In the wild world of Russian oligarchs, Boris Berezovsky was among the wildest, gloating over the semi-legal schemes that made him a billionaire in the 1990s and vowing to overthrow the Kremlin from exile in London.
Berezovsky’s career traced the arc of Russian society from the dawn of free enterprise in the Soviet Union’s dying days to the oligarch-dominated 1990s, followed by the return of state control in the first decade of the new millenium.
It was then that the man who rose to become the Kremlin’s “grey cardinal” under Boris Yeltsin had a change of fortune.
Vladimir Putin began his presidency in 2000 by warning that the heyday of super-rich powerbrokers was over.
Berezovsky, who had backed Putin’s candidacy before realising his mistake, quickly saw the writing on the wall and fled into exile in November 2000, just in time to escape arrest on fraud charges.
In London, he became the Kremlin’s greatest nemesis, mockingly defying years of attempts to extradite him. He emerged from an extradition hearing in 2003 wearing a Putin mask, and told journalists: “Call me Vladimir Vladimirovich.”
He then spent years supporting the Moscow opposition against Putin, although his name had been discredited among many Russians, and those who received his funding attempted to hide any links to his name.
As his fortunes dried up on a lavish lifestyle and a posse of bodyguards, one of Berezovsky’s final acts was to wage an extraordinary legal battle in London in 2012 against fellow oligarch Roman Abramovich which exposed the dirty secrets of Russia’s big business in the first post-Soviet years.
Berezovsky lost the suit and with it the reported hundreds of millions of dollars he spent on his legal team. He spent the final months of his life selling his old houses and even paintings, including a famous Andy Warhol print called Red Lenin.
Born January 23, 1946, in Moscow, Berezovsky graduated from a Moscow forestry institute in 1968. For nearly two decades he led a quiet academic career that gave little sign of the meteoric rise that would follow.
When perestroika reforms in the late 1980s brought a modest tolerance for free enterprise, Berezovsky leapt at the opportunity, becoming a car dealer for state auto giant AvtoVAZ.
Within a matter of years, he was a multi-millionaire through what the government later alleged was a dirty scheme — and, in the era of “wild capitalism,” also a target. In 1995 he narrowly escaped an assassination attempt that decapitated his driver.
He seized on the Western-style media obsession that flooded into the new Russia, building a news empire that included shares in two national television networks and several respected newspapers.
His media might was key in 1996, when he banded a group of oligarchs together to lift Boris Yeltsin from single-digit approval ratings to victory in his re-election campaign against Communist Gennady Zyuganov in a matter of a few weeks.
“It is no secret that Russian businessmen played the decisive role in President Yeltsin’s victory,” Berezovsky later told Forbes magazine. “It was a battle for our blood interests.”
In return, Yeltsin granted them huge swathes of national industries at a fraction of their value, ballooning their wealth and spawning a popular hatred among many Russians that endures to this day.
Berezovsky reaped political rewards as well. Yeltsin named him deputy head of the powerful Security Council and chief negotiator with Chechnya shortly after it had won independence from Moscow in a brutal war.
He used his new political connections to expand into the lucrative energy business, and owned 80 percent of oil company Sibneft by the late 1990s.
But his most significant political move was the one that inadvertently sealed his fate: helping Yeltsin choose then-secret services chief Putin as Russia’s second president.
Berezovsky quickly became a key target of Putin’s crackdown on the oligarchs’ political independence. He fled the country and fired back with his entire media arsenal, painting the new president as a budding dictator.
In return, the state stripped him of his television holdings and tried for years to win his extradition from Britain — even after he won political asylum in 2003.
Prosecutors first charged he had defrauded the state of billions of dollars via his car dealing business.
Graver accusations followed after he told AFP in a January 2006 interview that he was spending his billions on “preparing to take power by force in Russia,” a shadowy threat he repeated in later years.
He also became the centre of a circle of anti-Putin exiles in London, including Chechen rebel envoy Akhmed Zakayev and former Russian agent Alexander Litvinenko, whose poisoning death Berezovsky blamed on Putin.
But whatever coup plans he may have set in motion, his dream of returning to the halls of Kremlin power was no more successful than the Kremlin’s hope to see him in a jail cell.
Post-Soviet Russia’s ultimate insider ended his days on the outside.