For anybody who followed Russian politics in the nineties this was an unforgettable story. By comparison with the Russian drama of that period, European politics were boring and predictable. Every four years voters in different countries would go to the polls to cast their votes, the new parliament would produce a new cabinet of ministers and members of parliament would scrap over the petty details of proposed new laws. How boring. Sometimes there were scandals, but in Europe even the scandals were lukewarm, lacking in passion and fire. A minister might have a lover, a former prostitute, or a high ranking dignitary would embezzle a large sum of public money; the media would disclose illegal lobbying by powerful international corporations. Perhaps now the European stage is also starting to see more real action, but in the nineties the real drama happened in Russia.
In 1996 President Yeltsin appointed Boris Berezovsky Deputy National Security Advisor, which was the peak of his career as a Russian government official. Berezovsky played a key role in the Chechen peace process: It was his efforts that led presidents Yelstin and Maskhadov to sign a peace agreement in May 1997 (photo: Sergei Guneev, RIA NOVOSTI Agency)
During the presidency of Boris Yeltsin, Russian politics were an incredible spectacle: passion, blood, evil manipulation and a dramatic struggle for survival between politicians, businessmen, the secret services and criminals. At stake were their lives, their power and their prosperity. This was no theatrical fiction or imitation - the blood, guns, piles of cash, limousines and women were all real.
'In this cruel and colourful spectacle Boris Berezovsky played one of the main roles. In some episodes he was not only the main character, but writer and director too.'
In this cruel and colourful spectacle Boris Berezovsky played one of the main roles. In some episodes he was not only the main character, but writer and director too. He was seen by many as a puppet-master able to pull the strings backstage or a kingmaker able to promote politicians to the highest posts in the country. His power was so overwhelming that, inevitably, his fall seemed the more pitiful. He lost his 2011-12 court case for financial compensation against rival oligarch Roman Abramovich, his regular predictions about the imminent collapse of the Putin regime seemed more and more like wishful thinking; gone was his magic wealth and power and his last wife sued him for huge amounts of money. He was finished as politician and businessman well ahead of the moment when his corpse was found in the bathroom of his bullet-proof Berkshire mansion.
The old ‘heroes’ of the nineties
In an amazing twist of fate, the death of Berezovsky has produced more shock waves in Russian public opinion than any other similar event in the recent past. The nineties may have been a crucial period for politics in immediately post-Soviet Russia, but for most Russians they have now become distant history. After the very public sacking in 2012 of Moscow mayor Yury Luzhkov, there were no more VIPs from the nineties occupying top posts in Putin’s Russia.
But many of the heavyweights of the nineties were not destined to enjoy a peaceful retirement. Berezovsky is not the first one to die.
In 2007 Russia bade farewell to president Boris Yeltsin and in 2010 to former prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, the author of the legendary saying ‘We wanted the best, but it turned out as it always does’.
Father of the Russian economic reform, finance minister Yegor Gaidar died in 2009 even though he was only 53 years old.
General Alexander Lebed, considered a likely candidate for high office, died in a mysterious helicopter crash in 2002.
Anatoly Sobchak, former mayor of St. Petersburg and maverick democratic politician died in 2000 in the city of Svetlogorsk campaigning for the election to the presidency of his former deputy Vladimir Putin.
Nikolai Aksyonenko, a former transport minister who had at one point seemed a likely winner in the battle for Yeltsin’s succession, passed away in 2005.
Pavel Grachev was Yeltsin’s defence minister who in 1993 sanctioned the use of tanks against the White House, where the Russian parliament was in revolt. He died in 2012.
Another major figure of Russian business and political life, Rem Vyakhirev, former chairman of the energy giant Gazprom died in February 2013.
The death of all these people did not go unnoticed: the media were full of the official obituaries, the funeral ceremonies were attended by high-ranking government representatives and in some cases an honorary guard fired a farewell salute. There were kind words, a bit of grief, and that was all.
'The Russian media covered Berezovsky’s lonely death as though he had been a celebrity pop star whose life had fascinated the public with tales of drug abuse and sex with children. '
Berezovsky’s death is very different. The Russian media space has been flooded with comments and news, websites are recycling his old interviews, politicians and journalists sharing memories about their encounters with the late oligarch. The Russian media covered Berezovsky’s lonely death as though he had been a celebrity pop star whose life had fascinated the public with tales of drug abuse and sex with children. ‘Suicide? Impossible, I knew Berezovsky well, he would never do anything like that’ declared some of his old acquaintances. Others reported he was in deep depression and homesick for Russia. ‘I do not rule out the possibility that he was killed by the Russian secret services’, said runaway Russian businessman Yevgeny Chichvarkin. For Russian politics Berezovsky was finished a long time ago so why, wondered others, the sudden waves of interest in the figure of the late oligarch?
The explosion of interest in Berezovsky indeed seems odd, because he was never a popular figure and Russians disliked him, regarding him as a wizard of backstage manipulation and an evil genius of political infighting who cared more for his private business than for the interests of the state. Andrei Piontkovsky, prominent political analyst, always called Berezovsky an ‘odious figure’. But he was a genius. In times of great political chaos, two Russian presidents can be said to owe (at least to some degree) their Kremlin throne to his incredible energy and PR skills.
Rise and fall
In 1996, appalled by the possibility of a communist comeback, he saw in the dramatically unpopular Boris Yeltsin his only hope of escaping political and personal catastrophe. A few years later Berezovsky felt threatened by Yevgeny Primakov, the prime minister appointed after the 1998 Russian financial meltdown, who was keen to put the oligarch behind bars. Berezovsky realized people were turning away from him.
Boris Berezovsky and Roman Abramovich as Russian parliamentary deputies in 2000. It was Boris Berezovsky who introduced the much younger Roman Abramovich to the Russian political and business elite, but the disciple soon overtook his master. By staying loyal to the Kremlin he managed to preserve his huge fortune and political influence (photo: Vladimir Fedorenko, RIA NOVOSTI Agency)
But not the young head of the Federal Security Service, Vladimir Putin, who suddenly showed up at Berezovsky’s wife’s birthday with a bouquet of flowers. Berezovsky sensed an opportunity to return to the field and demonstrated incredible energy in making the case for Putin during the 1999 parliamentary election (the presidential election followed in 2000). Sergei Dorenko, at the time anchorman for the Berezovsky-controlled TV Channel 1, remembers a meeting where Berezovsky kept repeating with a charming smile (he was personally very charming), ‘We will screw them, all of them.’
In the 1999 parliamentary election, the Kremlin supported the ‘Unity’ (Yedinstvo) party against its main rival ‘Fatherland’ (Otechestvo) party headed by Yevgeny Primakov and the Moscow mayor Yury Luzhkov. Berezovsky very efficiently orchestrated a dirty anti-Primakov campaign in the media outlets under his control, Yedinstvo won and Vladimir Putin’s subsequent victory in the 2000 presidential election was practically a done deal.
'In times of great political chaos, two Russian presidents can be said to owe (at least to some degree) their Kremlin throne to his incredible energy and PR skills.'
Soon after Putin’s inauguration Berezovsky’s fortunes changed once more. He no longer had the president’s ear because his protégé, the former KGB colonel, no longer felt indebted to him. Putin was president and wanted all the oligarchs to play by his new authoritarian rules. Unlike Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Berezovsky didn’t want to end up in jail and fled to the West. He didn’t realise that times had changed, as Roman Abramovich told me when I attended his inauguration as governor of Chukotka in 2001.
As an active politician in the nineties Berezovsky hardly ever spoke about programmes, values or ideas. He was a gambler who was not afraid to bid high and who was always ready to outbid his opponents. Only in his London exile did he begin to speak about values: now, it appeared, he cared about Russia and its people. The Yeltsin era had helped some of them to understand that they should rely on themselves and not on the state. When I interviewed him in London’s Savile Row, his first office in that city, he admitted that it was the Russian slave mentality which had made the manipulation possible and which lay at the root of Putin’s power. In London Berezovsky became an out and out liberal: for him the state’s only function was to help people to achieve their individual goals.
Unfortunately for Boris Berezovsky, Russia and its elite stopped listening to him. For Putin’s regime he became the much-needed public enemy number 1, with the official media presenting him as a villain ready to execute people or design purely criminal schemes aimed at overthrowing the legitimate Russian government. The Kremlin PR machine was ready to blame him for any crime with the probable involvement of the Russian secret services, the murders of Politkovskaya and Litvinenko, for example. He was held responsible for all the so-called ‘colour revolutions’ in the post-Soviet space.
Russian historical mythology has other such examples: in the 16th century Prince Andrei Kurbsky, exiled to Poland, was regarded as the main threat to the regime of Tsar Ivan the Terrible; Stalin’s public enemy number 1 was Leon Trotsky, murdered in Mexico by Spanish communist Ramon Mercader. The death of Public Enemy Number One means that the Supreme Leader has won and that any resistance to him makes no sense.
The story of Boris Berezovsky also fits well with another Russian myth, best presented by Alexander Pushkin as the “Tale of the Fisherman and the Golden Fish”.
A poor old fisherman catches a golden fish in the sea. She grants him a wish if only he will let her go. The fisherman’s wife, keen to exploit this opportunity, wants more and more from the generous fish. But when she wants the fish to become her servant, the fish and the sea have had enough and take everything back: the fisherman and his wife end up as they started, with nothing. This is Berezovsky’s story too: his appetite for power and influence knew no limit and he was punished accordingly.
It is the myths of Public Enemy Number One and the Golden Fish that have triggered Russia’s emotional reaction to the surprising news of Boris Berezovsky’s death.
In addition to this, the Russian media has found the story of Berezovsky much more exciting than any novel by John le Carré or Robert Ludlum. A true reality show, a political thriller full of suspense, dramatic turns of action and… a tragic end.
Top photo: Elena Pakhomenko, RIA NOVOSTI Agency, kremlin.ru website
Get our weekly email