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March 24, 2013 10:11 pm
In his glory days they called him “the comet”, because he burnt so bright and talked so fast. Yet in his final months Boris Berezovsky was an insecure, self-doubting and anguished man. As his £6bn court case against his former protégé Roman Abramovich went against him, he lost the ebullient bombast that once defined him.
As if consumed by his own failure, Berezovsky was by last year looking back on what Russians call the “wild nineties” with regret. The self-exiled oligarch who once crowed he and six other bankers controlled “50 per cent of Russian GDP” had lost the will to defend his past.
In a May 2012 interview, less than three months before he lost his courtroom battle and shut himself off, Berezovsky rarely made eye contact in his dimly lit London office. He spoke of his younger self as a guilty man.
“We didn’t think about others,” he said. “About those who were not ready for the [post-communist] transition, or who couldn’t make it at all. We didn’t recognise at the time how dangerous it was to split society – how much jealousy and violence that would engender.”
As he talked, Berezovsky’s eyes fixed on a silver statuette of Pablo Picasso. Its stomach opened up to reveal a miniature silver woman bathing in gold coins – a memento from an era of exuberant greed.
“Those left behind were not as sophisticated or as creative as us . . . but they were not bad. We, the class that was more advanced in feelings, creativity and understanding of the future, did not take responsibility. We just focused on making more and more money.”
The signal to his changing thinking came in a Facebook post three months earlier: “I repent and ask for forgiveness for what led to the power of Vladimir Putin.”
In his interview, Berezovsky continued to claim that he had been intimately involved in the murky Kremlin manoeuvres to find a successor to the unsteady president Boris Yeltsin after Russia’s 1998 default.
With Yeltsin paranoid that he would be put on trial when he stepped down, the goal was to find a loyal replacement. This was when Berezovsky grew close to a former KGB officer from St Petersburg who had recently started working in the Kremlin: Vladimir Putin.
Berezovsky was impressed. “He looked brave. He was a good team player. He accepted the rules. He never played any political dirty tricks, nor did he play games with Yeltsin’s opponents like the previous prime minister had been doing. He was young and many people wanted youth in power after years of old and frail Yeltsin . . . He did strictly as agreed.”
Putin was in 1998 promoted to head the Federal Security Service, then purged it, sacking perhaps one-third of senior officials. He held meetings with Berezovsky in the elevator for fear of bugs. By then, the tycoon alleged, he was the one personally persuading Putin to be Yeltsin’s heir.
Years later, Berezovsky looked pained as he recounted what he said was their fateful exchange. “I said, ‘So what do you think?’ We were at his dacha, and Putin said, ‘I don’t want to be president . . . I want to be Berezovsky.’”
Yet, after Berezovsky fell out with Putin in 2000 and decamped to London, he received news the man he had done so much to help had issued an international arrest warrant for him.
“I felt when I first heard the news – I thought how small is Putin to behave like this? I thought he was above using the instruments of pressure and oppression.”
Over a decade later, his life in Britain was falling apart. His debts were spiralling and he longed for home. But he clung to the fading hope the anti-Putin protest movement, then still strong, might topple the regime he accidentally fathered.
“Maybe I will be going home sooner than I thought,” he laughed, unconvincingly. That summer he lost his battle with Mr Abramovich. He changed his number, stopped answering emails and refused to meet reporters. The protest wave in Moscow fizzled out.
Those reversals seem to have blackened his mood further. The day before his death he met Ilya Zhegulev, a journalist with Russian Forbes magazine. Mr Zhegulev said “the comet” seemed nervous and at times lost for words.
Life, said Berezovsky in that final interview, had lost its meaning. He wished he had stayed in Russia, even at the price of jail. “[Mikhail] Khodorkovsky . . . saved himself,” Berezovsky lamented, speaking of his jailed fellow former oligarch.
“I don’t know what to do with myself . . . I am 67 years old . . . I do not know what to do next.”
Ben Judah is the author of ‘Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell In And Out Of Love With Vladimir Putin’ published by Yale University Press in May
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