Behind every great oligarch, there's a seriously mean-looking bodyguard...
Rob Hastings is Assistant News Editor at The Independent. He has served on the news desk since 2010. While working as a freelance reporter and feature writer he was also published by The Guardian, The Times and the Financial Times.
Saturday 08 October 2011
They have no names, no voice and are never referred to, yet the small army of bodyguards shadowing their billionaire bosses this week are arguably the most visible players in a case that has in turns enthralled and confounded the High Court.
The besuited heavies seen protecting Roman Abramovich and Boris Berezovsky are among half a dozen bodyguards recruited by the feuding oligarchs. With the looks and bulk of a Bond villain, the minder for Berezovsky is rarely without his sunglasses, which perch on his head during proceedings but cover his eyes elsewhere, including inside the court's lobby. He is frequently seen speaking into the microphone clipped to his tie and is estimated to be more than six and a half feet tall.
So, if you're a Russian billionaire, where do you go to find one of these guys? The men pictured are thought to be Russian and Georgian, most likely ex-KGB. But according to Dmitry Fonarev – himself a former KGB agent who now works with the National Bodyguard Association of Russia and has guarded Bill Gates and Henry Kissinger – British ex-SAS servicemen are the usual choice for visiting billionaires.
"Trustworthiness is a very serious question. British guys are just working for money and they don't care about politics. They get good money to keep their mouths shut," he says.
Their wages are about £120,000 a year, according to Mr Fonarev, typically on a six-month contract. They are well looked-after too. The Independent observed Mr Berezovsky's heavies retiring to a conference room for a lunch break this week, followed by a huge order of high-end sandwiches.
It is well earned: looking after these people is a deadly serious business. Berezovsky has suffered many assassination attempts, including a car bomb in 1994 that decapitated his driver and seriously injured one of his bodyguards. However, while the common image of this profession is servants loyally taking bullets, Mr Fonarev said this is a Hollywood fallacy.
"We take some risks... but we sell our skills and not our lives," he said. "If you stay in front of your VIP in the line of fire, the first shot will be yours and second will be his, so there is no reason to do that – we are not shields," he added. Brawn is not the only requirement. "You can have a big guy with a big gun, but he has no brain and so he can't understand what he has to do," said Mr Fonarev. "It makes no sense to train him to be a bodyguard, he can be a nightclub bouncer."
In the meantime, the bodyguards are a strange – and sometimes an unnerving – presence in the courtroom, as The Independent found out this week when one made a sudden appearance in the press gallery and this reporter needed to squeeze past him: "Er, excuse me."
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