A LIFE OF INTRIGUE
Boris Berezovsky led a life of intrigue and now his death is proving equally colourful.
When one of his bodyguards found the Russian oligarch dead in the bathroom of a mansion in Ascot, England, on Saturday, speculation swirled. Was it suicide brought on by depression over a crushing court case? Was he murdered by Russian agents who had been after him for years? Or did he die of natural causes?
The plot deepened when paramedics arriving on the scene detected the presence of radiation, prompting a call for a special hazardous materials unit and a three-kilometre police cordon around the house, which belonged to one of Mr. Berezovsky’s ex-wives. The cordon was lifted a few hours later when no dangerous material was found.
Late Monday, British police announced the results of an autopsy, saying the cause of death was consistent with hanging and that “there was nothing to indicate a violent struggle.” That likely won’t end all the speculation and police said more tests will be done, including toxicology.
Mr. Berezovsky, 67, certainly had enemies and he had survived two assassination attempts, including a car bomb that decapitated his driver. His most powerful foe by far was Russian President Vladimir Putin. The two had battled each other for years, with Mr. Berezovsky once saying he wanted to fund a revolution to overthrow Mr. Putin, and Mr. Putin going after the Russian exile for fraud and money laundering.
RISE OF A POWER BROKER
Mr. Berezovsky was once one of the most powerful men in Russia, rising from a lowly math professor to become a billionaire kingmaker who helped bring Mr. Putin to power.
Born in Moscow in 1946, he studied mathematics and spent most of the Soviet years in academia. When communism collapsed in the early 1990s, Mr. Berezovsky found his way into a lucrative car business and then took over broadcaster ORT.
The key to his later success and exorbitant wealth was befriending then-president Boris Yeltsin. He published Mr. Yeltsin’s memoirs, paying him a gigantic fee even though few of the books ever sold, and used ORT to help Mr. Yeltsin win re-election in 1996. The friendship brought Mr. Berezovsky untold benefits, from political appointments to lucrative spoils as assets of the Soviet regime were stripped away by greedy business people. Mr. Berezovsky and his partners managed to win stakes in oil giant Sibneft, aluminum maker Rusal, newspaper Kommersant, airline Aeroflot and a multitude of holdings around the world. He also allegedly earned hundreds of millions of dollars in payments known as krysha, which means “roof” and were essentially bribes to ensure his patronage and influence.
As Mr. Yeltsin’s health failed in the late 1990s, Mr. Berezovsky was among those who encouraged Mr. Putin, then head of the FSB, the successor to the KGB, to become President. But soon after Mr. Putin took over in 2000, Mr. Berezovsky’s troubles began.
EXILE TO BRITAIN
Within weeks of becoming acting president on Dec. 31, 1999, Mr. Putin made it clear oligarchs like Mr. Berezovsky were no longer in favour.
The new President ordered Mr. Berezovsky to sell ORT or go to jail. Mr. Putin brought criminal charges against him later, alleging embezzlement in the takeover of Aeroflot. With police closing in, Mr. Berezovsky fled, first to France and then Britain, which granted him asylum in 2003. He was convicted in abstentia in Russia.
Once in London, Mr. Berezovsky created a political foundation and launched blistering attacks on Mr. Putin. In 2006, he took out full-page ads in British and U.S. newspapers to condemn then-president George W. Bush’s warm relationship with Mr. Putin. A year later he told the Guardian newspaper: “It isn’t possible to change this [Putin] regime through democratic means. There can be no change without force, pressure.” When asked if he was talking about funding a revolution, he replied: “You are absolutely correct.”
One of his long-time friends was Alexander Litvinenko, also a Russian exile, who died in London in 2006 after being poisoned with radioactive polonium that had been put in his tea. Mr. Berezovsky immediately blamed Russian security police. The Kremlin denied the allegations.