Last Saturday, two criminals attacked and brutally beat Oleg Kashin, 30, a prominent Moscow journalist. Because he suffered more than 50 blows with a metal bar, he would have died were he not rushed to the emergency room and operated on multiple times.

Kashin is a political reporter for the  popular Moscow daily newspaper Kommersant. The journalist suffered a broken skull, a severe concussion, a broken jaw, and a broken ankle. Assailants broke his fingers in the most brutal way imaginable, tearing out digits and forcing the doctors to amputate one finger. According to press reports, he is in a medically induced coma, and his current status is “stably severe.” His colleagues said that the hit job was professional as the nature of the wounds was highly symbolic: “you won’t talk, you won’t walk, and you won’t write.”

Kashin was my Facebook friend, although I don’t necessarily like his writing that much. But it was a shocker to found out that someone whose face you see online almost daily was almost murdered.

I have personally known politicians and journalists in Russia who were murdered: Galina Starovoitova, Sergey Yushenkov, and Yurii Shchekochikhin. Starovoitova, gunned down at the entrance to her apartment, was particularly impressive—a warm, larger than life personality who came out of the late Soviet-era human rights movement, wanted to be the first Russian female minister of defense, and was close to Andrey Sakharov. I still miss her.

. All of these martyrs were classic liberals who supported a free press, democratic elections, free markets, and Russia’s integration into the global economy. They all hated corruption and ex-Soviet apparatchiks who are making a fast return to power and wealth in the post-communist Russia. All my friends paid the ultimate price for their convictions.

Kashin’s convictions were less obvious. He was scrappy, and, since he covered controversial political issues and his attackers did not take his money, cell phone or identification no one, including the Russian president, doubts that the reporter was attacked for professional reasons.

Nor was motive lacking: Kashin recently criticized Governor of the Pskov region and he also covered the wave of mass protests against the government-backed highway project in the Moscow suburb town of Khimki, running afoul of the Khimki mayor.

After Kashin published the interview with a young activist who participated in the attack on the Khimki government building, the loud and obnoxious pro-Kremlin youth group Molodaya Gvardia (Young Guards), which routinely hounds journalists and accuses them of treason, posted Kashin’s picture online and threatened the reporter on its website. After the assault, the Young Guards took the threatening picture off, but others preserved it for posterity—and for the investigators.

On Monday, two other Russian journalists were attacked, like Kashin, apparently for their writings. Sergei Mikhailov, editor-in-chief of a local newspaper in Saratov, a big city on the Volga River, was assaulted near his home; Anatoli Adamchuk, the journalist in the Moscow region town of Zhukovsky, was attacked at the entrance of the editorial building.

While in the Soviet times the media press was very tightly controlled by the Communist Party, violence against journalists has become routine in Russia since the 1990s, when Vlad Listyev, a prominent TV anchor and executive was assassinated. Many journalists and human rights activists have been killed since then, including the American Paul Khlebnikov, editor of Forbes Russia, and Anna Politkovskaya, the crusading journalist for Novaya Gazeta. Last Tuesday, a police SWAT team and investigators raided the bank belonging to Alexander Lebedev, Novaya Gazeta’s owner—these are dark days for the rule of law in Russia.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists a New York based journalists advocacy group, 18 journalists’ murder cases in Russia remain unresolved. Impunity from prosecution is obviously the major reas on for the continued attacks on the press in Russia.

After the numerous unresolved journalists murder cases, the attack on Kashin prompted an outcry in Russian media, and sparked public protests; Moscow journalists also sent an open letter to President Medvedev requesting safety for Russian reporters.

The Russian President blamed the criminals and assured Kashin’s colleagues that the case will be investigated properly. Medvedev also wished Kashin a speedy recovery. The President then ordered Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika and the Minister of Internal Affairs Ministry Rashid Nurgaliyev to personally pursue the investigation.

Nevertheless, many Russian journalists and experts don’t believe that the case will be investigated properly—a review of recent precedent doesn’t make one particularly optimistic, as too many crimes against Russian media remain unresolved.

In the meantime, the government is losing the public trust. While murderers of journalists and human rights activists walk the streets, the government is gunning for Mikhail Khodorkovsky and allows corruption-fighting lawyers such as Sergey Magnitsky, to die in jail. In fact, some Russian observers compare the atmosphere of terror in Russia with Italy before Mussolini took over, and Weimar Germany on the eve of the Nazi victory.

Such analogies might be a bit extreme. Or are they? Clearly, further unpunished attacks against human rights activists or journalists may lead to an even steeper drop of elite support and, eventually, to public unrest. Foreign investment may look askance on Russia, while the local businesspeople big and small might take their hard-earned money to safer heavens.

Thus, it is in the interests of the Russian authorities to find the criminals behind this crime and punish them—if only in the interests of self-preservation.