MOSCOW (Reuters) - Until now, few people in Russia with anything to lose have dared to openly challenge the Kremlin's shadowy chief political strategist, Vladislav Surkov.
That changed when Russia's third richest man accused Surkov of sabotaging his political career and asked for a meeting with President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to demand Surkov be sacked.
The attack thrust Surkov, who has preferred to wield his immense influence behind the scenes, into the center of public politics less than six months before the March 2012 presidential election.
"There is a puppet master in this country who long ago privatized the political system and has for a long time misinformed the leadership of the country," said Mikhail Prokhorov, whose fortune Forbes put at $18 billion.
"His name is Vladislav Yuryevich Surkov," said Prokhorov, accusing Surkov of destroying the small party that Prokhorov took over in June.
Described by enemies and even some admirers as Russia's answer to France's Cardinal Richelieu or a modern-day Machiavelli, Surkov, 46, helped Putin craft Russia's tightly controlled political system.
To admirers, "Slava" Surkov is the most creative official in the Kremlin with a gift for organising Russia's sometimes chaotic ruling elite.
When Putin steered Medvedev into the presidency and became prime minister, a role that took Putin a few kilometers across Moscow to the White House government headquarters, Surkov stayed in the Kremlin, where he serves as first deputy chief of staff in the presidential administration.
Fond of black ties and sometimes unshaven, Surkov is thought to have survived turf wars with other Putin allies. His reputed ruthlessness is the stuff of legends in the Kremlin.
But Surkov cuts a much more flamboyant figure than many of the secret policemen who form part of Putin's entourage: he has a portrait of Argentine-born revolutionary Che Guevara in his Kremlin office, writes for pleasure and is fond of poets such as Allen Ginsberg of the Beat Generation.
In an odd twist of fate, the main scriptwriter of Russian politics has become the focus of an intriguing unscripted conflict with Prokhorov, the whizz kid of Russian finance who built a fortune in the chaos of the 1990s.
"It is a real conflict," said one source who is close to the Kremlin. "It is not rational, but both sides are serious. They are ready for a fight."
In an indication of just how serious the conflict may be, state television did not run Prokhorov's criticism of Surkov and some Russian newspapers did not even mention Surkov in their news reports on Prokhorov.
Surkov shares a degree of cynicism with many of his generation of Russians who were educated as the children of a superpower only to see the Soviet empire collapse around them.
He served in the army before entering business as the Soviet Union crumbled. Among his patrons were Alfa Group, owned by wealthy businessman Mikhail Fridman, and oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who is now in jail after falling foul of the Kremlin.
Later, Surkov joined the Kremlin under then-president Boris Yeltsin.
Besides managing domestic politics, Surkov is probably best known inside Russia for shaping the Kremlin's mindset under Putin: confident, ruthlessly commercial, anti-Western and authoritarian despite his pet phrase, "sovereign democracy," under which Putin and his United Russia party are dominant.
Opponents say Surkov has created a highly suspicious political system that is brittle because it allows so little dissent. Supporters say he is a talented political manager.
"He is the Kremlin's chief ideologue and one of the most damaging people in Russia," said Yulia Latynina, a prominent journalist who has written several novels about the murky world where Russian business overlaps with politics.
"Imagine a doctor in a madhouse who goes around telling the patients that they are being manipulated by beams from outer space, but that he can sell them a magic box that can save them," she said.
Those who have worked with Surkov attest to his intelligence, but one source said he has been strained by the day-to-day pressures of managing Russia's ruling tandem -- Putin and Medvedev.
His ultimate loyalty, though, is clear.
"Surkov's boss, like the boss of everyone, is Putin, though he sometimes plays his own game," said Latynina.
Reporting By Guy Faulconbridge