In a country where crime pays and violence often muscles out justice, retired Gen. Alexander I. Lebed's thunderous threats to get tough with crooks and corrupt officials have made him a popular figure among the frightened masses.
And seizing on the security issue as Russians reassess the costly side effects of reform and democracy has elevated the career soldier to a new role as Kremlin power broker.
Lebed finished a strong third in Sunday's 10-man presidential election with 15% of the vote and now enjoys considerable bargaining power with both the front-running incumbent, Boris N. Yeltsin, and his Communist Party challenger, Gennady A. Zyuganov.
He has made clear his intention to secure a top job in either's new administration and wants to have responsibility for the police and military to make good on his campaign vows to restore law and order.
At 46, Lebed has plenty of time to grow in the role of Kremlin understudy, a post for which he is clearly being wooed by Yeltsin. One Yeltsin ally says Lebed is likely to be brought in as a special deputy prime minister in charge of national security, and others speculate that he will be assigned the daunting task of military reform.
But whether the decorated general who was able to win accolades at the top of a military command chain can deliver in the less responsive structure of a government bureaucracy remains to be seen, and Yeltsin may be more interested in cashing in on Lebed's fleeting appeal to secure a second term for himself than in grooming an heir apparent.
Lebed has managed to convince voters he is more trustworthy than those currently in power or aspiring to it, but he is the first to admit he knows little of economics.
In his campaign advertisements, he vowed not to make empty promises of prosperity. "One finds free cheese only in a mousetrap," he conceded to viewers in a trademark sample of folk wisdom.
He recently excused himself for keeping an American reporter waiting for an hour and a half by explaining: "We work not with bricks but with people."
The pug-nosed master of malaprop, whose bass voice rivals that of Lurch from TV's "The Addams Family," fails to meet any Western standard for charisma, but he has amassed an appeal among Russians hungry for a hero.
Lebed came to national attention in 1992, when he was deployed to the bloody separatist confrontation in the Trans-Dniester region of Moldova and managed to establish peace within a few weeks. He has condemned Yeltsin's war against rebel Chechnya as a devastating and unnecessary bloodletting.
Married with three children, Lebed retired from the army a year ago to enter politics. But his first foray into elections was frustrated by inter-party rivalries within the Congress of Russian Communities he aligned with for the parliamentary contest in December. Lebed won a seat representing the provincial city of Tula, but the Congress failed to pass the 5% barrier for entry into the state Duma.
Going it alone for the presidential contest proved more effective, and his appeal for a stronger and safer Russia allowed him to attract much of the electorate that wanted neither Zyuganov nor Yeltsin.
Lebed has expressed less concern than his rivals over the prospects for North Atlantic Treaty Organization expansion and has avoided hinting at new curbs on personal freedoms to strengthen security--a position that allows anti-Communist voters to support him.