Berezovsky’s story was a typically Russian one of rags to riches, as bright
but sharp characters systematically pillaged the economic assets of the
collapsed Soviet state in the early 1990s, accumulating Igor’s modest share
allocations for the price of a few loaves of bread. The Jewish maths
professor went from a rouble salary, equivalent to £12 a month, via a
lucrative car dealership, to controlling the oil company Sibneft, then the
national carrier Aeroflot, and, last but not least, the television station
ORT.

Armed with a fortune of about £2 billion, Berezovsky leveraged wealth into
political influence. He insinuated himself into the inner “family” of
President Boris Yeltsin, by publishing the doddery dipsomaniac’s memoirs
while cosying up to the president’s influential daughter Tatyana.
Berezovsky’s TV station was crucial to Yeltsin’s re-election in 1996, and to
the choice of the heir apparent – for the top job had a two-term limit.

This turned out to be Vladimir Putin, the steely director of the FSB secret
police, who visited Berezovsky’s home in Spain five times in the year he was
selected as prime minister. Aggressive support from ORT – and mystery
suitcases of cash for his new Unity party – meant that in 1999 Putin became
Russia’s prime minister, stepping into Yeltsin’s shoes a year later after
the president had become a national embarrassment, too drunk to get out of
his plane in Dublin.

Putin would remain as president until 2008, alternating the job with his
cipher Dmitry Medvedev, until he could run for a third (and fourth) term in
2012. At this rate he is likely to rule Russia for longer than Joseph
Stalin, especially since beyond the metropolitan chichi-micki many Russians
like his tough-guy persona.

Putin rapidly disabused the more bumptious oligarchs — notably Berezovsky — of
the notion that he was their puppet. They may have been very rich, but their
wealth — and their Jewishness — enabled Putin to depict them as a parasitic
class, in a country seething with myriad resentments about the nation’s
abrupt decline into a Burkina Faso armed with nuclear weapons. Echoing
Stalin’s sinister 1929 vow to eradicate the kulaks — richer peasants with a
couple of cows — Putin announced he would “liquidate the oligarchs as a
class”.

The reality of what happened next was more complex than Putin’s public
haranguing of gatherings of oligarchs, as the new Tsar wigged the
over-mighty boyars on live television. Those who had brokered money into
political power, or who presumed to use their media empires to criticise
Putin himself over such disasters as the loss of the submarine Kursk with
all 118 hands, found themselves out in the cold.

The oligarch victims had provided plenty of scope for state authorities to
prosecute them for dodgy dealings, for as Berezovsky himself admitted,
“everyone who hasn’t been asleep for the past 10 years has willingly or
unwillingly broken the law”. It did not require much investigating of the
Aeroflot takeover to prompt Berezovsky to flee to Britain, liquidating his
assets to support an extravagant lifestyle and remote meddling in Russian
domestic politics.

His younger associate, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who had progressed from running a
café to controlling a vast oil empire, thought he could take on Putin —
funding a range of opposition political parties — but in 2005 received a
lengthy jail sentence for fraud and tax evasion that might end in 2014, if
this improbable martyr isn’t murdered inside first.

In fact, Putin was making examples of those oligarchs who had not grasped that
their role in creating a robber-baron style of capitalism was over, and that
under his rule, a more statist, corporate, version was in the ascendant. The
big players now include such close Putin associates as Russia’s answer to
Darth Vader, the former KGB spy Igor Sechin, who is chairman of Rosneft, the
giant oil conglomerate.

Less garrulous oligarchs, such as Roman Abramovich or Oleg Deripaska, whose
fortunes will always remain a mystery, elected to eschew politics, while
conforming their business dealings to the nation’s strategic interests.
Having started flogging rubber ducks, plastic sailors and retread tyres,
Abramovich’s vast fortune in oil and metals saw him rise to be governor of
far-eastern Chukotka and owner of Chelsea football club. In Britain you can
also play rent-a-peer to give your boards a patina of fusty respectability.

It was an epic falling out with Abramovich in London’s High Court in 2012 that
did for Berezovsky in a style that Putin could never manage. Aided by the
finest legal mind that big Russian money can hire — the stellar
QC-turned-Supreme Court justice Jonathan Sumption — Abramovich partially
exposed the peculiar world of the oligarchs in which huge sums of money were
paid for political protection or krisha, resembling the sort of blessings
that gangsters bestow for those who operate in their territory.

After he lost the case, Berezovsky descended into deep depression, because of
huge legal costs and the judge’s impugning of his honesty. The women in his
life were simultaneously taking large chunks of his depleted and
court-frozen fortune. In his desperation, Berezovsky even wrote to Putin
seeking forgiveness and a return to Russia. Though Putin may have had more
on his mind, such as the visit of President Xi Jinping of China, the nasty,
vengeful side to his character will mean quiet rejoicing at the death of a
modern day equivalent to Trotsky, Stalin’s exiled would-be nemesis.

On one level, the story of these rich Russians merely adds to the vibrant
diversity of modern Britain, with its guest jihadis, illegal immigrants and
the like. We can forget about how they may be brokering money into influence
in this country, as long as at least one of them takes a big fall, as
Berezovsky seems to have done over the weekend. That plays well to an
envious, puritanical streak that does not like rich Jews with superyachts
and football teams, or the ability to buy a Bacon, Picasso or Warhol as we
would a Coke or Crunchie.

But it does not answer what these men are doing here, or whether there has
been any sort of cost-benefit appraisal of how they make Britain look like a
glorified souk, even as we moralise at Putin over his authoritarianism or
support for Assad in Syria, while trying to carve out an Arctic role for BP
within the system that Putin himself has refashioned.

More than a century ago the great Anglo-Polish novelist Joseph Conrad explored
the “very soul of things Russian” in a murky novel called Under Western
Eyes, which deals with the lawless victims of a lawless despotism.

What a pity we haven’t got a Conrad to make sense of the soul of “things
Russian” today, whether in Moscow, Ascot or Leatherhead. The results would
be enlightening.

Michael Burleigh’s latest book ‘Small Wars, Faraway Places: The Genesis of
the Modern World 1945-65’ is published by
Macmillan

War of the Oligarchs – Telegraph.co.uk
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