People in the town of Vladikavkaz in southern Russia know the man with the stooped, halting walk and the burning eyes.

They talk about “what he did'' and about how they admire “what he did'' and wonder if they too would have the strength to do “what he did''.

This is what Vitaly Kaloyev did: After his wife and children died in an aeroplane crash in 2002, he stalked the air traffic controller on duty then all the way to Switzerland, knocked on his front door and stabbed him to death with a pocketknife.

“I don't take offence at people who call me a murderer. People who say that would betray their own children, their own motherland,'' Kaloyev said. “I protected the memory of my children.''

By the time Kaloyev walked out of a Swiss prison and returned home late last year, his crime had been eclipsed by his fame and a social split over his significance.

Some Russians cheer Kaloyev as a national hero, a “real man''.

Others are appalled by his celebrity status, which they believe highlights the worst tendencies of Russian nationalism.

Kaloyev's story is a post-Modern tragedy, a tale of loss, vengeance and clashing cultures — of the humanistic, man-to-man world of the Caucasus crashing confusedly into the legalistic culture of Western companies facing expensive lawsuits.

Although he says he blacked out and can't remember attacking 36-year-old Peter Nielsen, Kaloyev doesn't deny killing him, nor is he sorry for the man's death.

Even in the earliest days of his grief, Kaloyev says he fixated on Nielsen, the only controller on duty when the aeroplane carrying Kaloyev's family crashed into another in midair.

In 2004, after a sensationalistic trial in Switzerland visited by luminaries from his home republic of North Ossetia, Kaloyev was sentenced to eight years.

But after high-level lobbying from the Russian government, he was set free three years later on the order of Switzerland's highest court.

Hero's welcome

When he arrived in Moscow, youths from Kremlin-orchestrated groups lined the roads for a hero's welcome.

He was named “Man of 2007'' by journalists. And recently, the North Ossetia government gave the former construction designer a perch as deputy minister of construction.

Handwritten letters have poured in from all corners of Russia and from the Russian diaspora as far away as Australia.

“We live in a sick society,'' said Dmitry Oreshkin, lead researcher at Moscow's Institute of Geography.

“This is the clan mentality which Stalin instilled in the minds of our people. The authorities are appealing again to this barbarian psychology.''

Kaloyev reads every piece of fan mail, keeps the letters carefully bundled and gratefully receives his many visitors.

He still lives in the house he designed for his family, a brick three-storey with pear, cherry and plum trees in the walled garden.

In the summer of 2002, Kaloyev was working in Spain, building a house for a wealthy Russian.

His family set out to join him for a vacation: his 44-year-old wife, Svetlana; his 10-year-old son, Konstantin; and his 4-year-old daughter, Diana.

Their flight was almost entirely full of schoolchildren headed off on an organised trip to Spain.

In the skies over Germany, the passenger aeroplane collided with a cargo plane. All 71 people aboard both aircraft were killed.

For the next two years, Kaloyev hounded officials from Skyguide, a Swiss airspace control company.

He insists that he was after only something simple: an apology.

He wanted somebody to sit with him, look him in the eye and take responsibility for the loss of his family.

In his culture, this is the minimum courtesy a man would expect.

But the apology was not forthcoming.

Rage grew inside him and he kept thinking about Nielsen.
He went to Nielsen's house and knocked on the door.

He carried an envelope stuffed with graphic pictures of his dead children — bruised, disfigured, sewn together and lain out in their coffins.

When Nielsen opened the door, Kaloyev remembers saying in German: “I am from Russia.''

He made a gesture, he says, indicating that he wanted to be invited inside.

But Nielsen motioned for Kaloyev to go away, he says.

Kaloyev tried to press the envelope on Nielsen, but, he says, the air traffic controller knocked them away.

“My last thought was that he threw my dead children out of their caskets,'' Kaloyev said.

After that, he said, “everything went black in my eyes''.

No remorse

His first memory, he says, is of taking out the envelope of his children's pictures and realising that it was splattered with blood.

He looked down and saw that he too was covered with blood.

The next day, police arrived at his hotel.

Kaloyev went first to a psychiatric institution and later to a Swiss prison.

Kaloyev remains wholly remorseless about the murder he committed.

“He was an idiot and that is why he paid for it with his life. If he had invited me into the house, the tragedy might not have happened at all.''

“I think about his children,'' he said the following day. “They're growing up healthy, full of life. His wife is happy with her children.

"The grandparents are happy with the grandchildren. Who am I happy with?''