Boris Berezovsky: the kingmaker of the Kremlin

Boris Berezovsky epitomised Russia's wild 1990s, with his sudden rise from from obscure mathematician to multi-millionaire oligarch.

The circumstances of Boris Berezovksy's sudden death seem clear enough, says The Guardian. "A depressed man, a locked bathroom, bruises on the neck." Berezovsky was crushed psychologically and financially by a ruinous £3bn court battle with his former protg Roman Abramovich. A Russian Forbes journalist, who met him shortly before his death, claimed he'd confessed to "losing the meaning of life".

Having provisionally ruled out "third-party involvement", police reports point to suicide. And yet the tycoon's grieving family and friends remain unconvinced. "They strongly suspect he was murdered."

The term oligarch' is often misused as an epithet "for any Russian with a few billion in his pocket", says The Independent. "Berezovsky was the real deal." Money was a byproduct of his main activity of scheming and playing politics.

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A brilliant mathematician, "Berezovsky saw Russia like a chessboard, but one in which only he was allowed to move the pieces," says the Moscow newspaper Novaya Gazeta. They called him "the comet" because he burned so bright.

But, while exiled in Britain leading the migr opposition to Vladimir Putin's government, he attained an "almost cartoon-like villain status" accused in the Russian media of orchestrating the murders of dissident journalist Anna Politkovskaya and his friend, former spy Alexander Litvinenko, to "discredit Russia's image".

A man of "demonic energy", Berezovksy epitomised the "wild 1990s" with its opportunities and violent ruthlessness, says The Economist. He first saw what could be made of the USSR's fall in 1991. Born in 1946 in Moscow, his father a Jewish civil engineer, by 1973 he was working for Soviet car maker, AvtoVAZ.

He was "a typical example of the generation of scholarly Muscovites who only half tried at their jobs, earned a miserly salary and spent the evenings drinking vodka complaining about the decrepit Soviet system", says The Moscow Times. But when Perestroika dawned, he seized his chance: making his fortune in cars, before storming into banking, media ownership and aviation.

Berezovsky's courting of Boris Yeltsin is "the stuff of Machiavellian legend", says The Guardian. "But it was his friendship with Putin, followed by their intense enmity, that defined his life." As the Kremlin's self-anointed kingmaker, Berezovsky pitched Putin as Yeltsin's successor, convinced he could influence him. It was a disastrous miscalculation.

At his mansion in the home counties, Berezovsky dreamt of a triumphant return to Moscow. Others thought it possible too, says The Economist. In the Russian feature film The Oligarch, his fictional alter ego returns from exile "in a cavalcade of limousines with flashing lights". In the end, all that fate had in store was the flashing lights of a Berkshire ambulance that arrived too late.

Was it really suicide?

When Boris Berezovsky and his heavies cornered Roman Abramovich "among the silk scarves and handbags" of Sloane Street in 2007 and served him a £5bn writ it was the clearest sign yet that London had become "Russian turf", says The Guardian. Yet there's more at stake than a squabble over oil producer Sibneft; and the body count in this battleground is mounting. The suspicions are understandable.

Following the polonium poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006 (which sent UK-Russian relations to their lowest ebb since the Cold War), at least three other exiles have met sudden ends, including Berezovsky's business partner, Badri Patarkatsishvili. That's why those closest to the dead tycoon, while admitting his depression and dire financial straits, suspect foul play.

I find his suicide difficult to believe, writes Russian political commentator Yevgeny Kiselyov in The Moscow Times. "The Berezovsky I knew was an incorrigible optimist who loved life in all its manifestations." He was "a true European, an intellectual of the highest order with a highly developed sense of taste and manners", who possessed savoir vivre.

"Short, bald, and a little bit slouched over", his charm attracted "experienced society ladies" as much as "young, frivolous women". And he remained in close contact with everyone in his hotchpotch family six children by three women. His greatest flaw was that "he was a poor judge of character". Although "described as a cold and calculating manipulator", he made himself vulnerable to others.

Spare us the violins, says Pierre Brianon on Reuters Breakingviews. Berezovsky's real legacy as "the chief architect of the modern, corrupt system" was perfecting "the nexus of intertwined interests" linking looting oligarchs with a clique of ex-KGB officials. "The rulers of today's Russia are Berezovsky's children." One shouldn't wonder if the Russians shed few tears at the news of his death.