He was the original oligarch, dubbed the godfather of the Kremlin by the late journalist Paul Klebnikov. But by the time Boris Berezovsky’s lifeless body was dragged out of his bathtub on Saturday, the 67-year-old was a broken man who had stopped seeing friends and rarely ventured outside. The day before his death, he told a Forbes reporter that he had lost the will to live.
Whether he took his own life or died of heart failure — it is not yet known — Berezovsky was destroyed by the Russia he almost single-handedly created. While he bitterly hated the current regime, it was Berezovsky who first pioneered the country’s crony capitalism, masterminded its first managed elections, blurred the line between the media and the government, and even helped install Vladimir Putin into the presidency.
But, like Marx’s bourgeoisie, Berezovsky had above all produced his own gravediggers. They were Putin, who went on to crush him politically, and fellow oligarch Roman Abramovich, who felled his erstwhile mentor with a financial coup de grâce.
Through cunning, ruthlessness and insider connections, Berezovsky built an automobile and media empire before installing himself in the Kremlin as President Boris Yeltsin’s éminence grise. Over the course of his rise to power and untold wealth, the diminutive mathematician and onetime member of the Russian Academy of Sciences helped form the two key institutions that have defined modern Russia and, arguably, continue to hold it back.
Firstly, despite deftly positioning himself in exile as a crusader for democracy, it was Berezovsky’s organization of Yeltsin’s and Putin’s electoral campaigns that set the precedent for the Kremlin’s current template of media and political manipulation.
On the eve of the 1996 vote, when a beleaguered Yeltsin faced a resurgent Communist opponent, he offered the oligarchs, including Berezovsky, a deal. The quid pro quo involved promises of lucrative stakes in state-owned companies in exchange for their support. Berezovsky, who had earlier persuaded Yeltsin to sell him a controlling stake in the main national broadcaster, obliged the incumbent with a nonstop barrage of positive propaganda while totally sidelining his opponent. A year into Yeltsin’s miraculous re-election, he was rewarded with the keys to Aeroflot.
Three years later, Berezovsky masterminded the creation of the Unity party as a vehicle for Putin, whom Yeltsin had named his successor in August 1999. During the parliamentary elections in December of that year, Berezovsky used the flagship channel to violently discredit Putin’s opponents, Yevgeny Primakov and Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov. Unity, which won almost double the votes of Primakov’s Fatherland party, later became known as United Russia.
Secondly, despite painting himself as a free marketer, Berezovsky was an architect of Russia’s current opaque symbiosis between big business and state patronage. He amassed his businesses through personal relationships, taking advantage of unclear laws, and government collusion. His largest assets — from Aeroflot to the Sibneft oil company — were acquired either through loans for shares or his close personal ties with the Yeltsin family. The country’s current elites — from Roman Abramovich to Mikhail Prokhorov — have continued to follow his example. Both invest the financial resources they amassed with the Kremlin’s help to repay the government with loyalty and political service. Like Berezovsky, Abramovich once served in the government. And just as Berezovsky had helped set up Unity to siphon off the nationalist vote from Putin’s opponents, Prokhorov is arguably doing something similar for the liberals with his Right Cause party.
Despite having helped establish these rules, Berezovsky eventually found himself outflanked by the very people he trusted. Hoping to have found in Putin a president who would protect his oligarchic clique against threats from the statists, Berezovsky instead saw his own holdings quickly renationalized. Later, his onetime business partners and protégé Abramovich also turned on him. Trying to recoup money allegedly promised him from a previous venture, Berezovsky was rendered financially ruined last autumn after losing a £3 billion lawsuit in London.
“Berezovsky’s death spells the end of the ’90s,” declared an article in the liberal online newspaper Gazeta.ru. But his downfall has proven that the rules he laid out still hold in Russia today: The economy continues to be dominated by corrupt oligarchs, power begets money, and those who lose the president’s ear soon lose everything else.
Vadim Nikitin is a freelance journalist and blogger based in London. This article was distributed by Agence Global.