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The archetypal oligarch

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In a Russian film, The Oligarch (2006), the alter ego of Boris Berezovsky escapes death and returns to Moscow in a cavalcade of limousines with flashing lights, looking for more adventures.

The life of the real Berezovsky, a renegade oligarch exiled to Britain, ended on March 23 on a bathroom floor in his house in Ascot. He was said to be depressed, financially ruined and desperate to return to Russia.

"There is nothing I want more than to return to Russia... I lost the meaning... I am 67 years old and I don’t know what to do next," he had told a reporter from Forbes a day earlier.

According to the Kremlin, Berezovsky recently had written a repentant letter to President Vladimir Putin, whom he had helped achieve power 13 years ago, only to be kicked out by him immediately afterward.

The cause of his death is unclear. A bodyguard who discovered Berezovsky said that the bathroom door was locked from the inside. There was no sign of struggle or forced entry into the house, the police said. The post-mortem examination found the cause of death to be "consistent with hanging." Apparently a scarf was found next to Berezovsky’s body. Whatever the cause, this was a dramatic end to the dramatic life of one of the most colourful figures in modern Russian history.

It was a life that Berezovsky had constructed himself, scheming, calculating and miscalculating. A mathematician by background, Berezovsky specialized in the theory of decision-making and in optimization, using math to model how choices are made. He applied those models to his life, and even to the country, as though it were a chessboard on which he moved the main pieces.

He fancied himself as the chief manipulator of Russian politics, not the country’s most prominent politician, but the puppet-master of the politicians. He cherished his image as the ultimate oligarch. He cultivated the myths about his influence and power, and exploited them to obtain real power, money and influence. A man of demonic energy, he was ubiquitous.

As an archetypal oligarch, he provided rich material to writers and filmmakers. By the time he left Russia in 2000, the line between the real man and the mythological character had become blurred. Berezovsky did not protest, and even borrowed part of the name of his film character for his British passport. His image as a supreme fixer made it easy for the Kremlin to demonize him, and thus his death has deprived Russia’s leadership of its most useful enemy.

Berezovsky epitomized the 1990s with all the opportunities, ruthlessness, colour and individualism of those years. He thrived on uncertainty and crisis, surviving several assassination attempts and expanded his influence. He took advantage of the chaos that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union and the inadequacies of the market economy. Unlike other Russian oligarchs who wished to own their assets and be able to pass them on, Berezovsky did not formally own much of what he controlled. He operated not through share registers, but through people he appointed as managers of his key enterprises.

Berezovsky saw money not as a goal in itself, but as a byproduct of his main activity: scheming and playing politics. The process was as pleasing to him as the result. Like an alchemist, he turned personal connections into money and money into influence.

Having made his first fortune by selling cars, he got to know the future son-in-law of Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s first president after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and thus entered the circles of power. Berezovsky paid for the publication of Yeltsin’s memoirs and regularly delivered Yeltsin royalties from sales in other countries — whether real or not, nobody knew.

He persuaded Yeltsin and his family to hand him effective control over Channel One, Russia’s main television channel, promising to turn it to their service. He then convinced the Kremlin to sell him and his partners Sibneft, an oil company, at a bargain price, in order to finance Channel One, which he used as a blunt and effective tool of propaganda.

"I never saw the media as a business, but as a powerful instrument in a political struggle," he said in one television interview.

He also deployed Channel One in his wars with business competitors.

In 1996 Berezovsky got Russia’s seven oligarchs to rally behind Yeltsin, throwing their financial and media resources into his re-election. A few years later Berezovsky played a key role in choosing Yeltsin’s successor and used his money and television to propel Putin to the presidency. He publicized his influence so openly that it was, perhaps, inevitable that his protege would turn against him. Berezovsky was persuaded that emigration would be wise. Having disposed of him, the Kremlin adopted his methods, including the use of television.

As an exile in London, Berezovsky tried to seek revenge, but his belligerence only played into the Kremlin’s hands. His last gamble was a lawsuit involving his $5 billion claim against a former business partner, Roman Abramovich. A High Court judge in London found Berezovsky "an unimpressive, and inherently unreliable, witness" and ruled against him. The verdict left him with multimillion-dollar legal bills, and psychologically crushed.

It was not so much the loss of money that destroyed Berezovsky, but the loss of the game of which he thought himself a master. Like the chess grandmaster in Vladimir Nabokov’s The Defence (1930), who abandons the game by jumping out of the bathroom window, Berezovsky may have felt that he had run out of moves.


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