MOSCOW — In the latest interview given by Andrei Lugovoi, the man Britain wants Russia to extradite for poisoning the dissident Alexander Litvinenko with radioactive polonium in London last fall, there was a remarkable moment that has not been fully appreciated. Lugovoi, still rather diffident but with unmistakable pride, mentioned that when he is seen in public, he usually finds himself surrounded by people who want to shake his hand, congratulate him on his valor, and ask for his autograph.

“Well, have you thought about a career in politics?” the interviewer asked.

Unfortunately, the interviewer did not pursue the matter any further. This is a pity, because Lugovoi’s status in Russia tells us much about my country in the seventh year of President Vladimir Putin’s rule.

Perhaps surprisingly, Lugovoi seems not to have wondered why he is enjoying such an enthusiastic reception from his compatriots. Are ordinary Russians showing solidarity with a victim unjustly hounded by the British Crown Prosecution Service?

That seems unlikely. When did Russians ever ask a victim for an autograph? I myself have been attracting the interest of the Russian Public Prosecutor’s Office for several months now, but have yet to encounter any public support in the street, let alone a single autograph hunter. In Russia, you get asked for your autograph if you are a proper hero: an ice-hockey player, a cosmonaut, a high-society prostitute or, like Lugovoi, an executioner.

Part of Lugovoi’s acclaim is derived from the fact that the list of unspeakable crimes committed by the late Alexander Litvinenko in the course of his brief life is growing longer in Russian media reports with every passing day. These are crimes so treacherous that any right-minded Russian patriot can only thirst to see such a person subjected to the supreme measure of national retribution. But only one such “patriot” was granted the honor of being allowed to perform this act. That is why Lugovoi is being asked for his autograph.

This should not, of course, be taken to mean that the patriots gushing over Lugovoi’s achievement concede the justice of the British allegations. The social awareness of Homo Putinicus, meticulously burnished by television propagandists, is such that pride in Lugovoi’s achievement and indignation at the infamous campaign unleashed against him by those who hate Russia can jangle within the breast of ordinary Russians without the slightest dissonance.

We are facing the mystery of Russian thought that has proved so unfathomable to others, so unyielding to every analytical scalpel, and about which our Slavophiles and Eurasians have written at length.

But I see a practical turn in all this that no one has yet broached. Wouldn’t Lugovoi’s entrance into politics bring about the ideal solution to the problem of finding an heir for Putin? That search, after all, is threatening to divide the nation’s elite. So why not choose a man like Lugovoi who truly represents what that elite stands for?

Let us compare two potential presidential candidates, Putin in 1999 and Lugovoi in 2007. The similarities are striking: the modest social background, the KGB milieu, the criminal vocabulary, the mentality and physique, the mercilessness toward “enemies of the people.”

The underworld manners of both go hand in hand with that lively interest in business, which is so essential if “liberal reforms” in Russia are to be continued. Finally, there is the additional, highly significant coincidence that both men, at the start of their political careers, were largely dependent on the oligarch Boris Berezovsky, but subsequently fell out with him.

Regarding their professional attainments, Lugovoi in 2007 seems to have the edge. Successfully carrying out a large-scale operation in the middle of London beats a desk job in the GDR-USSR House of Friendship in Dresden in the years of perestroika and communist collapse.

So perhaps the Russian people might take to their hearts this executioner with the rank of lieutenant colonel, just as eight years ago they took to their hearts another KGB lieutenant colonel, Vladimir Putin? Would the sybaritic, globe-trotting Lugovoi agree to wear the crown? Running the Kremlin is, after all, a testing job. We have all seen Putin’s face age dramatically over the last eight years.

But Lugovoi’s face, too, has also changed markedly over the last eight months of press conferences. Once a wary nonentity, he has grown bolder. His is the face of Putin’s new Russia, of a smug Russia that is “getting off its knees” and reaching for its gun.

Andrei Piontkovsky is executive director of the Center for Strategic Studies in Moscow.

Copyright 2007 Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org)

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