As head of one of Russia's most prominent business associations, Ivan Kivelidi had a bone to pick with the Russian police. Why, he asked more than once, did the authorities do nothing as top executives fell victim to a wave of "criminal terror" in Russia's murderous new business world?

It is a question that has echoed bitterly in Russian corporate suites in the past week since Kivelidi, 46, head of the Russian Business Round Table, died after suddenly going into convulsions in his office -- the victim, police said, of poisoning.

His slaying, which prosecutors are investigating as an apparent murder, was the latest in a wave of killings that have stunned and repelled Russians. As mobsters fight to fend off rivals and control profitable businesses and banks, and as corrupt, under-equipped, money-starved police prove themselves incapable of solving crimes, violent death is becoming an occupational hazard of doing business in Russia.

The mafia here "has gone on the offensive," said Vladimir Shcherbakov, deputy head of the Business Round Table.

According to police, about 500 people died in contract killings in Russia last year. Few of the slayings were solved. Bankers have become a particular target. There have been 84 assaults on the heads of Russian commercial banks since 1991, and 46 of them have been killed, including Kivelidi, who was chairman of a mid-sized bank called Rosbiznesbank. He was also the ninth member of the coordinating council of Business Round Table, which includes some 50 members, to die a violent death.

Another prominent banker, Oleg Kantor, was stabbed to death last month with a hunting knife. The speculation was that his Yugorsky Bank, which had become involved in the profitable aluminum business, had attracted attention from organized crime groups.

The same day Kantor's body was found by police, a powerful bomb blew the windows out of the brand-new John Bull pub, a block away from Russian government headquarters in central Moscow. John Bull's managers were not talking, but Russians assumed the pub had neglected to pay off the protection rackets.

"In this country, a person can be killed for simply stepping on someone's foot," said Sergei Baturin, Kivelidi's deputy at Rosbiznesbank.

At a news conference following Kivelidi's death, Mikhail Yuryev, another official at the Business Round Table, was equally blunt.

"Let me quote chapter and verse," he said. "Let's say you try to save up some money, borrow from friends and start a simple, profitable business -- for instance, to import into Moscow French or some other kind of perfume. This is a general commodity, not narcotics and not even oil.

"You will encounter interesting problems. You will be visited and told that the turf is already occupied and there is no place left for you. If you fail to understand these explanations, measures will be taken against you. . . . Examples of this are endless."

The reasons for Kivelidi's death are murky, but clearly he had his enemies; investigators who searched his office found threatening letters.

Although the contents of the letters have not been made public, there are plenty of guesses. Kivelidi had opposed a plan by Russia's biggest banks to finance the government's debt in return for a huge stake in some of the country's largest enterprises. But that dispute had been settled months earlier. There was talk that he was involved in metals export, but his closest associates said his role was minor. He was eyeing a race for parliament this December, but so are a lot of people.

A popular, articulate spokesman for Russia's powerful business lobby, Kivelidi was a bon vivant and a pioneering entrepreneur in the newly capitalist Russia.

He started out setting up snack bars when reforms made that possible in the mid-1980s, was a founder of the country's first business-oriented newspapers and, with some partners, opened Rosbiznesbank in 1991. Later, he was named head of the Russian state council on small business. By 1993, when he helped start the Business Round Table, an organization of about 270 Russian businesses, he was a familiar figure around Moscow with his chauffeur-driven Cadillac, wide-brimmed hats and full-time bodyguard.

Kivelidi was killed, authorities said, by a dose of cadmium, a toxic heavy metal; his secretary was stricken the next day and also died. Some Russian newspapers reported that traces of the metal were found in the telephone receiver in Kivelidi's bank office. Prosecutors opened a criminal investigation, and Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin called for "tough measures."

Having watched as the killings of dozens of bankers, executives and entrepreneurs went unsolved in recent years, Russian businessmen were unimpressed with the government's response. Leaders of the Round Table offered a $1 million award. They said they would conduct their own inquiry into Kivelidi's death and promised to keep tabs as well on the official police investigation.

"We intend . . . to prevent this case being put on the back burner and joining the unfortunate list of uninvestigated murders," Shcherbakov said.

It was an extraordinary statement, something like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce declaring no confidence in the FBI and deciding to do its own police work. But given the wave of violence involving businessmen, and the prominence of the victims, it was perhaps no surprise.

"So many special {anti-crime} programs at the highest levels have been adopted in recent years that just to list them would take a dozen pages," the weekly Moscow News wrote. "It is quite evident that this does not scare criminals, does not reassure the population and will do nothing for law enforcement bodies. If honest businessmen are killed in Russia almost every day, who will ultimately take their place?"

Authorities say they are well aware of the threat posed to legitimate business by organized crime. In an interview last week in Krestyanskaya Rossia, the deputy chief of Russia's anti-organized crime department, Alexander Dementyev, spoke with elaborate precision about the reach of underworld groups in the country.

At the start of this year, exactly 35,348 mobsters belonged to 8,059 criminal gangs in Russia, he said. A quarter of them had connections to corrupt officials, and about a third of their proceeds went to bribe officials. Last year there were 413 meetings among the groups, attended by 5,918 criminals.

"In 1994," he said, "15,197 members of organized crime groups, including 1,793 criminal bosses and 40 kingpins, were tried. There were 13,808 firearms, 137.9 billion rubles, $31.6 million and 1,595 cars confiscated."

Yet Dementyev omitted what many Russians contend is at the heart of the problem -- the law enforcement authorities themselves.

Many police are paid laughably low salaries, which makes them easy marks for bribery. Some are said to work closely with the very organized crime groups they are supposed to investigate.

Even the honest ones suffer from a drastic lack of resources. One reason there has still been no official autopsy produced on Kivelidi's death, even though he died Aug. 4, is that the government's chief Forensic Medical Center is broke. In the absence of effective law enforcement, many executives have turned to personal security agencies for protection. Alexei Ivanitsky, chief of a personal security agency called Last Hope Co., said his client base has more than doubled in the past year.

"The wave of contract murders is not even regarded as extraordinary these days," he said. "People are used to it. It's as if it's in the natural order of things."