Russian dissident and author Alex Goldfarb, who knew the late Boris Berezovsky, writes about the oligarch’s now-infamous British court case against Roman Abramovich, his Kremlin intrigues, his Chechen peace-making abilities, his patronage of Vladimir Putin, and his love of women. –Ed.
What women loved him for, and why Putin didn’t love him; he could reach an agreement with the Chechens but not with Abramovich. And still, he died…A version of the story by Alexander Goldfarb, author of the book, Sasha, Volodya, Boris: The Story of a Murder.
The death of Boris Berezovsky was instantly surrounded by guesses, rumors and conspiracy theories, just like his life. The Russian federal TV channels claim that MI-6, British intelligence, killed him. Supposedly after learning he planned to return to Moscow and from there expose the Brits’ anti-Russian plots, they struck a warning blow.
Anti-regime conspiracy theorists believe that Russian intelligence agencies are behind the staging of the suicide; they needed Berezovsky dead precisely in order to claim that MI-6 killed him.
Psychologists and Putinologists explain the death of the oligarch out of favor by the maniacal vengeful dictator; like Stalin with Trotsky, Putin could not rest while his former comrade-at-arms, now an enemy, was walking the earth, personifying the limits of his might.
More romantic natures look for the reason for his suicide in betrayal by the women he loved.
All of this is nonsense, even if behind each of these theories there is a certain logic flowing from the circumstances of the moment. But Boris committed suicide because he suffered from deep depression, which is just as much an illness as high blood pressure or heart disease or cancer. Perhaps a good doctor and the right medications could have saved him. But there were none available and the illness rolled on to its denouement, like a train without breaks, from the moment that the verdict was announced in the London High Court in the case of Berezovsky v. Abramovich. Everything that happened to him in the last six months, including his repentant letter to Putin (if there really was one) is none other than the symptoms of a disease. Berezovsky writing such a letter, like Berezovsky putting his head into a noose — that’s not Berezovsky, that’s a man in the paws of the “big black dog” as Winston Churchill called his own depression.
If we are to speak of anyone to blame for his death, of course there is Justice Elizabeth Gloster, whose sentence turned out to be a death sentence. And don’t let anyone threaten me with accusations of “contempt of court” — it was all done according to the law. The law is a cunning thing. Sometimes a murderer is let go under the law because he was not properly read his rights upon arrest. And under the law, Lady Gloster had the right to personally judge who she believed more — Boris Abramovich or Roman Arkadyevich; and in fact she did judge. Also completely in accordance with the law, she was not supposed to take into account that behind Roman Arkadyevich stood Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, because he is the state, and the state cannot be a respondent in a British court. So she did not take it into account.
Unquestionably, Boris should have requested she recuse herself, when he had such an opportunity. At the beginning of the hearings, she announced a conflict of interests: her son was a highly-paid lawyer on Abramovich’s team. But Boris said: “She’s a British lady. Objectivity and fairness are the essence of what is British. If she sees that I trust her objectivity, then she will be objectively predisposed to me to the maximum. Because I am telling the truth.” And he didn’t request a recusal. As a result, the law and the truth turned out to be on different sides of her verdict.
That was totally Boris. He was seduced by people and idealized the world. And every case when the world displayed its less ideal essence was a shock for him. “I’m extremely surprised,” he said, coming out of the court, “particularly because Lady Gloster undertook to rewrite Russian history.”
The full stop that Lady Gloster placed in the biography of Berezovsky in the historical scheme of things looks entirely bland. In October in London, another trial will take place where Justice Sir Robert Owen will provide a “judicial review” of the Putin reign — what Boris tried to get — trying to prove the fact of the [corporate] raiders’ seizure of his shares. This time, the question of the murder of his close comrade-at-arms will be discussed: the “possible role of the Russian state” in the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko by radioactive polonium will be reviewed. And then in some number of years, when the biography of Putin himself is concluded, future generations will discover that Berezovsky had no reasons to hang himself: the verdict of history will correct the verdict of Lady Gloster, and everyone will be in their proper places.
After the trial, I tried to convince him that “it wasn’t over yet,” but such arguments failed to impress Boris. He was not working for history; he lived for the present. For him it was an unbearable feeling that the British, who for him were personified in the lady in the judge’s mantle, had repudiated him. The meaning of his existence consisted in winning minds and hearts and attracting delighted admirers; this lay at the foundation of his self-esteem. After winning a half-dozen lawsuits and receiving the merited title of “the main opponent of the Putin regime,” in London he was so confident that “the British are for him” that his defeat completely destroyed the picture of the world he had drawn himself.
He had not prepared any back-up plans in either the financial or emotional sense. He had never even entertained thoughts of defeat. Many years ago, when he was riding high — the preparation for the presidential elections of 1996 were under way, and according to all the polls, Yeltsin was supposed to suffer a devastating defeat from the Communists, I asked him: “Boris, and what will happen if you lose? You will be hung on the first lamp post. You should at least get your family out.” “I don’t think of that at all,” he replied. “You can’t get involved in a fight thinking that you may be beaten.”
But if it weren’t for Berezovsky, there would be President Zyuganov in Russia now.
For those who don’t remember, Boris appeared in big politics in early 1996, rallying around Yeltsin the demoralized reformers like Anatoly Chubais and oligarchs with their bags packed like Pavel Gusinsky and Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and the main thing was that he convinced Yeltsin himself of the possibility of victory.
This insane daring — refusal to even think about losing when everyone said that it was inevitable — inspired and drew supporters to him. It was no accident that when at the height of the election campaign, the Chekists [Russian intelligence] in the person of Alexander Korzhakov, head of the Federal Security Service, and Nikolai Barsukov, head of the FSB, tried to stage a coup, in order to make Oleg Soskovets president, the reformers flocked to Berezovsky at the Club on Novokuznetsky St. in order to be together when they began to be taken.
That night Berezovsky managed to put into motion the two main resources of Russian politics of the 1990s: the federal television channels and the president’s daughter, Tatyana. Without him, the siloviki [strong men] would have buried Russian democracy seven years before Putin did.
People will say to me: what sort of democracy is it when everything is decided by a dozen oligarchs and palace intrigues? And I will tell you: the kind of democracy you have in such a country. When democracy was formed 800 years ago by the British in the form of the Magna Carta, there was also only palace intrigues and a dozen stubborn barons. In the political and legal sense, Russian is not so far from England in the 18th century. That was exactly what Boris had in mind when he said that the “semibankirshchina” [the seven bankers reminiscent of the semiboyarshchina or seven boyars of Russian history] — the club of Yeltsin oligarchs — were the bastion of freedom.
“Our critics should not forget that a strong civil society and middle class which serves as the bastion of freedom in the West is absent in Russia,” he explained in an article in the Washington Post [in 2000]. “On the other hand, we have Communists and former KGB agents who hate democracy and are dreaming of a revanche. The only counterweights to them are the new capitalists who in exceptional situations consider it possible or even necessary to directly interfere in the political process.”
In becoming involved in politics, Berezovsky did not seek popularity among the masses, which he considered a pointless exercise. One of his favorite quotations was the saying by Marina Tsvetaeva, “The notion of the basic falsehood of money is ineradicable from the Russian soul.” He made virtually no effort to explain the sources of his wealth in reply to charges that it had been “stolen from the people.”
In reality, his wealth emerged when the market capitalization of Sibneft jumped 20 times in an hour as a result of Yeltsin’s victory in 1996, which Boris himself had engineered. Before that, the company was not worth even those millions which came into its coffers during the tax auction. Chief privatizer Chubais designated the starting price, but no buyers were in sight who would line up for this bargain.
Boris didn’t have this kind of money, but he ran around the world in search of sponsors. “Your shares aren’t worth anything,” George Soros told him in my presence half a year before the elections. “The Communists will come and take everything away. You should think better how to save yourself.” In the end, Roma Abramovich came up with the money from who knows where in exchange for a 50% stake — $100 million, which in ten years turned into $13 billion.
Abramovich, like Chubais, Gusinsky and Tatyana Dyachenko [Yeltsin’s daughter] all trusted Boris, seduced by his charms and did not regret it. Yeltsin’s victory in 1996 was his hour of triumph.
His next victory came in the Russian-Chechen peace agreement in May 1997, the preparation for which Boris was responsible as deputy secretary of the Security Council.
The context consisted of the fact that Yeltsin fired General Alexander Lebed from the post of secretary of the Security Council for “Bonapartism,” as a result of which the Chechen portfolio was without a minister. It was necessary to translate the Khasavyurt Agreement to a cease-fire signed by Lebedev into diplomatic and practical language: to come to agreement with [Chechen leader Aslan] Maskhadov on a withdrawal of troops, holding of elections, guarantee of security, exchange of prisoners, taxes, pensions, a banking system and so on. On both sides, hawks opposed the peace process; in Moscow, this was the “war party” in the army and power ministries; in Chechnya it was the field commanders, terrorists and Wahhabists.
Why Boris then got involved in Chechen affairs to this day remains for me a mystery. He personally got nothing out of this — it was only a headache and one not without its dangers. Once he invited me to fly off to Grozny for the latest round of talks, and I was frightened for life finding myself in a room with fierce people armed to the teeth with black beards and green bandanas, without a single Russian soldier in the district.
“Why are you doing this? Is there really no one else in Moscow to do this?” I asked him on the flight back. “Imagine, there isn’t anyone,” he replied. “People in epaulets can’t be trusted at all, they all want a war again. And then the Chechens trust me. So Boris Nikolayevich [Yeltsin] asked me.”
The Chechens really did trust him. Nobody, except him, who headed unarmed into Salman Raduev’s camp could exchange 22 OMON [Interior Ministry soldiers] from Penza who were being held hostage for a Philippe Patek watch.
Peace with Chechnya made Boris the most hated figure for those “people in epaulets”. His battle with the intelligence agencies in 1998 brought to the stage two people who were destined to become central to the drama of subsequent events: Sasha and Volodya — Litvinenko and Putin.
After conclusions of the Chechen peace, Yeltsin had to increase control over the FSB, the nest of disgruntled siloviki. And here one of the people who had fallen for the charm of his personality, Lt. Sasha Litvinenko, who had been sent by the FSB chiefs to follow Boris, came to Berezovsky. Sasha came for help. Not long before that, he had been transferred to a new sub-division — the department of “extrajudicial retaliations” and he and another five colleagues were afraid that in the end they might be made extreme. Sasha reported that the chiefs were talking about how it was time to liquidate Berezovsky himself — an enemy of Russia, a Jew, and the patron of Chechen bandits. Boris immediately engineered a clever caper, and not three months went by before the FSB had a purge, the infamous sub-division was dismantled, and Putin, unknown to anyone, was appointed director — to implement the presidential oversight.
The interrelations inside and among the triangle of Sasha-Volodya-Boris, which ended with the polonium murder of Litvinenko and Berezovsky’s suicide on the banks of the Thames rise to the level of a Shakespearean drama not only because the backdrop includes untold wealth, the fate of the throne and the relations of states but because of the clash of characters and the play of passions; here there are loyalty, and betrayal, and revenge.
A half year after Sasha helped Volodya [Putin] become director of the FSB, Putin put Litvinenko in prison in order to win the trust of his new subordinates, and Boris has to spend a long time getting him out of there. A half year later. Boris introduces Volodya into the circle of the deciders of the fate of the state, known under the name of “The Family”. Besides Boris, who played the first fiddle, the Family consisted of the president’s daughter, Tatyana, her friend Valentin Yumashev, Roma Abramovich and Sasha Voloshin — Boris’ former stock broker and now head of the administration.
The Family decides to make Volodya president. When Boris first announces this, Putin was afraid. “I can’t, I won’t mange!” But Boris convinces him with the help of two arguments: “There’s no one else, Volodya! If not you, the country will go to [former Prime Minister Yevgeny] Primakov, who will destroy everything that has been created in ten years” and “We’ll help you.”
And then Boris committed an unthinkable political technological breakthrough: within a matter of weeks, out of nothing, he created the Yedinstvo [Unity] Party and convinces a critical mass of governors to join it. This ensured victory for the Yeltsin camp in the parliamentary elections of 1999 and guaranteed Putin the presidency. Boris was so certain of his victory that immediately after New Year’s he went on vacation.
Among military people, unlike simple mortals, a particular form of male love occurs, that has nothing to do with sexual orientation — it’s the love of a soldier for his commander (recall the song Batyanya-Kombat about the commander of a battalion). The commander rightfully depends on the love of his subordinates and in turn he loves his own commander. Both Sasha and Volodya, as military people, loved Boris in their own way because he was like the battalion commander for them. But once he was president, Volodya himself turned into the commander and demanded that Boris now love him. But Boris, as a civilian, didn’t love anyone except his women.
Returning from far-off lands to Moscow for Volodya’s inauguration, Berezovsky found he was dealing with a different person. This person demanded oaths of loyalty on bended knee, but Boris didn’t show any love; on the contrary, he tried to command him as he had in the old days. A conflict ensued — first, over the war in Chechnya, then over the Kremlin’s attack of the governors and then over the Kursk submarine.
The Family had fallen apart by that time. Tatyana and Yumashev lost all influence, and quietly departed from the scene, but Roma and Voloshin, seeing how Boris’ arrogance irritated Volodya told him the words he wanted to hear: “Oh, great tsar, we are your scorned servants, don’t order punishment, order mercy!” And they told him that what Boris was shouting about — democracy, freedom, rights, property — were false, hostile values and that the true love of the people is achieved through observing national traditions which have no relationship to freedom and democracy, which, in fact, is the pure truth. Boris’ days were numbered.
How could he fail to see what Putin was about? Why, he stunk of KGB a mile away! Most likely, Boris was sold on him for love. At first Putin really was in awe of him, not understanding much of what he was saying, and loved him as an older, smarter brother. Or pretended to love him.
Boris in general was susceptible to love. He loved all his women, the submission and conquering of whom was his first priority — more important than politics or money. But they? What did they see in him, hardly a handsome Hollywood star?
Don’t believe the cynics who say that this was banal love for money or some tangible goods. Power, fame, success and wealth are attractive in a man in themselves, without writing them over to your name. It is believed that love gives a woman an opportunity to feel herself a tsarina. Boris had in his hands the real reins of power of the tsardom and he continued to make that impression even when he lost them. That is why they loved him.
If someone does not believe that the love of beautiful women can be built on the attractive magical energy of History, re-read Boris Godunov, the scene where Marina Mnishek declares her love to Gregory the monk, the pretender to the Russian throne.
I will be told that Grigory was not the tsar’s son, but an imposter. But I will say that even Godunov was not a legitimate tsar.
[And as the last line of the opera Boris Godunov says], “and the people are hushed,” as always.