Berezovsky: The Movie would be like Goodfellas on crystal meth

With the private planes, the yachts, the car bombs, and mysterious helicopter crashes, the life of Boris Berezovsky is almost too unbelievable for Hollywood

Share

For the paparazzi that hung around outside London’s High Court almost every day in the last four months of 2011, the blinking unshaven face of Roman Abramovich was the picture that paid the bills. But inside, there could be no mistaking who was the central figure in a simply jaw dropping six billion dollar drama.

It seemed inconceivable, as we sat and listened to tale after tale from of the life and times of one of the most remarkable men of this or any era, that Boris Berezovsky hadn’t already received the Hollywood treatment. This stuff was Goodfellas on crystal meth.

Alright, so it wouldn’t be a cheap movie to finance, with the private planes, the yachts, the football clubs, the chateaus on the French Riviera, the giant aluminium smelters in Russia’s frozen east. Then there was the crashed helicopter, the stricken submarine, the car bomb that decapitated his driver but left the man himself unscathed. The world’s finest hotel rooms would have to be booked, the palatial Kensington homes, the glamorous women, and the suitcases stuffed with cash. All these things cost money.

Someone would have to be brave enough to write it too. Order a few of the leading books on the world of Boris Berezovsky and you’ll find a few of the authors have come to a premature end.

But the most insurmountable obstacle is how on earth to make the movie make sense. Every character, even in a true story, has to have a dramatic purpose. Something he must either succeed or fail in achieving, be it to escape from Shawshank Prison, to phone home or to get rich or die trying.

Taking flight

Attempting to understand the motivations and machinations that whirred inside the cannon-ball head of a mathematics professor, turned car salesman, turned politician, turned outspoken activist and bankroller of revolutions is a near impossible task. It is, to paraphrase Churchill, a riddle, wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.

But what is the key? It is not, unlike Roman Abramovich, to be found in merely the ruthless accumulation of wealth, and the extravagant spending of it - though Berezovsky displayed more than a little aptitude for both.

Having spent the seventies and eighties publishing papers on mathematical processes, he emerged from the collapse of communism as his nation’s pre-eminent capitalist. When the Berlin wall fell in 1989, Vladimir Putin was in Dresden, shredding KGB documents and desperately telephoning Moscow but no one was answering. Roman Abramovich, a young Del Boy, was manufacturing plastic toys and selling them from his Moscow apartment. Berezovsky, along with his business partner Badri Patarkatsishvili, had hedged the effects of hyperinflation in their favour and amassed a great fortune buying and selling cars.

He set up a similar scheme while running the national airline Aeroflot. When his friend and business partner Nicolai Glushkov took to the witness box in London eighteen months ago, those present could scarcely believe what they were hearing as Abramovich’s barrister, Jonathan Sumption (who was himself collecting an £8m fee for the case) laid bare the details of a scheme in which a sizeable chunk of still-nationalised Aeroflot’s income was paid to a Swiss company owned by the pair. If payments came late the Swiss company charged a fee of several hundred per cent. The payments, surprise surprise, always came late. (Mr Glushkov, in his customary bow tie, denied the allegations).

Kremlin powerbroker

But for Boris, it was never merely about money. By 1995 he had moved into the media, convincing President Yeltsin to let him taking control of the country’s most watched television channel (and met Roman Abramovich, by now a young precociously-successful oil trader), which propelled him inevitably towards the intoxicating world of politics. It was in that year that the Big Bang deal was struck. A deal agreed, but never signed, in the almost comical surroundings of Boris Yeltsin’s Presidential Tennis Club, from which exploded the two men’s astronomical fortunes in the years to come. In return for support from Berezovsky’s television channel in the 1996 Presidential election, Yeltsin agreed to auction off vast state oil assets. Thatcher’s PR man Tim Bell was flown in, Yeltsin won the election. Berezovsky and Abramovich connived to buy the assets for around £60m. Ten years later, with Berezovsky outmanoeuvred and languishing in exile in the UK, Abramovich sold the assets back to the state for an eye-watering £7.5bn. This was the cash at the heart of the court battle.

Having tasted immortality in the Kremlin, Berezovsky had apparently shown little interest in the running of the business. But he was not immortal. He was the central powerbroker of the Kremlin era, but the man he found to replace him, the then-Mayor of St Petersburg Vladimir Putin, proved not to be so malleable. Putin rightly sensed that the public didn’t like this new family of oligarchs, who had moved quickly to pillage the nation’s assets when one state collapsed and before another could be built around them. When he threatened them, Berezovsky fought back, using his television channel to interview the distraught wives of the sailors trapped on the stricken Kursk submarine, heavily criticising Putin’s handling of a disaster attracting international attention. His friends warned him to stop. He didn’t. And eventually he fled, first to Paris then to London, and never went back.

It wasn’t as much the mutations the Russian state went under in the years that followed that so tortured him, it was that he was no longer at the centre of things. Under the guise of a pro-democracy campaigner he attacked Putin’s Russia at every opportunity, and spent unimaginable fortunes funding political campaigns in Ukraine, and Chechnya. Winning the Champion’s League might appear expensive, especially given the number of managers it took Roman Abramovich to do it, but when compared to winning an election, bringing down a government or ending a war. Well.

Discredited

Putin’s Russia is undoubtedly a questionable place. The secret police expanding at the expense of democracy, armfuls of ballot papers secretly filmed being shoved into ballot boxes, and journalists murdered on their doorsteps. But had Berezovsky not made the fundamental error of underestimating him, and had he remained stalking the corridors of the Kremlin, would his protests be so loud? Would the situation be so wildly different? We can never know.

Those who moved to dismiss the idea that he had taken his life as that story emerged in the immediate aftermath of his death, pointed at the upcoming inquest, in London in October, of his friend Alexander Litvinenko, the former KGB spy poisoned at a London restaurant in 2006. The world, and Putin, will again be watching then, and Berezovsky would, they say, have relished his chance to again attack his nemesis on the world stage.

But that, probably, is to misunderstand the man. When Lady Justice Gloster summoned us all back, seven months later, to that neon strip-lit room down the road from St Paul’s Cathedral, she could not have been more damning. Abramovich, she said, had been a reliable and honest witness. Berezovsky on the other hand had been “deliberately dishonest”. He was an “unimpressive, and inherently unreliable, witness, who regarded truth as a transitory, flexible concept, which could be moulded to suit his current purposes.” They were words he would never be able to shake off. They also meant he was broke. He would never be able to force himself back to the centre of things. He may even, we hear, have written to Putin asking for forgiveness.

Roman Abramovich didn’t even turn up to court that day. The flash bulbs and the cameras outside were Boris’s alone, but Berezovsky: The Movie was over. Whether the final scenes turn out to have been foul play, suicide or natural causes, they were the nevertheless the denouement of a broken man.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Process Improvement Analyst (Testing)

£40000 - £45000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is curr...

Service Delivery Manager - Derivatives, Support,

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Service Delivery Manager - (Derivatives, Support...

Technical Account Manager - Java, FIX Protocol, FIX 5.0, C++

£30000 - £55000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Technical Account Manager - Java,...

WPF .NET Developer

£300 - £350 per day: Harrington Starr: WPF Analyst Programmer NET, WPF, C#, M...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

The daily catch-up: heatwave update; duck tape and market socialism

John Rentoul
David Cameron's 'compassionate conservatism' is now lying on its back  

Tory modernisation has failed under David Cameron

Michael Dugher
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform