In Russia, no love lost over late 'evil genius' Boris Berezovsky

Russians see the oligarch, who was found dead this weekend in Britain, as a slash-and-grab businessman and founder of Russia's 'model of criminal capitalism.'

Sang Tan/AP/File
Russian tycoon Boris Berezovsky talks to the media last August after losing his case against Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich as he leaves the High Court in London. British police said that Mr. Berezovsky was found dead on Saturday.

Whatever British police may finally conclude about the manner of Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky's death Saturday at his home near London, most Russians say that they won't be grieving over him. 

After all, most see him as the man who pioneered the brand of "bandit capitalism" that plunged Russia into mass poverty and social decline during the 1990s, while a handful of clever, Kremlin-connected schemers made off with the former Soviet economy's crown jewels.

Even many anti-Kremlin liberals whom Mr. Berezovsky courted, and often claimed to speak for, said they couldn't think of anything positive to say about him Monday. The opposition weekly Novaya Gazeta gave him his most dignified sendoff in the Russian press, saying in an editorial that "he viewed Russia as a chess board, but one on which only he would be allowed to move the pieces."

The rest of Russia's mass media, for whom Berezovsky has played the role of devil incarnate since he fell out with leader Vladimir Putin and fled to Britain about a dozen years ago, had a field day slamming him one last time in their obituaries.

The state-run Channel One TV network, which reaches the entire country, branded him an "evil genius" whose fraudulent business scams combined with sociopathic personal charisma corrupted the Kremlin and bled the country's economy dry in the 1990s. The Moscow daily Komsomolskaya Pravda depicted him as a "clever, cunning, and resourceful" manipulator of powerful people and "a master of chaos." Moskovsky Komsomolets, a popular Moscow tabloid, described him as a "giant spider who managed to entangle so many top officials in his web."

Berezovsky, a successful Soviet-era mathematician-turned-entrepreneur, demonstrated a flair for turning a fortune from the twilight days of the Soviet Union, when he set up the first ever private automobile dealership, named Logovaz, in 1989. Logovaz, which purchased cars from the giant, failing Soviet automaker AvtoVaz at a fixed state price and flipped them to car-hungry Soviet consumers at high market prices, also demonstrated what was to become Berezovsky's trademark style.

The model criminal capitalist

As Paul Klebnikov, the former editor of Forbes-Russia – since assassinated by persons unknown – described in his 2001 book "The Godfather of the Kremlin," Berezovsky was a pioneering Russian-style corporate raider. He mastered the use of political leverage to take control over troubled assets, which he milked for profits and then discarded. A 1996 Forbes profile of Berezovsky by Mr. Klebnikov outlines this record with chilling clarity.

That meticulously-reported story and the book that followed also suggest why some people continue to speculate that it might have been Berezovsky who ordered the journalist Klebnikov gunned down on a Moscow street in 2004.

"In the 1990s, Berezovsky was the architect, ideologist, and practitioner of the model of criminal capitalism – the merger of power and wealth – that is still very much with us," says Andrei Piontkovsky, a longtime liberal activist and political analyst.

"It's the kind of business activity that's only possible with the participation of top leaders to manipulate the playing field. Berezovsky did more than anyone to create and shape this system," he says.

While industries died and ordinary Russians went without wages for months at a time, Berezovsky and his fellow tycoons gave the world an image of the "New Russian" as a slash-and-grab businessman, steeped in criminality, who cares nothing for the sufferings of the majority or the degradation of his country but is always ready to squander money on any wild extravagance.

"Berezovsky lived what we might call the post-Soviet dream, though for most of us it more resembled a nightmare," says Sergei Strokan, a columnist with the pro-business Moscow daily Kommersant. "He was one of the first to figure out how to convert his skills, his intelligence, into power and money. And he conducted his affairs ruthlessly."

"At a time when many Russians were literally starving, and our country was falling apart, he was throwing lavish parties, handing out gold watches to friends as if they were candies, buying yachts and other baubles, and giving self-important interviews to foreign journalists filled with platitudes about democracy and the market economy," Mr. Strokan says. "But basically, he was a fraud. He stole everything he had, and built nothing. He was fishing in murky waters, and this is how he built his entire career. For me, he was not so much a person as a phenomenon."

'He created Putin'

Berezovsky was instrumental in convincing fledgling Russian business tycoons to rally around former President Boris Yeltsin in 1996, when he faced a strong electoral challenge from Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov. That election, which Mr. Yeltsin may not have actually won, pioneered all the dirty tricks that have featured in Russian polls ever since.

Following Yeltsin's return to the Kremlin, Berezovsky and several other "oligarchs" took high government posts, which they used to consolidate and advance their business interests. But as the regime of the ailing Yeltsin crumbled following a horrendous financial crash in 1998, Berezovsky is credited by many experts with conceiving and executing "operation naslednik (successor)," which identified, groomed, and promoted Mr. Putin to take Yeltsin's place.

"Berezovsky created Putin," says Mr. Piontkovsky, the political analyst.

"He was the main instigator of 'operation naslednik,' which made a national hero out of an obscure and mediocre bureaucrat. The main instrument used was war," he says.

After a series of still-unexplained apartment bombings that killed hundreds of people in Moscow and other cities in their sleep in the autumn of 1999, then-Prime Minister Putin ordered Russian forces to invade the rebel republic of Chechnya. The terror, which still haunts many Russians, followed by a long and brutal war in Chechnya, galvanized Russians behind the tough-talking former KGB agent, Putin. Yelsin stepped down on New Year's Eve 1999 and Putin became acting president. A few months later he was elected president.

But things did not work out for Berezovsky, who had apparently believed he could manipulate Putin as he had the aging and not-always-sober Yeltsin.

"Berezovsky's weak point was his fascination for power. He was sure he could control Putin, but that was a big mistake," says Edvard Radzinsky, a famous Russian playwright and biographer of many historical Russian leaders.

When Putin ordered the oligarchs to abstain from politics, Berezovsky defied him. He and another disobedient tycoon, media mogul Vladimir Gusinsky, were hounded into exile and stripped of their properties. Britain granted Berezovsky political asylum in 2001.

A useful boogeyman

From his perch in exile, Berezovsky continued to fund Kremlin opponents and give speeches about the need to fight for democracy in his homeland.

"Berezovsky made a frightening impression on everyone, including me," says Gleb Pavlovsky, a former Kremlin insider and close adviser to Putin during his first two terms in office.

"I suppose his personal views were liberal-democratic, but he never actually acted as a democrat. Official propaganda learned a lot from Berezovsky – shameless assertions, bullying, aggressiveness. Nobody will ever want their kids to be like him."

During his last years, Berezovsky was arguably more useful for the Kremlin as a political boogeyman than he was a threat. The Kremlin found ways to insinuate that Berezovsky was to blame for the 2006 murder of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya as well as the radiation death of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko in London the same year.

"Berezovsky was widely hated in Russia, so that made him a useful tool of Putin's propaganda. Any unsolved crime could be hung on Berezovsky. That's why I don't believe the rumors that Russian secret services might have killed him. He was too useful," says Piontkovsky.

Many Russians who knew Berezovsky say he leaves nothing but a bad taste.

"I worked with him. I know how he could employ his personal charisma to exploit people, to use them up and throw them away," says Alexei Mukhin, director of the independent Center for Political Information in Moscow.

"Now that he's gone, everybody can see the truth. No Berezovsky, no magic."

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