The man accused of poisoning Sergei Skripal grew up in a family with ties to the Russian army and signed up for officer training straight out of school, according to neighbours from his home town near the Chinese border.
Anatoly Chepiga, who neighbours confirmed is the true identity of one of the alleged Salisbury nerve agent attackers, was raised in a single-storey white-brick house with a corrugated iron roof directly across a dirt road from the high school where he was a star footballer.
With three bedrooms, central heating and indoor plumbing, it was an affluent residence for the remote village of Berezovka, where many residents live in traditional stove-heated wooden cottages to this day.
But for neighbours here, the special forces colonel wanted by Britain for a nerve agent attack is fondly remembered as a conscientious student and keen sportsman whose glittering military career made his family proud.
“Yes, that’s him. I was friends with his father. He was a good kid,” Anatoly Chepaikin said on Friday when shown photographs of the man British authorities named as “Ruslan Boshirov.”
British authorities last month charged two Russians travelling under the aliases Ruslan Boshirov and Alexander Petrov with carrying out the Salisbury attack in March.
Documents and photographs published by the investigative group Bellingcat suggested that the man claiming to be “Ruslan Boshirov,” was actually Anatoly Chepiga, a colonel in the same GRU military intelligence agency in which Mr Skripal served.
Multiple neighbours and acquaintances in Chepiga’s home village, 5000 miles east of Moscow, confirmed to the Daily Telegraph, the first Western media to visit, that Boshirov and Chepiga are the same man.
“Oh, how he’s aged! He looks so old! That’s because he was at war,” Chepiga’s old neighbour Valentina Kharchenko said when shown a picture of “Boshirov” arriving at Gatwick airport in March.
A former school friend who would give his name only as Alexander said he had recognised Chepiga when the first photographs of Salisbury poisoning suspects were published in the media in September.
Mounting evidence about Chepiga’s real identity contradicts Vladimir Putin’s claim that the pair were civilians.
In fact, records show Mr Putin appointed Colonel Chepiga a Hero of the Russian Federation, Russia’s highest honour, in 2014. The medal is typically presented by the Russian president in person.
Mr Putin’s spokesman said on Friday he had “no information” about Chepiga’s award and didn’t want to “continue these baseless discussions”.
In a September interview with Russian state channel RT, the suspected assassins claimed they were sport nutrition salesmen who visited Salisbury to look at the “famous cathedral”.
Chepiga was born in Nikolayevka, a village near the Amur River that separates the country from China, in 1979. He grew up in Berezovka, a nearby village of 3,000 people that was founded by sectarian Orthodox Old Believers in the 19th century.
Located in a highly militarised zone along the Chinese border, the village was the site of a base where a battalion of engineers and sappers was headquartered.
China and the Soviet Union fought a brief border war in 1969 over disputed territories including an area along the Amur south of Berezovka.
Chepiga’s father Vladimir and mother Tatyana were both employed at the base, according to records seen by The Telegraph.
Neighbours said Vladimir worked as a security guard and Tatyana as an accountant there.
Ms Kharchenko said Vladimir Chepiga would sell the soldiers fish he caught in the nearby Zeya river.
The base was closed after a 1997 agreement with China to reduce troop numbers within 100 kilometres of the border.
But even after the garrison departed, many school leavers from Berezovka chose military careers.
Rather than be conscripted into the regular army like most 18 year olds, Anatoly applied to study at the Far Eastern Military Command Academy in nearby Blagoveschensk, which trains future officers for elite infantry units including the GRU’s spetsnaz.
He would go on to see combat in a GRU special forces unit in Chechnya and near the Ukrainian border at the time that Russia-backed separatists were fighting Kiev’s forces there.
A cadet at the academy told The Telegraph that volunteers are given a choice of military schools, and the one in Blagoveschensk is seen as prestigious.
Officers at the academy declined to comment, but two graduates told The Telegraph that they had studied with Chepiga, and his name is listed along with other distinguished alumni at a memorial there.
A sign inside the school brags that a Hero of the Russian Federation once studied there, according to one Berezovka resident. The school’s deputy director said she had been warned by regional officials not to speak to reporters.
Chepiga’s talent for sport may have been one reason he ended up in the GRU, which recruits athletes for its special forces units, former officers have said. Several neighbours said “Tolya” was both a good student and a top player on the local football team.
“Tolya liked football, he played well,” said Ms Kharchenko, whose daughter studied with Chepiga. “We lost sometimes, we won sometimes. Other villages would come to play us. We were just glad the kids were busy.”
Like the other pupils, Chepiga had English classes several times a week, she added.
Irina Shapikova, the current owner of the house the colonel grew up in, said she had bought it from Chepiga’s parents when they moved to Blagoveschensk in 2014.
Vladimir and Tatyana Chepiga seem to have disappeared since then. Their previous phone numbers could not be reached, and the address listed for them in a Blagoveschensk online phone directory does not exist.
Residents of a suburb where they were said to live did not recognise their names or photograph. A local woman with the surname Chepiga denied having any such relatives.
Ms Kharchenko said she had heard AnatolyChepiga was married with children, and rumours had gone around that he helped his parents buy a flat in another city.
“We heard he was a Hero of Russia, that’s prestigious. He made his family proud,” said Tatyana Mironenko, whose daughter also went to school with Chepiga.
Locals were shocked that their former neighbour had been accused of trying to kill Mr Skripal, with several doubting the allegations or whether there had been any poisoning at all.
“It’s nonsense. These things are done quietly, without a big scandal,” said Sergei Pereskokov, 51, a firefighter who worked with Anatoly’s father at a farming equipment and supply enterprise in the 1990s. “If you were going to kill someone, poison someone, would you really incriminate yourself on all these cameras?”
“Someone somewhere may have poisoned someone, but the price of diesel fuel has gone up 2 roubles, that’s a real problem,” said his son Anton.
Alexander, who was in the class above Chepiga, believed his former school mate could have been capable of carrying out such an assassination, however.
“They don’t take just anyone [in the GRU],” he said. “He could do things others couldn’t.”