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Russia adores slaying suspect

Wanted by Britain in an ex-spy's polonium poisoning, he is widely seen as a symbol of anti-Western defiance.

January 27, 2008|Megan K. Stack | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — If you're looking for Russia's most notorious international outlaw, try his new office in parliament.

Andrei Lugovoy, the prime suspect in the 2006 radioactive poisoning death of a former Russian spy in London, is a celebrated figure these days in the Russian capital. Not only has Moscow brushed aside extradition requests from Britain, this onetime bodyguard has just been elected to the marble halls of the Duma, the lower house of parliament.

Lugovoy says he was framed. But that doesn't stop him from basking in the adoration showered on someone widely seen as a symbol of anti-Western defiance.

"I'd like to personify Russian citizens who, at a difficult moment in their lives, display courage and fortitude," Lugovoy said during a rare interview last week in his Moscow office.

Lugovoy's presence in parliament epitomizes, for observers at home and abroad, the bold us-against-them atmosphere pervading Moscow. The boyish 41-year-old is a thorn in the side of the British government, which has unsuccessfully lobbied Russia to turn him over to stand trial in the killing of Alexander Litvinenko.

With his sporty carriage and bashful grin, the tow-headed Lugovoy doesn't look like the embodiment of neo-Soviet tensions between Russia and the West. But when he talks, he sounds the part.

He refers to the fall of the Soviet Union as a blunder. He says he wants Russia's military might to return to the sweep and power of its Soviet heyday. He accuses U.S. intelligence agencies of plotting the Sept. 11 attacks "because they needed to create a certain mood."

"I don't agree that the Cold War is back. It has never ended," he said. "Any normal Russian person in the 1990s didn't see anything from the West except insults and humiliation."

So is this payback time? Lugovoy laughed a little, then spoke deliberately.

"I don't agree with this biblical saying that if they hit you on one cheek you should turn the other cheek," he said. "If they hit you on one cheek, you hit them back with a fist."

Implicit in Lugovoy's popularity, in the public's enthusiastic reaction to his name, is the underlying assumption that he killed Litvinenko. Not that anybody ever comes out and calls him a killer. But that idea hangs over him: Lugovoy is suspected of spiking the former spy's tea with radioactive polonium-210, traces of which turned up in hotel rooms, restaurants and airplanes he was in during his trip to London.

"He would definitely become a national hero of Russia should he confess that he killed Litvinenko and that he was trying to kill [London-based Russian dissident Boris] Berezovsky," said Alexander Prokhanov, editor of the nationalist newspaper Zavtra. "In the eyes of the majority of the Russian population, both Berezovsky and Litvinenko are ugly, renegade traitors and symbols of evil."

During a recent appearance on a Russian talk show, the host waited until the very end to ask Lugovoy whether he had killed Litvinenko.

At the question, Lugovoy burst into laughter. "No," he said.

"Then who did?" pressed the host.

Lugovoy responded with an elaborate shrug and a grin.

Speaking in his office last week, Lugovoy flushed and half-smiled when the thorny question of the killing came up. But he insisted that he met with Litvinenko only to discuss business opportunities in Britain. As for the radiation, he said he was framed.

"It's as if we were supposed to leave those marks so the whole case could be put on me," he said.

Tension over Russia's refusal to relinquish Lugovoy has driven a series of reprisals, such as the mutual expulsion of diplomats and the harassment of workers at the British cultural center in St. Petersburg.

But Britain is merely a tool in a U.S. project of domination, Lugovoy said in the interview. "The United States, with Britain, is striving to once again apply double standards to subjugate other countries to their will," he said.

As Lugovoy strolled through parliament last week, passersby froze and whispered to one another. A lawmaker bounded to his side and asked for a photograph with him.

Long before he became a famous outlaw, Lugovoy's personal history was an illustration of the Byzantine maze of modern Russian history. Every man in his family, going back generations, has served in the Russian military. One grandfather fought Japan; the other stormed Berlin during World War II, which Lugovoy refers to by its Soviet moniker, "the Great Patriotic War."

Born in Soviet Azerbaijan, Lugovoy was recruited by the KGB out of military school. He bristles at the suggestion that he was a spy, arguing that he has always worked as a personal security chief.

He was transferred to the Kremlin's presidential security detail in 1992, and visited the White House three times as a bodyguard to Russian leaders.

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