Voices from Russia

Saturday, 30 March 2013

Boris Berezovky: Game Over

00 Boris Berezovsky 3. Russia. 24.03.13


I arrived in Russia in 1997, when Boris Berezovsky’s influence was at its height. The year before, he had managed to get Boris Yeltsin re-elected, and we needn’t think too hard about how or why he achieved that. In those days, Berezovsky was often in Chechnya, and I couldn’t keep up with how much stuff he owned. Then Putin became president, and shortly afterwards the “Godfather of the Kremlin” was out. Sometime later I read a vehemently anti-Putin editorial in a major British newspaper, before such things were commonplace. “Who wrote this? I wondered. Then, I saw the by-line:

Boris Berezovsky

I was stunned. Hadn’t the editor done a quick web search before paying this “Russian businessman” to write his screed? Evidently, not, although I now understand that serial failure to grasp that not every opponent of Putin is a brave Solzhenitsyn is characteristic of the media in the UK and USA. Last year, for instance, I watched a documentary on Khodorkovsky, and the filmmaker was baffled when Russians expressed contempt for the fallen billionaire. As for Berezovsky, for years I wrote him off as an embittered crook until I read an interesting piece by Eduard Limonov, written in his trademark broken English. The author-turned-opposition leader was recalling a very expensive bottle of cognac the exiled billionaire had sent him upon his release from prison on weapons smuggling charges in 2003:

I like Berezovsky more and more. Exiled, he looks noble. Berezovsky is a type of anxious, never-satisfied life-eater, of warrior, the person who lives by the energy of conflict. Abroad, in Great Britain, he’s forced to exist without conflict, in order to preserve himself from a Russian prison. He wants badly to go out of that golden cage of London, again go to exciting life of conflicts in Russia. He isn’t interested in money. Money is only fuel to his conflicts.

(Full Limonov text)

A life-eater, fuelled by the energy of conflict! That also describes Limonov, who used to ramble on about legalising polygamy and teaching kids to use flame-throwers (before he became a semi-respectable Putin opponent in the eyes of David Frost et al). In Berezovsky, he recognised some of his own characteristics. Now, I saw the oligarch differently. He was a game-player, a man who delighted in his cleverness, in danger, and who exulted in the provocations he staged before the global media.

I recall footage I saw of Berezovsky talking to a group of Russophile English aristocrats about Putin. With what pleasure… and ease… he seduced these political naifs, who were blind to the conspiratorial nature of Russian power. Even better was when he befriended George Bush’s hapless wee brother Neil, who in the mid-2000s was trying to sell a video projector he called “The Cow” as an educational tool to developing countries who didn’t know any better. Berezovsky got involved and made a few introductions in the former USSR, even accompanying the mini-Bush on a visit to Latvia. Putin was outraged; Berezovsky was delighted; Bush never sold his rubbish toy.

Berezovsky’s influence in exile reached its peak with the murder of his employee Aleksandr Litvinenko. Suddenly, the renegade oligarch was at the centre of the world’s attention, wreaking havoc upon Putin’s reputation. However, this is also when journalists started looking seriously into the career of the life-eater, and his reputation never recovered either, for the “heroic dissident” was clearly a man enmeshed in plots, scandal, crime, and death. Of course, Berezovsky was an exceedingly clever man. Long before he was a car dealer, he was a mathematician and a member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences. Nevertheless, this was his problem. His attitude was that of someone who’d always considered himself the smartest man in the room. Now, when the other man in the room was Yeltsin, that may have been true… but then again, the table at which Yeltsin sat also had more brains than the Russian president did.

Yeltsin, it is clear, was too easy to manipulate… because, after that, Berezovsky serially underestimated his foes. Having backed the mid-level ex-KGB officer Putin as successor, he was astounded when Putin drove him into exile. He also underestimated his protégé Roman Abramovich, and this is where his intelligence really started to undermine him. You don’t need to be a lawyer to know that Berezovsky’s claim that Abramovich bullied him into giving up his stake in Sibneft sounded feeble. Indeed, the case was so tenuous that Berezovsky must have used a lot of intellectual energy to persuade himself of his own arguments.

The results were disastrous, and with the evaporation of his money and influence, Berezovsky could see that the game was finally up. Then again, maybe not… when Putin’s spokesman claimed that Berezovsky sent his foe a handwritten letter pleading for the right to return to Russia, I was sceptical. All exiles yearn for home, but did Berezovsky really think that he could sweet-talk Putin? Then I remembered his arrogance, his hubris, and wondered if he hadn’t persuaded himself he could use his cleverness to pull off one last great act of gamesmanship…

Then, it would seem, he hanged himself.

27 March 2013

Daniel Kalder



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