Liza Berezovskaya: My father was 'one of the greatest men of our time'
So says Boris Berezovsky's eldest daughter, who, in defiance of recent reports, recalls a charismatic man fired by freedom, honour - and guilt. James Hanning meets Liza Berezovskaya
Sunday 31 March 2013
The death of Boris Berezovsky was not an occasion for the usual salutes and affectionate sentiments. He was portrayed as the oligarch who'd contrived to fall out with his former political allies, his business associates, and even the mother of his young children. Last year, when losing his British court case against his fellow oligarch Roman Abramovich, the judge called him an "inherently unreliable witness who regarded truth as a transitory, flexible concept which could be moulded to suit his current purposes". Some years earlier, the American business magazine Forbes had called Berezovsky "a corrupt, dangerous thug, a chronic, court-certified liar … the Godfather of the Kremlin".
There were allegations that he had had a journalist murdered, that he stole vast amounts of Aeroflot shares ... the list goes on. These battles and allegations had cost Berezovsky residency in his homeland, his credibility, and, reportedly, most of his fortune. And so, depressed and running out of money, he died alone in the bathroom of his Berkshire home, a planned visit to Israel this week and his testimony on the death of his ally Alexander Litvinenko never to be made.
This, however, is not a portrait that his 42-year-old eldest daughter recognises, and since Berezovsky was such a large figure in the post-Communist landscape she deserves a hearing. Even allowing for filial affection, Elizaveta ("Liza") Berezovskaya speaks with some vehemence. Her memories are of a brave, kind and public-spirited man. Speaking exclusively to The Independent on Sunday just a few days after her father's sudden death, and with a coroner's inquest just under way (which she was anxious not to pre-judge), she was emphatic about that.
Liza, an artist brought up in Moscow but now based in Surrey, is some way from the brattish, Eurotrash sybarite of caricature. She has a classics degree from Cambridge and a well-nourished interest in garden design as well as the arts.
The picture she paints of her father is a polar opposite from that of the one-dimensional hoodlum who got lucky in 1990s Moscow before getting too big for his boots and being shown the door by Vladimir Putin's regime in 2000. What people fail to see, she says, is his consuming drive to further the cause of freedom. Berezovsky, a Boris Yeltsin supporter in the 1990s, had assisted in Putin's rise to the presidency because, says Liza: "He believed then that he [Putin] would be good for the time being ... Freedom was always the most important virtue for him, and when he realised Putin wasn't going to carry on along that road, my father resigned his seat in the Duma on principle."
Liza talks fondly of growing up in Moscow in the 1970s, when her father's irrepressibility defied Soviet austerity. Boris was, by general consent, a brilliant mathematician and scientist who was privileged to make occasional trips abroad and would return with armfuls of books that were unavailable in official Soviet bookshops, videos of western TV, and tales of films that he had seen in the West, which he would recount as bedside stories to Liza and her younger sister Katya. "I watched Once Upon a Time in America later, and every scene was exactly as I remember my father describing it."
I asked Liza what used to anger her father when she was young. Very little, she said, except lying, which he regarded as beyond the pale. She recalls when, aged nine, she went to the chemist's with her father. An elderly lady dropped her purse, and coins spilled on to the floor, so the other customers, Liza included, helped her pick them up. As the old lady thanked everyone, Liza still had a coin in her hand, which she decided to keep. "I don't know how my father found out, but he was absolutely furious with me, like he'd never been before or since. It is the only time I have ever stolen anything. He made sure of that, by not speaking to me for a week. I thought he would kill me with his stare."
Boris's insistence that his daughters resist Communist indoctrination was inculcated at an early age. She remembers her sister, then aged five, coming home from kindergarten and declaring that she loved "Grandfather" Lenin more than anybody else. Her parents tried a 'What about us?' hint, but she insisted. "My father didn't speak to her for several days," says Liza, "and neither my mother's nor sister's tears and begging for forgiveness could make my father forgive her. I really understand what he meant. We were brought up with such high morals, he needed to do that, to protect us from brainwashing, even at five. You really have to work on your children to make them real citizens. This was not typical of him, but it was very memorable."
Having excelled as a scientist, and been elected to Moscow's Academy of Sciences, he spotted the opportunity to put his expertise to wider use, he sold cars and offered a service facility as well, which was unusual. ("Every Russian had two wishes: an apartment and a car ... I went into cars," he said later.) The money began to roll in, and Boris's influence grew. He became part of an elite of favoured billionaires. But Boris's star was to fade and, according to Liza, it was of his own making. "What people need to understand is why my father left Moscow," she says. It wasn't that he happened to fall out with Putin; there was a reason. Boris had played a central kingmaker's role and was on Putin's slate as a member of the Duma, the Russian parliament.
Then, early in 2000, a Putin plan to allow the Kremlin to dismiss elected governors was denounced by Berezovsky as a "threat to Russia's territorial integrity and democracy". Two months later, he resigned from the Duma, refusing "to be involved in the country's ruin and the restoration of an authoritarian regime".
Liza says now: "The easiest thing for my father would have been supporting this regime and remaining rich and powerful. But he couldn't do that because it was wrong." She feels he did himself no favours in the UK by not explaining his past. "He was always moving forward to the next thing and felt no need to explain. It would have helped if he had looked back and explained a bit more."
It was reported from the Kremlin last week that in recent months Berezovsky had written to Putin to apologise and ask if he could return. Liza has a way of answering such questions for which the term "dismissive" is pathetically inadequate. "I only read that in the newspapers, he never told me he had done that, and I think it is the last thing in his life he would do … it's not that I doubt it ... it's the complete opposite of everything he did in his life. It's not just not true, everything they say and do is a lie. I don't know why people take anything they say seriously.
"It's true that he always wanted to come back to Russia" (the second part of the Kremlin's claim), she says. "Very few people love Russia as much as my father did."
That answer is endorsed by her response to my next question. The idea that so rumbustious a character might apologise for anything prompts me to wonder if he ever showed weakness. Did he ever show signs of feeling guilt, for example? Liza pauses for a long while. "I think he felt guilty about Putin. Having helped put Putin in, and then seeing him become what he did … I think he felt very guilty towards the Russian people about that. He couldn't live with his guilt about that."
Liza was disappointed that the West has not stood up more to Putin. The Russian word chest, which means "honour", looms large in Liza's memories of her father. "He thought all he needed to do was show Putin's real face to the West, and the West would stop shaking hands with Putin. At first, he had too high an opinion of the West. They kicked the British Council out of Russia, yet Mr [David] Cameron accompanied Mr Putin to watch the judo, a favourite sport of Putin's, at the Olympics. For a quite a while the UK kept its honour, but it has lost it."
You suspect that no amount of lawyers, historians and private detectives will bridge the gap between Liza's view of her father and that of, for example, the judge in the Abramovich court case. But the arguments will undoubtedly continue. Liza says: "I'm sure he has left some surprises. He always planned to continue doing things whether he was there or not. They will be completely different from what anyone can expect or think. I am waiting for them."
Liza has a fund of stories about his sensitivity, his playfulness, good deeds done to support people with business ideas ("he gave people freedom"), of Mrs Thatcher being so spellbound talking to him in the early 1990s that she kept postponing herflight home. "He is one of the greatest people of our time," she declares. "We will have to wait quite a time to fully understand what he was, as you do with many great men. Without any doubt he was one of the most amazing men, one of the strongest. He is an unbelievable figure of our time … The only other Russian person who comes to my mind with the same amount of honour is Mikhail Khodorkovsky [an oil oligarch now in the 11th year of a – possibly politically motivated – sentence for fraud]. One of the things we spoke about the last time, before my father died, was Khodorkovsky, his honour and what great respect we have for him. My father was an unbelievably charismatic person ... always positive in everything, never afraid. He was amazingly confident, so he felt no fear in being the first really to stand up to the system. He stood up and said 'this is wrong'. When he moved here, his job was to fight this regime – with the same enthusiasm that he had for his science. You have a choice: either be a hero or lose your honour, a bit like in the Eighties before everything changed. You either stand up or you lose your honour."
And that, My Lord, is the case for the defence.
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