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.
Two years later, Mr. Berezovsky's business partner, Badri Patarkatsishvili, who had also fled Russia, died at his home in England. Although initially considered suspicious by police, the death was later determined to be due to heart failure.
HUGE LOSS IN COURT
In the past few years, Mr. Berezovsky's biggest battle was not with Mr. Putin. It involved another Russian billionaire, Roman Abramovich.
The two had been in business together in the 1990s as the Soviet Union collapsed, but their fortunes inside Russia took very different turns. While Mr. Berezovsky battled Mr. Putin and fled to London, Mr. Abramovich stayed in Moscow, kept clear of politics and now enjoys Mr. Putin's strong support. Along with numerous business interests in Russia and elsewhere, Mr. Abramovich is best known for owning the British soccer team Chelsea.
Fresh from a round of legal victories in London, including a failed attempt by Russia to extradite him, Mr. Berezovsky took his old partner to court in 2007, alleging Mr. Abramovich had used intimidation and threats in the 1990s to snatch control of Sibneft and Rusal. Mr. Berezovsky demanded $5.6-billion (U.S.) in compensation and felt certain of success.
Mr. Abramovich denied the allegations and countered with claims that Mr. Berezovsky never had a stake in the companies but demanded $1.3-billion in illicit payments in 2001 to ensure his patronage.
The case finally ended last August when Judge Elizabeth Gloster sided with Mr. Abramovich and threw out the case. In her ruling, she called Mr. Berezovsky delusional and "deliberately dishonest."
"I found Mr. Berezovsky an unimpressive, and inherently unreliable witness who regarded truth as a transitory, flexible concept," the judge added.
REVERSAL OF FORTUNE
The legal defeat and the damning words of Judge Gloster sent Mr. Berezovsky into a depression and crippled him financially, friends have said.
He reportedly spent around $100-million on legal bills and was ordered to pay almost $60-million toward Mr. Abramovich's legal costs. To cover the expenses, he sold a mansion in England, mortgaged his property in France, unloaded his reinforced Maybach limousine and sold off a Picasso and a Warhol.
"One of the reasons [for his depression] was his financial troubles, but he was worried about harassment by Russia and felt weighed down by the enormous amount of legal stuff," his spokesman Lord Tim Bell told reporters.
But others dismiss the depression theory, saying that while Mr. Berezovsky was down, he was not depressed. "Boris was a fighter, and suicide was just not in his DNA," his friend Yuri Felshtinsky told the Daily Mail. "Boris was looking to the future and did not seem to be suicidal. We spoke about his daughter."
His ex-wife, Galina Besharova, who owns the house where he died, suggested Mr. Berezovksy had been killed. "Boris was strangled," she reportedly told a friend after arriving at the home Saturday. (Mr. Berezovsky had three wives and six children and remained close to all of them.)
Another twist emerged Monday when a spokesman for the Kremlin said Mr. Berezovsky had written Mr. Putin recently. In the letter, Mr. Berezovsky "admits that he had made a lot of mistakes and asked to forgive him," said spokesman Dmitry Peskov. "He also asked Putin whether he could return."
One of Mr. Putin's major supporters, Sergei Markov, suggested British secret police had murdered Mr. Berezovsky, fearing he would return to Russia as a spy. And other reports surfaced that Mr. Abramovich had been arrested in the United States (he had not).
Local police in Britain are trying to stay clear of the many theories. "I would like to reiterate that we have no evidence of any third-party involvement at this stage," said Detective-Inspector Kevin Brown of the Thames Valley Police.
QUESTIONABLE INCIDENTS IN THE U.K.
A number of oligarchs and opposition figures from Russia have been making the United Kingdom their home, and questions have been raised about their safety. Here are some other U.K. incidents involving figures from – or involved with – the former Soviet Union:
Mr. Litvinenko, a former KGB agent turned fierce critic of the Kremlin, died after ingesting polonium in his tea at a London hotel in 2006. His family blames the Russian state for orchestrating his death, and British authorities have named former KGB officer and Russian lawmaker Andrei Lugovoi as their chief suspect. The Kremlin – and Mr. Lugovoi – deny being behind the poisoning, which drew headlines worldwide. Perhaps mindful of Mr. Litvinenko's experience, British police called in a hazardous materials team to examine Mr. Berezovsky's home. They later declared the property clear of hazardous materials.
Mr. Patarkatsishvili, an associate and confidant of Mr. Berezovsky, died in his mansion in southern England in February, 2008. Police initially said his death appeared suspicious but authorities later ruled the 52-year-old billionaire had succumbed to heart failure. Mr. Patarkatsishvili was active in Georgian politics, retained a small army of bodyguards, and often said he feared he would be targeted in an assassination attempt.
Mr. Perepilichnyy was found dead outside his plush home in southern England in November, 2012. He had been in possession of documents that allegedly blew the lid off a massive Russian tax fraud involving dirty money being funnelled into Swiss bank accounts. Postmortem examinations have so far failed to determine how the 44-year-old died. In a recent report, the BBC said he had had a checkup and was given a clean bill of health only months before his death.
Described by author Mark Hollingsworth as "the lawyer who knew too much," Mr. Curtis died when his helicopter crashed in poor weather on its way to his 19th-century retreat in southern England in March, 2004. Investigators ruled the crash was an accident, but Mr. Curtis was a big player in the murky world of Russian banking and had been receiving death threats.
The Russian businessman was shot six times in London's Canary Wharf financial district in March, 2011. Mr. Gorbuntsov – who survived – blames disgruntled business associates for the attack. So far no one has been brought to justice.
The Associated Press