Boris Berezovsky: The first oligarch

A film based on his adventurous life drew gasps from Russian audiences for the opulence showed

Mary Dejevsky
Saturday 25 November 2006 01:00 GMT

As Alexander Litvinenko, the former Russian spy, lay dying in a London hospital, regular bulletins on his condition were supplied not by his family and only rarely by the hospital. The head messenger was the energetic and voluble Alex Goldfarb, who described himself as a close friend of the stricken agent. He could also have been described, no less accurately, as the right-hand man of Boris Berezovsky, the fugitive oligarch exiled in Britain who heads the list of Russia's "most wanted".

Wherever and whenever Alex Goldfarb turns up, you can be pretty certain that Berezovsky is pulling the strings. And in this case, the Berezovsky link was more transparent than it often is: the oligarch enjoyed a uniquely symbiotic relationship with Litvinenko, which began when the spy saved his life. Litvinenko, so the story goes, refused orders from his then employer, Russia's internal security service (FSB), to have Berezovsky murdered. Berezovsky returned the favour by assisting Litvinenko to defect to Britain when he was charged by the Russian authorities with treason.

This was six years ago. Berezovsky's subsequent role in Litvinenko's life - as Litvinenko's in his - is shrouded in the mystery that obscures so many exiled Russian plutocrats. But there is evidence that they kept up at very least what might be called a business relationship. Berezovsky sponsored a book that Litvinenko published in 2003, supposedly lifting the lid on the murkier doings of the FSB. If, as has been said, Litvinenko was investigating the contract-killing of the Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya at the time he fell ill, this is likely to have been at Berezovsky's instigation, too. Berezovsky is reliably reported to have been at Litvinenko's bedside on the day the media were first made aware of his illness.

While a personal friendship may have grown up between the two men, Litvinenko had contacts and information that could have been of great help to Berezovsky. As an agent through the years of Vladimir Putin's rise to the Russian presidency, he claimed to know where many bodies were buried. And anything that besmirched Putin was grist to the mill of Berezovsky, who aspired to lead an organised opposition to Putin from abroad.

The origins of Berezovsky's venom against Putin go back a decade. Then in their 40s, the two men were highly competitive Kremlin wannabes, vying for influence at President Boris Yeltsin's court. Berezovsky had a head start, ingratiating himself into Yeltsin's inner circle - the so-called "family" - by dint of his money and connections. Seen as the original oligarch, he was already the richest and most influential of Russia's new tycoons, a compulsive networker with fingers in many pies.

His influence was at its most valuable to Yeltsin in 1996. Six months before the scheduled presidential election, Yeltsin's popularity ratings stood at a catastrophic 30 per cent. His chief rival was the far-right nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who was well placed to beat him. Berezovsky deployed his money and influence lavishly, forming a group of oligarchs, the "Big Seven", to underwrite Yeltsin's campaign. They media outlets they then owned were dedicated to a schedule of "all Yeltsin all the time".

The voters gave their President another four years. The West breathed a sigh of relief, and Berezovsky reaped his reward. Initially it was the mostly honorific post of deputy secretary of the National Security Council, then secretary of a Kremlin group co-ordinating the so-called Commonwealth of Independent States - the body trying to maintain economic and political links between the states of the former Soviet Union.

As Berezovsky tells it, it was during this time that he conducted peace negotiations - often secretly - with rebellious Chechnya. His first-hand dealings with Chechen leaders left him with an enduring sympathy for this mountain people and their seemingly doomed quest for autonomy. Until recently, he claimed still to be involved in efforts to forge a settlement.

By 1998, Berezovsky's star at the Kremlin was fading, just as Vladimir Putin's started to shine bright. With Yeltsin not standing for election again, Berezovsky's services as media Svengali and chief financier were less in demand. The currency crash of that year prompted public questions about the oligarchs' fortunes. Berezovsky left Yeltsin's entourage the following year.

He decided to try his luck as a front-line politician, and was duly elected the member of parliament for Karachayevo-Cherkessiya, a region not only close to Chechnya, but also one where money talks. An additional advantage of this move was the immunity from prosecution a Duma seat afforded. He may have calculated that for four years he would be safe.

At the same time, Berezovsky had to watch as the ailing Yeltsin relied more and more on Putin. Berezovsky had become seriously disenchanted with Putin, a man with whom five years before he had been on skiing terms. He now saw Putin as a sporty little upstart from St Petersburg who was applying his second-rate secret agent's brain to keeping the precarious Russian government functioning.

At the end of 1999, it was Putin who was anointed by Yeltsin as his successor. Berezovsky was cast aside. All his hard work trying to solve the Chechen problem had been negated by a war he believed Putin had begun as an election ploy. Threatened with prosecution for fraud in connection with his holdings in the state airline Aeroflot and the privatised state car company, Logovaz, he made one of his many visits to London permanent.

That this stubborn and scheming tycoon chose exile was perhaps a less unlikely outcome than the fact that he had come so close to power at all. A congenital outsider, Berezovsky was able to turn to his benefit the brief period of extreme social and political mobility that followed the break-up of the Soviet Union. Born in Moscow into a modest Jewish family, he was academically ambitious, but thwarted in his first choice of study - space science - by the restrictions on the numbers of Jewish students in certain faculties. After a series of junior research positions, he finally obtained a doctorate in computer science at the age of 37.

He was 40 when Mikhail Gorbachev came to power and the political landscape began to change. In 1989 - ahead of most - he sensed the way the wind was blowing and made the leap into business. And questionable business some of it was, too. As he tells it, he built his fortune on a couple of second-hand Mercedes cars he bought in what was then East Germany, which he resold at a large profit in Russia.

But the myth that has grown up around him is replete with hair-raising stories of hijacked trains, nocturnal visits to car assembly lines in southern Russia, secret cash deals, all liberally spiced with armed thugs and unexplained disappearances. A risk-taker par excellence, Berezovsky thrived in the volatility of those years, amassing a fortune that took him from cars into oil, aluminium and property and - as his weapon in what he anticipated would be the battles ahead - into television and newspapers.

His lifestyle - with its fast cars, servants, a palatial residence outside Moscow and vicious guard dogs - was the stuff of legend. His renown was such that a Russian director made a film, Oligarch, apparently based on his adventurous life. It was released in 2002, and drew gasps from Russian audiences for the private opulence it showed.

Before leaving Moscow for what he hoped in 2000 would be temporary exile, Berezovsky formed an opposition party, Liberal Russia, intended to unite leading businessmen and other devotees of a free market who felt that their interests were threatened by Putin. The party was plagued with splits and petered out. But politics - or more correctly, perhaps, politicking - remains Berezovsky's passion. He may be sustained financially in London by his extensive property portfolio and his oil interests, but it is opposition politics that is his true lifeblood.

He works out of an office in Mayfair that is imbued with a faint air of menace. A slight man, with features somewhat reminiscent - ironically - of Lenin, he employs large, surly bodyguards, a fleet of black-glassed 4x4s, reputedly armour plated, and commutes into town from his country estate in Surrey. He claims that the Russian authorities have tried to kill him at least three times and he is careful about public appearances. He travels mostly in convoy, altering his route and his drivers and speeding with apparent impunity.

He has been progressively shorn of his media interests in Russia. He sold his controlling stake in the Kommersant newspaper earlier this year, prompting speculation that he might need the money. His official political vehicle in Britain is a group curiously called the Civil Rights Foundation, which he seems to do little publicly to promote, but may channel money to opposition groups in the former USSR. Berezovsky boasted that he had funded Ukraine's Orange revolution.

If his attempts to foment revolution in and around Russia have so far failed, however, Berezovsky was hugely successful in insinuating himself into the clubs and salons of London. Suave and charming, he was lionised as a successful and wealthy opponent of the present regime in Russia. Always ready with flashy quotes, always game to appear on platforms to denounce his arch-foe, Vladimir Putin, he has proved almost as masterly an image-maker in his adopted country as he was in Russia. A Channel 4 documentary this year suggested he was singlehandedly responsible for the negative image of Putin's Russia that prevails among Britain's chattering classes.

There are signs, though, that his power is waning. His ability to mesmerise the great and good went into decline after the Chechen attack on Beslan. He is not confident enough in English to dominate a platform alone. And earlier this year, the then foreign secretary Jack Straw took the unusual step of warning him publicly that he must cease to advocate the violent overthrow of Putin or risk forfeiting his refugee status.

Russia would dearly love to get its hands on Berezovsky. Even after six years away, in Russia his name is still synonymous to many with the great privatisation swindle of the 1990s. And Putin would surely see his downfall as a personal triumph. Berezovsky, though, for all his scheming is a shrewd and cautious survivor. He keeps at arm's length from the action - a puppeteer invisibly pulling fewer and fewer strings.

A Life in Brief

BORN 23 January 1946, in Moscow.

FAMILY Six children by four marriages.

EDUCATION 1968: graduated from Moscow forestry engineering institute; 1983: doctorate in computer science, Moscow State University.

CAREER 1969-87: research fellow, Russian Academy of Sciences; 1989: used car business; 1992: buys into oil company Sibneft; 1995: buys into ORT; 1996: joins Yeltsin's re-election campaign; 1999: elected to Duma; 2000: sets up Liberal Russia party but, facing charges of embezzlement, flees to London; 2003: granted political asylum in Britain.

HE SAYS "I am very bad at understanding people. I don't know who is a traitor, who is good, who is bad. But I'm good at understanding process."

THEY SAY "He is not an easy person to work with because of his impulsive character and short attention span... But he is a phenomenon." - Alex Goldfarb

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