For millions of Russians who lost their savings, jobs, and life prospects during the final decade of the last century, Berezovsky is a symbol of the nightmare the country lived

Boris Berezovsky, December 19, 2011. Photo: Reuters/Olivia Harris

Having finished coffee, everyone ostentatiously reached for their wallets, but with a brief gesture he swept aside his companions’ offers, putting a fifty pound note on the table. The change came as a mountain of small change – it’s a shame that in Britain paper pound notes were withdrawn forcing people to load their pockets with heavy metal coins.

There was a lot the change, and to make things worse it was all in different denominations. He turned around for a few moments counting out the 15% tip, then put the rest in his pocket, said farewell and disappeared.

“A mathematician” I thought.[1]

Boris Berezovsky was the perfect fit for the devil, a Mephistophelean demon. This role he played with talent and obvious relish. Everyone who met him at Russian get-togethers in London was struck by an insane wave of negative charm that was at the same time both repulsive and fascinating.

Disgusting maybe, but never boring. His expression brought to mind, with his ingenious plans for world domination, the cartoon characters, Pinky and Brain, of the cartoon of the same name.

In fact all his political initiatives failed, but this only became clear when he started to play his own games, opposing himself to the majority of the then-forming ruling class, which after the dividing up of state property needed stability and a strong state.

An era of bandits and swindlers

He was ideally suited to the 1990s, that era of dashing robbery, that time when a quick mind, initiative, audacity and a lack of conscience, made “anything possible.” The era of bandits and swindlers needed its heroes, embodying its qualities, and when the vices reached their height - fitting of an American comic character - super-swindlers automatically become our own supermen.

But it couldn’t go on. The euphoria of primitive accumulation was followed by an era of conservative, bureaucratic regulation. Such is the logic of capitalism, of which Boris Berezovsky served so devotedly and fanatically,  but he did not understand its principles or laws of development. In this respect he was remarkably similar to the other Soviet liberal intellectuals of the late 1980s, with the only difference being that he burst to the top on the very wave that drowned a great many of his colleagues – academics, engineers, writers, and professors.

But for one to climb, others must fall: that is the principle of free competition, which had become the law of life in post-Soviet society. Berezovsky was at the head, showing the way down this path. Was this not what the business ethics of the transition period needed?

Alas, despite the fact that trade in the early stages of capitalist development is inseparable from piracy, even the best pirates rarely become good investors or effective managers. History knows a number of exceptions, such as [Henry – trans] Morgan who transformed himself from a nautical thief into the Governor of Jamaica and an irreproachable administrator.

But those who did not sign up to stabilisation were doomed to either sink to the bottom or be hanged at the yardarm.

Changing times

Berezovsky did not understand, did not notice, that times had changed, or did not want to admit it. That was his fatal mistake. The Russian privatisers at the end of the twentieth century in their own way repeated the path of the Caribbean pirates of the seventeenth century. The new times demanded fitting men. The new figures were grey, boring, but in their own way much more effective.

However much commentators may have complained about the oligarchic character of Russian capitalism, in reality it didn’t last ten years before it was replaced with more regulated, corporate structures. A national bourgeoisie emerged which was highly bureaucratized and organically linked to the government apparatus, but these are normal traits of a ruling class in peripheral countries living off the export of mineral resources and in need of a strong state to protect these resources – both from foreign competitors and from its own people.

From the corporate-bureaucratic point of view, aggressive individual behaviour was becoming an intolerable evil. The state grew stronger through its mutual compromise with the new property owners realizing their collective, class interests. For the sake of peace, they were willing to give up some of their desires: they abandoned for the time being the final destruction of the welfare state and showed a willingness to give over some of their rights to state officials, as long as they ensured the stability of the country, and the loyalty of the people.

Initiative, unrestricted by limits of decency, shown without regard to the interests of our class-brothers or the still fragile structures of government,  was no longer considered a virtue, but hooliganism. The ruling class needed to learn discipline, how to behave itself, to not rock the boat. And those who thought themselves and behaved differently: out of the class they had to go!

Most of the oligarchs of the 1990s understood and accepted the new rules of the game, and some involved themselves in their drafting. But Berezovsky could not subdue his irrepressible character, and it was this as much as his political differences with President Putin that determined his fall.

Worse, once he found himself in the West, which he sincerely believed to be ideal and example to follow, the Russian oligarch was unable to fit into life there – either in politics or business. In contrast to his pupil and rival Roman Abramovich, who perfectly learned the first rule of successful business – to keep a low profile – he was always playing with some new initiative, getting involved in political conflict, expounding his ideas, which nobody in England cared about.

It turned out that the hero of the great privatisation knew how to spend money, but did not have the slightest idea on how to earn it, how to invest, how to make capital work. He was confidently walking along the path of ruin.

After having cheerfully, recklessly participated in the rout of Soviet society and its material heritage, Berezovsky, from a doctor science and a serious academic [he was member of the prestigious Academy of Sciences], became an oligarch and politician, and was at one point, fantastically wealthy and dangerously influential. But was he even for a time happy?

Trends in male life expectancy at birth, 1958 – 2002

Trends in Russian Life Expectancy

Source: Autopsy on an Empire: Understanding Mortality in Russia and the Former Soviet Union, Elizabeth Brainerd and David M. Cuder, p.3

A symbol of a nightmare

The finale might be said to be tragic if only looked at from a personal, individual point of view. Deprived of his capital the oligarch died alone, away from home. It somehow does not seem important how it happened: an overdose of antidepressants, suicide or a heart attack caused by the news of the impending confiscation of deposits, hidden from Russian and British authorities in Cyprus.

Now there are many more people who knew Berezovsky better than I, who can tell you about his personality or who can recall how he paid a scholarship, funded an art project or just supported someone through a financially difficult time – wealth gives many opportunities to do harm but to do good.

But, alas, for the millions of people [in Russia] who lost their savings and jobs, social status and life prospects during the final decade of the last century, Berezovsky is a symbol of the nightmare, the disaster, which the country lived, and to tell the truth, is still living through. And for them the personal tragedy of an oligarch is not as important, as the triumph of historical justice. If only in this one particular case.


[1] Berezoksky had a doctorate in applied maths – trans

Translation by Alastair Stephens. This article first appeared on the Russian left website Rabkor. Boris Kagarlitsky has been active on the Russian left since the late 1970s and was a Soviet era dissident. He is the director of the Institute of Globalisation and Social Movements in Moscow and the author of numerous books.