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Boris Berezovsky: The lone oligarch who poisoned Britain’s relations with Russia

No UK asylum ruling drew more political venom from Moscow

On a visit to Moscow in 2003, I hailed an unofficial cab, offering the standard rate for where I wanted to go. I had hardly settled into the Zhiguli’s cripplingly cramped seat, when the driver asked where I was from. London, England, I said. Why,  he retorted indignantly, are you refusing to return that criminal Berezovsky?

My replies about the dubious quality of Russian justice, the distinguished history of the UK as a place of refuge, and the unimpeachable independence of British courts cut no ice. The Russian consensus, formed to a large extent – but not exclusively – by the Kremlin and the official media, was that Boris Berezovsky, the archetypal oligarch, had fled to London with his ill-gotten gains and was being sheltered by Britain to spite Russia.

It is a view that persisted until his death at the weekend, and it is reinforced each time a super-rich Russian is allowed to stay in Britain. The latest, just three weeks ago, was Andrei Borodin, former president of a Moscow bank. The twin pleas of political motivation and death threats seem to exert a mesmeric power on judges in Britain – more, it seems, than elsewhere, perhaps because we flatter ourselves about how far such treatment is un-British. 

No UK asylum ruling, though, has drawn the same venom from Moscow as Berezovsky’s. In part, this was because of his one-time prominence in Russia. As a self-made billionaire, media magnate and Boris Yeltsin’s Svengali, Berezovsky was ubiquitous among the Russian elite of the 1990s, until – suddenly – he wasn’t. His eager, half-smiling visage would pop up in the least likely places, but always with a purpose. His instinct for sniffing out where power lay was unerring. 

The great feud

Whether he was less scrupulous than other oligarchs in the way he made his money is hard to judge; the 1990s were lawless times. What is true is that he was among the first to exploit the business opportunities when Mikhail Gorbachev loosened the reins of Soviet central planning. What is also true is that his commercial antics alone – with or without any violence that he might have bought in – would once have had him dispatched to the Gulag. 

A maths graduate, initially barred from premier universities by his Jewish background, Berezovsky forsook an academic career to deal in used cars. He took a controlling share in Russia’s Avtovaz car company – which produced the Zhigulis in which I was so often a passenger – and had plans, which resulted only in big losses for many small investors, to produce a popular car. He diversified into media, aviation and – hugely lucrative – oil. He became known as the original oligarch, with the mansions and a massive guard-dog, called Cerberus, to go with it. When he left Russia in 2000 it was not because he had fallen out with Vladimir Putin, who was now President, but because Putin had summarily and irrevocably fallen out with him.

The result was one of the great feuds of our time. Putin bears lifelong grudges, and so did Berezovsky. They hurled vitriol at each other across Europe, Putin secure in his Kremlin; Berezovsky in his exile’s gilded cage. And for the best part of a decade, as seen from London at least, the advantage was Berezovsky’s. With an avid audience of British cold warriors, old and new, he had no trouble getting his anti-Putin message across – and in so doing, he reflected back at his adopted country some of its less admirable traits.  

Courtier manners and personal charm smoothed his way, but it was mostly money that bought Berezovsky access and influence. A top PR consultancy was at his beck and call. He became a familiar figure in the precincts of Parliament and bought into the Home Counties lifestyle, disbursing hospitality that was legendary. He set up a charity to help less fortunate exiles, who added their ever shriller voices to his anti-Putin crusade. Among his protégés was Alexander Litvinenko, who died in 2005 after being poisoned with polonium.

End to intrigue

The start of Berezovsky’s British decline can be traced to an interview he gave to a Moscow radio station the following year, where he called for a coup against Putin, drawing a warning about his asylum status from the then Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw. It took another blow last summer when Mrs Justice Gloster not only found against him in the lawsuit he had initiated against his fellow oligarch Roman Abramovich, but declared him to be “deliberately dishonest” and “an inherently unreliable witness”. Whether he brought the lawsuit because he needed money, or a shortage of funds was just the effect, he emerged diminished, his capacity to buy influence at an end.

He suffered a further setback last month, when the judge presiding over the long-delayed Litvinenko inquest rejected his plea to be excluded from its remit. Whether it was the cost of legal representation he feared, or the potential slur on his character, Berezovsky was unhappy. His whole existence as an exile had been predicated on wielding influence and power. If he was depressed, as some have reported, and had even petitioned Putin to be allowed back to Russia,  plausible reasons are not hard to find. 

It would be gratifying if Berezovsky’s death tied up the ends of the many conspiracies he wove – though there were probably fewer plots than he claimed. It might also be a vain hope that the ideological divide between Britain’s Russia-watchers – a divide that gave Berezovsky a more prominent public platform than he deserved – will be healed, allowing less partisan interpretations of today’s Russia.

But it should not be unrealistic to hope that London and Moscow might seize this chance to mend diplomatic fences that should never have been broken. The effect of Berezovsky’s British exile was to give succour to Russia’s enemies here and to poison UK-Russia relations. In a decade, he did almost as much damage as the Cold-War KGB ever managed. May he now rest in peace – and may his legacy be a new start for British-Russian relations.