The death of Boris Berezovsky, 67, will definitely provoke a whole range of emotions in Russia… from sympathetic conspiracy theories to accusatory diatribes. Nevertheless, in a host of commentaries that appeared on the Kommersant website, which was one of the first to report his death, there was one that just about everyone can agree with… “An epoch is passing away”.
Berezovsky first became known to Russia’s broader-public back in the mid-90s, when he suddenly popped up as a key figure in Boris Yeltsin‘s scandalous electoral campaign of 1996. Unlike Yeltsin’s first election in 1991, there was little romanticism in that campaign, where state television and dirty electoral technologies were used to bring the ailing president’s ratings from mere 5 percent approval in January 1996 to a victory in the second round in summer the same year. If the late 80s and early 90s went down into Russian history as a time of hardship mixed with hope, the late 90s had a much worse reputation, being associated with cynicism and lawlessness. Whether he wanted it or not, Berezovsky (then, a blossoming businessman in his early 50s) became a symbol of that time. Therefore, a Russian blogger’s remark about an epoch passing away was right… the late 90s were an important part of our lives, so, we can’t help but notice the sudden passing away of one of that epoch’s symbols.
For the moment, the last days of the late oligarch look more like a defeat than a victory. The last of his many wives, Yelena Gorbunova, left him in autumn 2012, and Berezovsky was obviously in financial difficulties. His lost lawsuit against former partner Roman Abramovich, when he not only failed to get 4.6 billion USD (141.3 billion Roubles. 3.5 billion Euros. 3 billion UK Pounds) in damages from Abramovich, but a British judge also dubbed him “an unreliable witness”, probably, added some moral sufferings to an already grave financial injury. Berezovsky exclaimed, “I’m beginning to lose faith in British justice!” when the court refused to believe that Abramovich “breached his trust” when the ownership of the Russian oil company Sibneft passed from Berezovsky to Abramovich. Did Berezovsky indeed commit a suicide because of financial problems and loneliness, as a prominent “attorney for the oligarchs”, Alexander Dobrovinsky, claimed in his interview to Rossiya 24? We may never know for sure. In a way, Berezovsky became a victim of his own style in both business and politics. His penchant for artful deception, for intricate mockery of justice, and for heavy-handed use of gossip and rumour in the media will probably make an objective assessment of his life and legacy impossible.
Did Russia really face a danger of a communist “revanche“, when Gennady Zyuganov appeared to be set to win the presidential election in 1996? Which role did Berezovsky play then? Was he an anti-communist “white knight” saving Russia from a return to its own past, or, was he an astute manipulator, who used the communist “scarecrow” in order to consolidate his influence on then-President Yeltsin and his power in the country?
What was Berezovsky’s role in the Litvinenko affair in London and in the death of the slain democracy activist Sergei Yushenkov in Moscow several years earlier? Most likely, we’ll never know. Berezovsky deliberately mystified his actions, powers, and even his political views (at various points in his career, he sometimes called for the banning of the KPRF, or, he toyed with the idea of leading it from behind the scenes). Truth held little value for him, if he couldn’t use it for political purposes or for extracting money. Ultimately, he’ll probably have to pay for his disdain of truth… probably, we’ll never know the true picture of his life; even his relatives won’t.
A relative “latecomer” in politics (he entered the fray in his 50s), Berezovsky brought to the Russian life something that it’d been lacking for a long time… theatre and action. His critics say that there was too much theatre and too much cruel action. Well, excess was always part of Berezovsky’s style.
Fugitive Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky was found dead in the bathroom of his London house. Firstly, the story emerged from his immediate entourage, and a Moscow law firm later confirmed it. It quoted a caller from London as saying that Berezovsky committed suicide. Once a powerful influence in the Kremlin, he died a pauper and all alone. Lord Bell, a close friend of Berezovsky, confirmed his death at his estate near Ascot in Surrey. He said that Berezovsky was found dead at 11.00 UTC (04.00 PDT. 07.00 EDT. 15.00 MSK. 22.00 AEST) in his bathroom in his house. As the circumstances of his death remain unknown, it isn’t clear whether it was suicide or homicide. Lord Bell said, “He was a very close friend and a very nice man, very kind to me and to the people around him”.
The death of Boris Berezovsky will inevitably raise questions about nefarious activities, because he was a close friend of Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian dissident who was fatally poisoned with radioactive polonium-210 in London in 2006. Lately, Berezovsky was short of money, and, in order to pay off his debts, he was selling off his property. Amongst the objects that he put up for auction on Wednesday, 19 March, was the painting Red Lenin, created by Andy Warhol in 1987. Experts said that its selling-price would range from 30,000 to 50,000 UK Pounds (1.412 to 2.355 million Roubles. 45,700 to 76,200 USD. 35,200 to 58,700 Euros). Sources told The Times that Berezovsky was selling his property in order to pay his creditors and his lawyers.
For the past decade, Boris Berezovsky was in financial troubles. Last year, Boris Berezovsky lost a case against Russian businessman and Chelsea Football Club owner Roman Abramovich, in which he claimed he was intimidated into selling shares in Russian oil giant Sibneft. Boris Berezovsky had claimed 4.6 billion USD (141.3 billion Roubles. 3.5 billion Euros. 3 billion UK Pounds) in damages. However, Berezovsky had to pay 53 million USD (1.64 billion Roubles. 41 million Euros. 35 million UK Pounds) for Abramovich’s legal fees. Since then, he’s withdrawn into private life. Berezovsky dropped other legal cases and stopped funding his main anti-Kremlin political vehicle, the International Foundation for Civil Liberties.
Earlier, the widow of murdered Russian dissident Aleksandr Litvinenko, Marina, appealed for help to pay her legal bills, after Boris Berezovsky claimed he could no longer afford to support her. She said she was “very grateful” to Berezovsky for his support in the past. A member of her legal team explained, “Mr Berezovsky made it clear that he’s no longer in a position to fund Mrs Litvinenko’s legal representation”. Berezovsky had contributed large sums of money for Mrs Litvinenko’s legal costs, but then he admitted that he couldn’t support her any longer.
In January 2013 Boris Berezovsky’s former girlfriend, Yelena Gorbunova, with whom he had two children, sought to have 200 million UK Pounds worth (billion 9.42 billion Roubles. 305 million USD. 235 million Euros) of his assets frozen after claiming he owed her millions of pounds. Gorbunova broke up with Mr Berezovsky in 2012, despite sitting at his side in court during much of his abortive multibillion-pound legal fight with Abramovich. During a court hearing the judge said, “On the evidence, Mr Berezovsky is a man under financial pressure. It’s likely he’ll feel a more pressing need to satisfy creditors than satisfy Ms Gorbunova. There’s a risk (which, if the evidence is correct, is a serious risk) that he’d apply property promised to Ms Gorbunova for other purposes”. After the court hearing, Berezovsky had to sell some of his property in England and in France.
Aleksandr Galfak confirmed the death of Berezovsky, saying, “He was found dead in the bathroom in his house in London. Over the past few days, Berezovsky was depressed. He was in a very bad mood”. Aleksandr Dobrovinsky, a well-known Russian lawyer, confirmed Berezovsky’s death. He said that Berezovsky was in a bad mood, he was almost bankrupt, which forced him to sell some of his paintings. Besides that, Mikhail Cherny lent him money to meet living expenses. A few days ago, Berezovsky asked one of his friends to lend him 5,000 dollars (155,000 Roubles. 3,900 Euros. 3,300 UK Pounds) for a ticket, as he wanted to fly somewhere. So, I think the financial situation he’s experienced forced him to commit suicide”. Boris Berezovsky sold a limited-edition of Andy Warhol’s portrait of Lenin at Christie’s auction in 2013, as he had to pay off creditors and legal bills.
Boris Berezovsky lived in the UK from 2000 after having been granted asylum, having fled Russia after falling out with Vladimir Putin. In 1997, Forbes estimated Berezovsky’s wealth at 3 billion USD (92.7 billion Roubles. 2.3 billion Euros. 2 billion UK Pounds). In recent years, his wealth was considerably reduced. Many think that he did badly in the financial crisis. Recent legal proceedings concerning Aleksandr Litvinenko’s widow, and legal wrangles with his ex-girlfriend Yelena Gorbunova, and with multibillionaire Roman Abramovich severely-depleted Berezovsky’s wealth. In 2009, his wealth was estimated at 685 million USD (21.2 billion Roubles. 528 million Euros. 450 million UK Pounds), but he’s thought to have spent 152 million USD (4.7 billion Roubles. 117 million Euros. 100 million UK Pounds) on a case against Roman Abramovich, last year, which he lost.
James Nixey, of Chatham House‘s Russian programme, said, “He was certainly willing to spend his money, what little he had left, in an attempt to use it to end the current régime in Russia. He lived in a heavily-guarded flat in Mayfair. He had bodyguards; there were attempts on his life, even the security service in the UK warned him about them”. Lord Truscott, who wrote a biography of Vladimir Putin, said, “Was it suicide or was it murder? He had a lot contact with people in Russia. There could be a whole host of people who could want to see him dead. Last year, he lost a case against Abramovich, and he was getting very short of money. He could have been in a depressed state. Perhaps, it was a final desperation”.
23 March 2013
Voice of Russia World Service