boris N. Yeltsin and freely used his network to promote his political interests, is casting himself in the unlikely role of defender of a free press.
"His actions are usually beyond logic," said Oleg Panfilov, one of Russia's most dogged - and genuine - media advocates.
But there is no question that the struggle for the network, called ORT, is a real fight for control of the media.
It occurs at a time when the Putin administration has gone to considerable lengths to make life difficult for media organizations in Russia. The Kremlin clearly is trying to bring them to heel.
Last winter there was the detention and fake swap of Andrei Babitsky, a Radio Liberty reporter who had angered Putin with his broadcasts from Chechnya.
In the spring, police raided the Media Most organization and later put its boss, Vladimir Gusinsky, in the Butyrskaya jail for three days.
Now, it has taken the fight to the highest level, to a network that reaches 92 percent of Russian homes and that once unabashedly promoted Putin.
Berezovsky and his fellow tycoons, collectively called the oligarchs, are among the most unpopular men in Russia.
Sergei Dorenko, executive director of ORT, said last night that the Kremlin seems to be promoting itself as a sort of Robin Hood, snatching the holdings of the undeservedly wealthy and giving them, if not to the poor, at least to the government.
The move against ORT occurs as the Kremlin has submitted a budget for next year that classifies the amount to be spent on "mass media" as top secret. Panfilov and others believe that the idea behind it is to allow the press minister, Mikhail Lesin, to reward organizations that follow the Kremlin line, Lesin's video production company possibly among them.
This year's budget called for spending $203 million on the media, most of it in television.
People here who care about freedom of the press were reluctant to take Berezovsky's side yesterday, but they were dismayed about what the Kremlin probably has in mind.
"There is an impression that the authorities are planning to put TV under full total state control," said Boris Nemtsov, a leader of a liberal faction in parliament, Interfax reported. "The president's entourage believes that virtual reality - what is shown on TV - is the most important thing. That is fatal for the country."
Last week, Berezovsky said, a Kremlin official ordered him to turn over his shares in ORT - the 49 percent of the company not held by the government - "or to follow Gusinsky, which most likely meant Butyrskaya."
Dorenko said last night that the same threat was repeated to him.
Berezovsky said he would give away his shares to journalists and other members of the intelligentsia, creating a public television network rather than a state one. Dorenko said the recipients should be "meaningful figures" who reflect the interests of society. He was offered shares Sunday, he said.
Generally, this was seen as a ploy. Panfilov said he assumed that Berezovsky would retain control, adding, "He is not a person to give in and forget about ORT."
Aleksei Pankin, a media expert and editor of Sreda magazine, was more sympathetic to the Kremlin.
He assumes, he said, that Berezovsky wants to dump ORT because it no longer serves his interests to keep pumping money into it but he wants to dump it in the most dramatic way possible.
"Whatever he says is rubbish," Pankin said. "These old media organizations are worthless."
At the beginning of the 1990s, he said, ORT and Gusinsky's network, NTV, fell under the control of rapacious and ruthless businessmen through shady inside deals, and those networks were then used as a club with which to blackmail the government.
"Now the authorities are stronger and feel they are able to blackmail the media," he said, "but it's part of the same process."
After being held in detention, Gusinsky has left the country, and NTV appears to be heading for a sale or break-up.
Less than a year ago, ORT was gleefully supporting Putin's election campaign at every possible moment. Dorenko, appearing on his own program every Sunday evening, relentlessly attacked Mayor Yuri Luzhkov of Moscow, who was seen as Putin's strongest potential rival.
The only times he stopped attacking Luzhkov were when he went after Yevgeny M. Primakov, the former prime minister.
Many believe that Berezovsky, as close as he was to Yeltsin, helped to engineer Putin's rise. But he either jumped or was pushed out of the inner circle and has turned on Putin with a vengeance.
He said yesterday that he understands Putin was particularly upset about Russian press coverage of the sinking of the submarine Kursk, coverage that was vehemently critical of the government.
Putin suggested in one meeting that the disaster should be blamed on powerful businessmen - such as Berezovsky - who had evaded taxes for so long and thereby weakened the state.
The attack on ORT occurs as the network has been struggling to get itself back on the air in Moscow after the fire in the Ostankino television tower. A jury-rigged system has temporarily restored makeshift service.