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

No UK asylum ruling drew more political venom from Moscow

Share

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.

React Now

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

English Secondary Teacher

£110 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Cambridge: English Teacher needed for ...

NQT and Experienced Primary Teachers Urgently required

£90 - £150 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: NQT and Experienced Primary Teac...

Year 1 Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Hull: Year 1 Primary Supply Teachers needed for...

Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Plymouth: EY/KS1 Qualified Teaching Assistant J...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Stephanie first after her public appearance as a woman at Rad Fest 2014  

Announcing my transition from male to female means that I am finally free, at last

Stephanie Hirst
 

Daily catch-up: Recall Bill, pangrams and buildings that never were

John Rentoul
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Salisbury ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities

The city is home to one of the four surviving copies of the Magna Carta, along with the world’s oldest mechanical clock
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album