The Russian engineer and oligarch Boris Berezovsky (1946–2013) amassed a fortune in the years after the downfall of the Soviet Union in 1991. He emerged as an important behind-the-scenes presence in Russian politics in the 1990s, associating closely with both Russian president Boris Yeltsin and Yeltsin's protégé, Vladimir Putin. After Putin launched an investigation of his murky business practices, however, Berezovsky fled Russia, spending most of the rest of his life in Britain.
Boris Berezovsky serves as a prime example of the type of individual often characterized as an oligarch: a canny business operator, he understood how to turn quick profits in the chaotic atmosphere of the late 20th century, after the Soviet Union fell, along with its communist system, and produced the Russian Federation. Although he had been trained as an engineer and mathematician, Berezovsky made his fortune initially in the import and export of automobiles. Acquiring the Russian national airline, Aeroflot, and one of its largest television networks, he was able to boost the fortunes of the faltering Yeltsin as well as those of Putin. By 1997 he was estimated to be the world's ninth-richest man. Yet when the populistminded Putin came to power after winning Russia's 2000 presidential election, he began to investigate the dealings of the oligarchs and of Berezovsky in particular. Losing official privileges and under close scrutiny, Berezovsky settled in Britain and became a major Putin critic.
Boris Abramovich Berezovsky was born in Moscow, USSR, on January 23, 1946. He was of Jewish background but was not observant: while converting to the Russian Orthodox Church, he continued to identify himself as Jewish by nationality, at one point even taking (but later renouncing) Israeli citizenship. Berezovsky attended the Moscow Timber Institute, graduating with a degree in electronics and computer engineering. He then earned a master's degree in mechanics at Moscow State University, following this with a doctoral degree culminating with a thesis on decision theory. After brief stints in government research positions, Berezovsky joined the Institute for Control Science at the Russian Academy of Sciences, of which he was an official member, as a professor. He remained there from 1969 to 1987, publishing more than 100 papers, some of which attracted international attention.
By the late 1980s, Berezovsky's salary was 500 rubles a month—about $16. By now the Soviet Union was led by Mikhail Gorbachev, whose policy of glastnost, or “openness,” relaxed the rules pertaining to private businesses. Berezovsky joined many other Russian professionals in looking for new opportunities. Already having engineering contacts within the Soviet auto industry, he set up a chain of auto dealerships, something that had hardly existed previously. Called Logovaz, this chain imported foreign cars, resold Russian-made Ladas that had been exported cheaply, and timed transactions so as to profit handsomely from the wild currency fluctuations that followed the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991. By the time he met Russian president Boris Yeltsin in 1993, Berezovsky was already a multimillionaire.
Cultivating a friendship with Yeltsin's daughter Tatyana Dyachenko and paying for the publication of Yeltsin's biography, Berezovsky quickly moved to improve his position still further. As the national airline Aeroflot was spun off to private control, it was Berezovsky who came to control it. Other acquisitions included a large Siberian oil company called Sibneft as well as a majority share in Russia's ORT television network, which was also being spun off from government ownership. These moves made him enemies, and in 1994 Berezovsky survived an assassination attempt. Reportedly the work of Russian organized crime figures, his car was blown up as he left work, and his chauffeur was killed.
Cognizant of his enemies, Berezovsky also cultivated his friendships, particularly that with President Yeltsin. With Yeltsin trailing badly in the polls in 1996, the tycoon orchestrated nonstop positive coverage on ORT and sponsored pro-Yeltsin rock concerts, helping Yeltsin come from behind to win. In 1997 Berezovsky's personal fortune was estimated at $3 billion, a fact that did not go unnoticed. As reported in the London Independent, Russian politician Sergei Markov would later characterize Berezovsky as “a modern-day Rasputin, secretively manipulating the president and his entourage.”.
Berezovsky continued to exert a strong influence in Russian politics through the late 1990s. Putin named him deputy secretary of the Russian state security council, which put Berezovsky in charge of managing the conflict with the restive Chechnya region. He may have played both sides of the conflict; according to London Daily Telegraph writer Jeremy Nicholl, he funneled financing to separatist Chechen warlords. Berezovsky also served as executive secretary of the Commonwealth of Independent States, a loose confederation of former Soviet republics. In 1999, he was elected to the Russian duma, or parliament, representing the Karachayevo-Cherkesiya region.
By the time of his election to the duma, Berezovsky was becoming vulnerable. It was noted that he enriched himself personally even while heading failing enterprises, and when Yeltsin's health worsened and factions jockeyed for power, his secretive ways caused concern. After a raid on the offices of a security firm yielded audio and videotapes generated from spying operations against various politicians—including members of Yeltsin's family—press reports emerged stating that Berezovsky was the owner of the firm. His Kremlin access, the currency of his shadowy power, was consequently curtailed.
Berezovsky hit back, organizing a smear campaign against the state prosecutor then investigating him. During the 2000 election campaign, he supported Yeltsin's deputy Putin, deploying the resources of ORT to spread negative publicity about Putin's two main rivals. Although Putin won a substantial victory, as president he calculated that Berezovsky and the other oligarchs now posed a threat to his power. When his government launched new investigations into Berezovsky's financial dealings, the outraged businessman charged that Putin was plotting to turn Russia into an authoritarian state and abruptly resigned his parliamentary seat.
Under mounting pressure, Berezovsky left Russia in 2001 and landed in France. He soon moved to London, but the move did not bring an end to his legal problems. In 2002, the Russian government issued a warrant for Berezovsky's arrest on charges of money laundering and fraud related to the activities of Logovaz in the mid-1990s. The British police arrested him in March of 2003, but a British court rejected the extradition request and granted him political asylum. Berezovsky was later convicted in absentia in Russia for embezzling £4.3 million in Aeroflot company funds.
Public stresses and tensions took a toll on Berezovsky's personal life. He had married Nina Korotkova in 1970; the couple had two children before divorcing in 1991, and a second marriage to Galina Besharova also produced two children before ending in 2010. In Britain, Berezovsky wrangled with then-girlfriend Elena Gorbunova (with whom he had two more children) over proceeds from the sale of their home; when they broke up, she filed an $8 million lawsuit against him. Hemorrhaging money, Berezovsky began to liquidate his assets, including a limited-edition portrait of Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin by American pop artist Andy Warhol. Reports indicated that he also wrote to Putin and tried to arrange a return to Russia.
On March 23, 2013, Berezovsky was found dead in his home in Ascot, England, hanging with a favorite scarf around his neck. Knowing him to have been depressed over his worsening situation and to have asked others for advice on ending his life, British police concluded that the Russian businessman had committed suicide. His family disagreed, however, introducing evidence discovered by German expert Bernd Brinkmann, who asserted that the shape of the marks left on Berezovsky's neck were inconsistent with a self-inflicted injury. The inquest characterized the conclusion that he had committed suicide as an open verdict, a term in British death proceedings meaning that a death was suspicious, but that no wrongdoing could be proved.
Daily Telegraph (London, England), March 25, 2013, Jeremy Nicholl, “Russian Oligarch Who Played Rasputin in the Yeltsin Kremlin but Fell Foul of Vladimir Putin,” p. 35.
Independent (London, England), December 22, 2003, Mary Dejevsky, “The Monday Interview: Boris Berezovsky,” p. 13; March 25, 2013, “Boris Berezovsky,” p. 52.
New York Times, March 24, 2013, David M. Herszenhorn, “Russian Oligarch and Critic of Putin Dies in Britain,” p. A4.
Times (London, England), March 25, 2013, “Boris Berezovsky,” p. 44.
Globalsecurity.org , http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/russia/berezovsky.htm (July 4, 2017), “Boris Abramovich Berezovsky.”□