March 27 (Bloomberg) -- Boris Berezovsky was often portrayed as a ruthless mathematician who stayed several chess moves ahead of his opponents. He dutifully acted the part, saying famously in a 1997 interview, “I have never built an unreliable system.”
The real Berezovsky, however, was an accomplished communicator, actor and mythmaker rather than an evil mastermind. Even his death is something out of a mystery novel.
Once considered a multibillionaire kingmaker who helped Vladimir Putin rise from bureaucratic obscurity to supreme power, Berezovsky died March 23 in a U.K. mansion that belonged to his ex-wife. He was 67, broke and alone.
Police say the cause of his death is “consistent with hanging.” The Guardian newspaper has reported that people close to Berezovsky were talking about a scarf found next to his body, which was on a bathroom floor. Did he die by his own hand, or was he murdered? This Berezovsky-style intrigue will unfold in his absence.
He was never particularly successful as a businessman. In late 1996, at the height of his influence, the daily newspaper Kommersant quoted a longtime business partner as saying, “Boris is a zero as a manager or, God forbid, execution guy. None of his projects has ever reached a high level.” While “the day-to-day detail disgusts him,” the partner said, “he has no equal in one thing: ramming though his ideas.”
The list of Berezovsky’s recorded business ventures was far from impressive. The car dealership LogoVaz, which made him a millionaire, lost out in the fierce competition of the 1990s. He advertised heavily for small investors in a nebulous project to build a Russian “people’s car,” but it never got off the ground. He invested in the TV channel ORT, yet it hardly made any money while he was its de-facto controlling shareholder.
At the time, Berezovsky was considered a genius at “privatizing the management” -- corrupting the managers of a state-owned company so they would milk it for him, diverting the cash flow to his businesses. Such schemes were, of course, always unofficial, as were his alleged big investments.
It isn’t clear how much money Berezovsky ever had because all we know about his assets is based on what Berezovsky said himself. He repeatedly claimed, for instance, that he owned a stake in Sibneft, an oil company created from state assets as a result of his tireless lobbying efforts. Yet Roman Abramovich, the owner of record, has denied since the 1990s that Berezovsky had a stake. Similarly, Berezovsky claimed he owned part of the aluminum giant Rusal (now United Co. Rusal), yet this was never recorded, either.
In 2007, Berezovsky sued Abramovich for $5.6 billion, claiming Abramovich had coerced him into selling both stakes cheaply when Berezovsky fled Russia after a falling-out with Putin in 2000. Last year, a court in London ruled on the case, issuing a scathing denunciation of Berezovsky’s claims. Abramovich managed to prove he had never bought any stakes from Berezovsky but instead paid him off for political protection.
So it was with Berezovsky’s political claims, too. In 1996, he told the Financial Times that Russia was ruled by an oligarchy of seven bankers controlling 50 percent of the gross domestic product and that he was one of the seven. It was after that famous interview that Russian tycoons came to be called oligarchs.
President Boris Yeltsin had indeed rewarded a group of tycoons for helping his 1996 re-election drive by letting them buy state assets at bargain prices. Yet the claim that the bankers ran the nation was never really corroborated. Berezovsky told a compelling story, and everyone believed him, yet even before Yeltsin ceded power to Putin, the first two of the seven “oligarchs” went broke in the 1998 financial crisis. Had they really been Russia’s rulers, this would never have been allowed.
Later, Berezovsky claimed he had “invented” Putin by advising Yeltsin on the succession and using his media firepower to help Putin. But again, we heard that story only from Berezovsky himself.
Even before forcing Berezovsky out of the country, Putin never admitted he owed anything to the alleged power broker. In “First Person,” a book published before his 2000 presidential victory, Putin said he met with Berezovsky not every month, as the latter claimed, but less frequently and that he met with many other businessmen, too. “He has a lively mind and a lot of suggestions,” Putin said of Berezovsky, but the suggestions “have been unrealistic and inefficient.”
Putin later proved he had no special relationship with Berezovsky when law-enforcement agencies went after the former oligarch for his “management privatization” scheme at Aeroflot, the Russian airline. Berezovsky escaped to France and eventually to the U.K.
His publicity efforts, in the end, were more impressive than his actual achievements. He managed to monetize his connections, but he was easy to wipe out because of the murky nature of his business. “The main thing that prevents us from considering Berezovsky a successful manipulator is that he proved rather easy to beat,” wrote columnist Kirill Rogov this week on Colta.ru.
In his London years, Berezovsky at first made headlines by criticizing Putin and offering to finance his overthrow. He never lost hope that someday he would return to his old playground, Moscow.
“I have been here for 10 years, and once every three months I would hear from him that in three months’ time we’d be going back to Russia,” a fellow exile and close associate, Yuli Dubov, told lenta.ru. “The last time he named a date was last spring, but I don’t remember what it was.”
Years went by, Putin was still in power, and Berezovsky was bleeding money. He was spending heavily on a lavish lifestyle and utopian political projects. He had to pay an enormous divorce settlement, as well as Abramovich’s legal expenses of $100 million after the failed lawsuit.
In his last interview, he told the Russian edition of Forbes magazine, “I have underestimated the fact that Russia is so dear to me that I cannot be an emigre.” He had “lost the meaning of life,” he said. “I am 67 years old and don’t know what to do next.”
That may have been more play-acting on his part, another dramatic gesture. But he died two days after the interview, and now these words are part of his legend.
Berezovsky succeeded in making himself a symbol of Russia’s lawless, tumultuous 1990s, even though other people made more money then and managed to hold on to it. Legends don’t necessarily require legitimacy. Charisma is sometimes enough. Berezovsky had enough of that to spare.
TV journalist Sergei Dorenko, who once helped Berezovsky run a smear campaign against his rivals, eulogized him: “We argued for hours. ... Now that he is dead, I don’t argue with death, I accept things as they are, but what I really regret is not having one last conversation with him. About Russia: We never talked about anything else.”
(Leonid Bershidsky, an editor and novelist, is the Moscow and Kiev correspondent for World View. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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