Game over: death of a Russian player

Boris Berezovsky had many labels – godfather of the Kremlin, master of chaos, modern-day Rasputin. Which one is the key to how he died in England last weekend?


They called him the godfather of the Kremlin, the master of chaos and Russia’s modern-day Rasputin. But Boris Berezovsky’s reputation hid the real man as effectively as the tinted windows of the limousines that used to sweep him around Moscow and through the gates of the Kremlin. Until last week those same vehicles sped him between Mayfair, in London, and a grand mansion in the English Home Counties.

The nicknames don’t capture the extraordinary life of the man who was found lying on his bathroom floor last Saturday, with injuries that British police say suggest death by hanging but that others claim are evidence of murder.

For many of his compatriots, Berezovsky came to personify all that went wrong with their country when the Soviet Union collapsed. His name became a byword for the corruption, intrigue, ruthlessness and violence that seethe through modern Russia.

In just a few years in the early 1990s, Berezovsky went from starting up a car dealership to controlling a business empire that included an oil firm, an airline, a bank and a national television station, and then he parlayed that wealth into extraordinary political influence.

When fortune’s wheel turned, President Vladimir Putin found in Berezovsky the perfect enemy: the most extravagant member of a widely hated clique of oligarchs, who took refuge in Britain from claims that he stole vast sums from the Russian state.

From a pampered political exile, Berezovsky became an unlikely champion of democracy, vowing to bring down Putin by any means necessary.

Berezovsky was at different times – and sometimes, it seemed, simultaneously – an insider and an outsider, a businessman and a politician, a trusted Kremlin adviser and a disgraced schemer.

But it is easy to forget that, until he was well into his 40s, Boris Abramovich Berezovsky achieved recognition only in an arcane branch of applied mathematics.

He was born in Moscow on January 23rd, 1946, into a Russian Jewish family. His father, Abram, was a civil engineer and his mother, Anna Gelman, worked as a nurse. Berezovsky studied at the Forestry Engineering Institute in the Soviet capital and at the prestigious Moscow State University before joining the Russian Academy of Sciences, becoming a professor and publishing several research papers and books.

Big business break
In the late 1980s, under the liberalising perestroika reforms of Mikhail Gorbachev, Berezovsky saw an opportunity to escape the poorly paid obscurity of academic life. After dabbling in the importation of computer software, Berezovsky used contacts he made while working on a control-systems project with the Avtovaz car company to make his big break into business.

He persuaded Avtovaz to give him tens of thousands of its Zhiguli models, sold abroad under the Lada name, for a relatively small down payment and to allow him to repay the remainder a few years later.

He bought the cars from the factory at a state-subsidised discount, sold them for a considerable profit, and ultimately repaid Avtovaz in roubles that were worth a fraction of their former value because of the hyperinflation ravaging Russia.

At the age of 40, Berezovsky the academic had clubbed together with a friend to buy his first car; the two took turns to drive it. Five years later, Berezovsky the businessman was making his first fortune by selling Ladas and, later, imported Mercedes.

But as the Soviet Union collapsed, so did law and order in Russia. Money brought power but also extreme danger. Business rivalries were often settled by violence, or the threat of violence, and contract killings were common.

Berezovsky is believed to have paid Chechen criminal groups in Moscow for protection, but he still got caught up in a gun battle in the city in 1993, and was lucky to emerge unhurt when his Mercedes was blown up by a bomb the following year. His driver was decapitated by the explosion.

The security-service agent who investigated the bombing was Alexander Litvinenko, whom Berezovsky met again in London a decade later and who was later murdered.
Berezovsky quickly realised the value of political connections in the unpredictable new Russia, ingratiating himself with the former president Boris Yeltsin and his inner circle by funding the publishing of his memoirs.

Through the mid-1990s, Berezovsky secured major stakes in ORT Television and the Aeroflot airline, and helped a tyro named Roman Abramovich, with whom he would also cross paths in London, to acquire the Sibneft oil company.

Berezovsky will also be remembered for helping devise a deal that came to symbolise 1990s Russia. He persuaded a small group of tycoons, the original Russian oligarchs, to put money and media support behind the ailing Yeltsin in the 1996 presidential election, to prevent the communist leader, Gennady Zyuganov, winning.

Their backing secured victory for Yeltsin and ensured there would be no reversal of free-market reforms in Russia. In return, Yeltsin allowed the oligarchs to snap up the country’s finest industrial assets at knockdown prices.

The gates of the Kremlin were now wide open for Berezovsky. Yeltsin appointed him to important positions in Russia’s security council and the Commonwealth of Independent States, and as a key negotiator in a peace deal with Chechen rebels; he also became a parliamentary deputy.

Berezovsky even took it on himself to find a successor for the ageing and drink-addled Yeltsin. He selected a former KGB agent who seemed sober, reliable and suitably malleable, and he brought him from St Petersburg to the Kremlin. His name was Vladimir Putin, and he became president in 2000.

Last year Berezovsky wrote, “I repent and ask for forgiveness for bringing Vladimir Putin to power,” calling him “a man who trampled freedom and stopped the development of Russia”.

Putin turned out to be not Berezovsky's puppet but a ruthless operator bent on subjugating the oligarchs to the state and restoring the pre-eminence of his allies in the security services.

By the end of 2000, Berezovsky had fled Russia, never to return. In London, he was at the heart of an anti-Putin circle that came to include Litvinenko, who was killed by a dose of radioactive polonium in 2006. In Russia, he was usually depicted as an evil mastermind and accused of everything from pro-western revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia to the murders of Litvinenko and the journalist Anna Politkovskaya, and the funding of anti-Putin protests.

In reality, Berezovsky presented little threat to Putin: Russia’s opposition, knowing how much ordinary Russians loathe the oligarchs, wanted nothing to do with him, and in recent years his threats and challenges to Putin sounded increasingly empty and shrill.

Some friends say he was depressed after losing a hugely expensive court case to Abramovich and paying out large sums to former partners, and the Kremlin claims he recently sent a letter to Putin asking for forgiveness and for the right to return to Russia.

Many people who were close to Berezovsky dispute both this and the suggestions that he killed himself.

British police say Berezovsky was found with injuries that suggested hanging. There was no evidence that anyone else was involved, but it cannot yet be ruled out, they say.

Russian media, as if reluctant to part with their most colourful villain, are busily rehashing Berezovsky’s alleged crimes and conspiracies against the state, and airing elaborate theories about how he died, murder by Britain’s intelligence services being a favourite.

“He wasn't a politician, or purely a businessman . . . or even an academic. He was a great player, and playing was his natural state,” says Alexei Mitrofanov, a Russian politician. “He played with everyone: deputies, presidents, business partners, women, foreigners, and the public who watched it all on television, and with journalists. It was a game played on 50 different boards.”