The circumstances of Boris Berezovsky’s tragic death seem clear enough. A depressed man, a locked bathroom, bruises on the neck. Berezovsky’s bodyguard discovered him lying fully dressed on the floor, 17 hours after he had last seen Boris alive. There was no note.
The bodyguard became concerned when he spotted Berezovsky’s mobile phone lying on the table. Uncharacteristically, there were missed calls. He went upstairs, broke down the door, and found his boss on the floor. “He touched Boris’s hand. It was cold. He called the police,” Berezovsky’s friend Yuli Dubov, who arrived at the scene at 5pm that day, says.
On Sunday, Thames Valley police gave their provisional account of what had befallen the 67-year-old Russian oligarch. Detectives said they were talking to his friends and family – code for the fact that he had been visibly depressed, following his crushing high court defeat to Roman Abramovich last year. (In another twist, Abramovich was wrongly reported to have been arrested in the US on Monday.)
Most crucially, they ruled out “third-party involvement at this stage”. Their findings, expressed in cautious police prose, all point to suicide rather than foul play. Berezovsky’s swirling problems – personal, political and financial – had conjoined and driven him to the desperate act of taking his own life, the police hinted.
And yet, three days after his death, some of the tycoon’s grieving family and friends remain deeply unconvinced by this version of events. Rather, they strongly suspect he was murdered. “I will never believe in the natural death of Boris Berezovsky,” Nikolai Glushkov, a Russian exile and close friend, says.
Gluskov adds: “The idea that he would have taken his own life is bullshit. I saw him the day that Mrs Justice Gloster handed down her judgment in Boris’s case. He was full of life even then, talking about a certain young lady who was waiting for him in the house. Latterly he had managed to resolve his financial issues.”
Glushkov said Berezovsky’s ex-wife, Galina – who rushed to the house on Saturday afternoon – was also sceptical that her ex-husband had died naturally. The pair were on good terms, with Berezovsky moving into her Ascot home after he was forced to sell his Surrey mansion. She believes he may have been strangled; a scarf was found next to his body. By the time she arrived, police were there; they kept Galina, her two kids and the bodyguard in the kitchen.
Others who spoke to Berezovsky in his final months cast doubt on the official version. “When we recently spoke for the last time, Boris was looking to the future. He did not appear to be suicidal,” his friend Yuri Felshtinsky says, adding that Boris had been looking for private schools in the US for his daughter. Felshtinsky goes on: “Boris understood that the Kremlin aimed to destroy him.”
The suspicions are understandable. The Kremlin, after all, has a nasty track record of eliminating its enemies abroad, of whom Berezovsky was undoubtedly one. The British government is convinced that Berezovsky’s friend Alexander Litvinenko was murdered in 2006 by Kremlin agents, sent by Moscow to London. The Litvinenko row plunged UK-Russian relations to their worst since the cold war.
Scotland Yard believes two former KGB officers, Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun, slipped radioactive polonium into Litvinenko’s tea during a meeting at a London hotel. Polonium-210 is an unusual substance. Its use as a murder weapon, government sources suggest, is the most compelling proof of Russian state involvement.
There are divergent opinions over Litvinenko’s assassination. One version says his gruesome killing – he lingered for three weeks – was a demonstrative act, designed to send a message to Berezovsky and to others like him who dare to oppose the Russian state.
Another says that the killing was meant to be the perfect crime. Polonium is virtually undetectable, and in this case was only found at the very last moment. Moreover, Litvinenko was an obscure Russian émigré whose death, his killers wrongly assumed, would provoke little police interest or official reaction.
The truth of Litvinenko’s murder may emerge in October, when an inquest is held. Berezovsky had expressed keenness to attend – another reason they find his death baffling. Friends, meanwhile, point out that since then the bodies of UK-based Russian exiles keep piling up. In 2008, Berezovsky’s long-time business partner and fellow exile Badri Patarkatsishvili suddenly dropped dead. A postmortem concluded he died of a heart attack.
Glushkov and others are unconvinced by that explanation. “You have the deaths of Boris and Badri over a short period of time. Too many bodies are happening. I would say this is a little bit too much,” Glushkov says.
Meanwhile, last March, the Russian banker German Gorbuntsov who had fled to London following a series of business disputes was gunned down in Canary Wharf. He survived, just, and the alleged shooter, a Moldovan man, was recently arrested in Moscow.
In November another Russian fugitive, Alexander Perepilichnyy, collapsed and died outside his Surrey mansion. Perepilichnyy had passed documents to Swiss investigators on corrupt Russian officials. Two autopsies have yet to uncover a cause of death.
Those of a suspicious disposition suggest the Kremlin was preternaturally well prepared over the weekend to respond to Berezovsky’s sudden demise. Dmitry Peskov, Vladimir Putin‘s press spokesman, claimed that Berezovsky had written to Russia’s president in the past few months, begging forgiveness and saying sorry.
A Russian reporter for Forbes magazine then claimed to have interviewed the tycoon at the Four Seasons Hotel the evening before his death. Berezovsky allegedly told him he yearned for Moscow and had “over-estimated” the west. He also drank a cup of tea with honey – echoes, some think, of the poisoned cuppa that finished off Litvinenko.
Friends angrily dismiss these Moscow-inspired media reports as self-serving junk. (In essence, they amount to a Kremlin morality tale. It says that if you oppose legitimate Russian power, you end up exiled, broke, friendless, and ultimately dead.) Russian officials said Berezovsky’s relatives want him buried back in Moscow – a lie, a source close to the family says.
The Kremlin’s true feelings on the issue are probably best expressed by Nikolay Kovalyov, the former head of the FSB, Putin’s old spy agency. Speaking on Russian TV, he said that Berezovsky had got what he and other traitors to the motherland deserved under the KGB’s unforgiving code – a nasty death.
All agree that Berezovsky was a toxic figure for the Russian government and for Putin personally. Putin isn’t a man who likes criticism, especially from an oligarch instrumental in giving him the job of prime minister and then president. For over a decade Berezovsky had taunted him from afar, seemingly protected by British law.
The story of their friendship and subsequent bitter enmity is well known. Berezovsky plucked the untested Putin to run the country, only for them to quarrel in 2000 when it became clear Putin was no democrat. At Putin’s behest, Russian prosecutors opened numerous criminal cases against Berezovsky, enthroned as enemy number one.
When I arrived in Moscow in 2007, as the Guardian’s correspondent, Berezovsky was the Russian state’s omnipresent bogeyman, a baddie responsible for all evils. State media blamed him for the murders of Anna Politkovskaya and Alexander Litvinenko, and accused him of fomenting jihadist rebellion in the North Caucasus. Viewed as a flippant historical analogy, he was Trotsky to Putin’s Stalin.
Just how hated Berezovsky was I learned first-hand. In April 2007, two colleagues interviewed him in London. In self-dramatising style, he told them he was plotting a violent revolution to overthrow Putin, his friend-turned-enemy. The Guardian put the story on its front page. My name also appeared after I asked Peskov – then, as now, Putin’s spin doctor – for a quote.
The following day the FSB, the KGB’s paranoid successor agency, fell on me. Strange young men tailed me through the streets of Moscow; emails tagged “Berezovsky” vanished from my inbox; FSB goons broke into my Moscow flat. The agency summoned me for interrogation. I reported to Lefortovo, the KGB’s detention centre. A young FSB colonel began his interrogation by plonking in front of me a colour photocopy of the Guardian article featuring Berezovsky’s photo.
But if the FSB did finally catch up with Berezovsky, how was it done? According to Boris Karpichkov, a former KGB agent who defected to the UK in the late 1990s, the agency has a great number of clandestine methods. In particular, Karpichkov says, Russian spies are adept at using sodium flouride, an odourless substance that can be lethal in certain doses.
Typically, he adds, the KGB has used poisons that can induce heart attacks but don’t show up in postmortems. He explained: “The substance is colourless and without smell. It can be applied to personal items – like a pen, phone or door handle – or to places where the target inhales it. It dissolves in the ‘mark’s’ body. It’s undetectable in any postmortem carried out.”
It might sound far-fetched – were it not for the fact that Litvinenko died from a similarly ingenious and invisible poisoning. Certainly, Thames Valley police were taking no risks over the weekend, carrying out a series of chemical, biological and radiation tests at Berezovsky’s rustic country house in Berkshire, near the M25. So far they have found nothing.
Whatever the truth, Russian exiles opposed to Putin are convinced his regime is capable of anything, and they wonder who might be next. With Berezovsky, Litvinenko and Patarkatsishvili gone, the list is getting smaller. “I don’t see anyone left on it apart from me,” Glushkov says gloomily. As we speak there is a Moscow-style click on the phone: someone is listening in.
Boris Berezovsky and the dangers of being a Russian exile in the UK – The Guardian
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