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The Life and Fate of Boris Berezovsky

In late 2009, Russia lost a man it had already begun to forget. Yegor Gaidar, the architect of the “shock therapy” designed to transition Russia immediately from socialism to capitalism, died at the very young age of 53. Gaidar was sorely underappreciated, because the troubled Yeltsin years that followed the disintegration of the Soviet Union were marked by hardship and the wiping out of Russians’ savings. Gaidar was a staunch proponent of privatization because he understood the primacy of private property in any aspiring democracy.

Aside from Gorbachev and Yeltsin, few in Russia could be said to have had as much influence on the new Russia as the brilliant Gaidar. And few could be said to have personified the Russia inherited from Gaidar more than Boris Berezovsky, who died in exile in England over the weekend. Berezovsky was one of the original “oligarchs,” who got rich quickly in the new Russia and used his wealth to influence Russian politics, first by backing Yeltsin and then by helping to elevate Vladimir Putin. Putin would betray Berezovsky by seeking to undo much of Gaidar’s privatization and wrest control of the oligarchs’ assets. Some challenged Putin, like the still-imprisoned Mikhail Khodorkovsky; some wavered, like Berezovsky; some played along, like Berezovsky’s former partner, Roman Abramovich. Berezovsky put two and two together and fled Russia, never to return. He sued Abramovich in a London court, which ruled against Berezovsky in 2012. The suit nearly bankrupted Berezovsky of his wealth and, it seemed from his reaction, his very will to live.

Of course, just as Berezovsky’s life and fate were typical of post-Yeltsin Russia, his death could not come without intrigue. The headlines of the first three stories on Berezovsky’s death in the Guardian seemed almost inevitable. Soon after Berezovsky was found dead the paper published a story titled “Boris Berezovsky: a tale of revenge, betrayal and feuds with Putin.” The next day came the logical follow-up: “Boris Berezovsky’s death leaves friends suspecting foul play,” followed by “No evidence that Boris Berezovsky was killed, say police.”

More than anything, the Guardian’s Luke Harding points out, Berezovsky misread Putin from the outset:

Berezovsky had reckoned that his friend would be a pliable successor – and that he, the ultimate Kremlin insider, would continue to pull the strings. Quickly, however, it became apparent that Putin had his own vision of Russia: a less democratic place, in which the country’s spy agencies would play a vanguard role, and with Putin in charge. The two clashed; Putin seized Berezovsky’s ORT TV station; and Berezovsky decamped to London. Their feud was nasty and would lead ultimately to Berezovsky’s death at the age of 67 in exile.

Yet according to a Russian journalist who interviewed Berezovsky on Friday, the oligarch claimed his greatest miscalculation was “that Russia is so dear to me that I cannot be an émigré.” Exile was killing him, but there was no way he could return to Russia.

Berezovsky was hopelessly devoted to somehow deposing Putin. It was never clear whether this mission was primarily driven by greed, homesickness, delusion, vengeance, or guilt; probably it was a potent mix of them all, impossible to untangle. But it is the guilt that is most interesting, because it would be almost noble. And nobility was something Berezovsky’s vast wealth and power could never buy him. It was not self-aggrandizement for Berezovsky to claim he created Putin—he did—but neither was it something of which he would have wanted to boast. Thus Berezovsky’s death was a tragedy but, to many Russians, so was his life.

There is a Shakespearean quality to Berezovsky’s story. And in the suspicion that Putin must have had something to do with Berezovsky’s death there is something distinctly representative of the Russia Berezovsky helped create, a place in which nothing is believable until it strains the imagination and defies mundane explanation. In his haunting new book on Russia’s cultural mourning of its Stalinist past, Alexander Etkind writes:

I would speculate that the historical processes of catastrophic scale traumatize the first generation of descendants, and it is their daughters and sons—the grandchildren of the victims, perpetrators, and onlookers—who produce the work of mourning for their grandparents: mass graves for the generation of terror, trauma for the first postcatastrophic generation, and mourning for the second.

Berezovsky was always too busy to mourn the past. And one of the great ironies of the Berezovsky tale is that the man he helped install, Putin, has tried to rescue elements of Stalin’s brutal legacy from mourning by insisting that some of it deserves celebration. Berezovsky was part of a generation that ran as fast they could away from Soviet collectivism and Communism, presciently aware that the past was in hot pursuit. Yet the threat to Berezovsky was right in front of him, in the future he so energetically crafted. Like most who spend too much time looking over their shoulder, he never saw it coming.

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