LOYGA, Russia (AP) — As the recipient of Russia's highest award, Alexander Mishkin is the pride of his home village, his photo even decorating a local school.
Several residents of this remote hamlet located amid marshlands and deep forests in Russia's northwestern Arkhangelsk region easily recognized him in photos Wednesday as one of two men accused by British officials of poisoning a former Russian spy.
But to them he is just a warm-hearted local boy, a "Hero of Russia" who has made a successful career as a military doctor thanks to his hard work and courage.
"He studied at school here," said Yuri Poroshin, an amateur painter who lives in Loyga. "His picture even hangs on the wall there because he's a Hero of Russia."
Poroshin said he heard that Mishkin received Russia's highest medal for saving the life of his commanding officer during fighting with Islamist rebels in Chechnya.
According to British police, two agents of Russia's GRU military intelligence agency, traveling under the aliases Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, used the Soviet-made nerve agent Novichok to poison former Russian double-agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, in the English city of Salisbury in March.
This week, the investigative group Bellingcat identified Petrov as Dr. Alexander Mishkin, a GRU agent who had received Russia's highest award. Previously the group had uncovered the real identity of Boshirov, determining that he is GRU Col. Anatoly Chepiga.
Bellingcat, which based its probe on passport information, residents' databases, car registration documents and phone records, determined that the 39-year-old Mishkin grew up in Loyga before moving to St. Petersburg, where he studied medicine at the elite Kirov Military Medical Academy.
Some Loyga residents corroborated that account, confirming that Mishkin was trained as a military doctor.
They said he continued to visit Loyga, where his 90-year-old grandmother, a respected local general practitioner, still lives.
Poroshin's wife, Valentina Poroshina, fondly remembers Mishkin, whom she last spoke to on a train four years ago. "He was a good boy," she said. "He was very polite."
Poroshin also immediately recognized Mishkin when shown the photos released by British police. "Yes, that's him. He looks like his dad and grandmother," he said.
The Poroshins' granddaughter, Yulia, said that Mishkin was lauded as a role model at her school. "We even have a portfolio on him," the sixth-grader said.
Several other villagers also recognized Mishkin but wouldn't talk about him further.
However, village manager Svetlana Lukina denied the man in the photos was Mishkin, saying she didn't recognize him.
"People are looking for something to entertain themselves with," Lukina said nervously after being shown the pictures by an Associated Press reporter. "They make it all up out of nothing. His family hasn't lived here for a long time. It's all rumors and hearsay."
On Wednesday, the village was largely desolate, with only the occasional big-wheeled all-terrain vehicle able to navigate its unpaved dirt roads. A few people, some of them drunk, passed by on its streets covered with wooden planks.
"Only those who have nowhere to go are left here," Poroshin said. "Only drinkers and pensioners are left. Good young people are all gone."
The gray two-story brick school building was locked on Wednesday, a note announcing a ban on taking photos and videos pinned next to the door. A school employee told an AP reporter through the glass pane to go away.
President Vladimir Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, refused to confirm that Putin awarded Mishkin the Hero of Russia medal. He insisted that the Kremlin wouldn't discuss investigative reports and media articles on the Skripal poisoning in the absence of official British requests for information.
Skripal, a former Russian military intelligence officer turned double agent for Britain and his visiting daughter spent weeks in critical condition after the March 4 attack. In June, two area residents who apparently came across a discarded vial that contained the poison also fell ill; one of them died.
Britain claims the poisoning was authorized "at a senior level of the Russian state," something both the Kremlin and the suspects have vehemently denied.
Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent Moscow-based military analyst, said that the Salisbury attack marked a dangerous escalation of the rift between Russia and the West.
"The Russians are kind of treating Western Europe as Western Europe is treating Syria and Afghanistan— as a battle zone — if it's going in with special ops people to run operations," he said.
Associated Press writers Kate de Pury and Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.