Boris Berezovsky and the Evil Empire nostalgists
In the eyes of Westerners who crave some of those old Cold War certainties, every death of a Russian oligarch is proof of Putin’s malfeasance.
First the police created a two-mile cordon around the Surrey mansion at which 67-year-old Boris Berezovsky had been staying until his death on Saturday. Then they sent in the protective suit-clad specialists to search for weaponised chemical, biological and radioactive material.
If quite a few of the British establishment’s Putin-bashers were determinedly suspicious when the news of Berezovsky’s death was announced – after all, this was an oligarch who had a very public falling out with Vlad the Mad, went the thinking – then they were convinced of foul play when the police sent in the polonium hunters. It couldn’t be more obvious could it? Russia’s mafia-like president had clearly dispatched some fiendishly clever spies-cum-assassins to sort out the loose end that was Berezovsky. And that they had done, probably with a poison-tipped umbrella, or a ricin-infused Rolex, or some such tool of the trade. ‘I don’t believe it was suicide. This was not just a normal death’, announced one of Berezovsky’s friends to a credulous press corps.
It just made sense. Berezovsky, you see, had risen to a position of wealth and influence in Russia during the 1990s. Supporting Russia’s then-president Boris Yeltsin, he, alongside several other Russian businessmen, had overseen the breakup – and buy up – of Russian state assets. Having got his hands on the airline Aeroflot, the Siberian oil company Sibneft and near enough half of the state television company, ORT, Berezovsky’s personal wealth was estimated to be £2billion by the late 1990s.
And it was this success that paved the way for his downfall. That’s because the majority of Russian people were understandably not that impressed with the caste of oligarchs who had carved up the post-Communist state sector between themselves. So when Putin came to power in 2000, backed ironically by Berezovsky, he set about waging a popular and financially profitable war, largely through the courts, against Berezovsky and pals. Consequently, pursued by the Kremlin, Berezovsky fled to London where he set about mounting his own Get Putin Out campaign, while fraternising with fellow wealthy, anti-Kremlin dissidents (and in the case of Chelsea FC owner, Roman Abramovich, falling out with them, too). One broadsheet columnist was moved to conclude with a near accusation: ‘Their feud [Putin’s and Berezovsky’s] was nasty and would lead ultimately to Berezovsky’s death at the age of 67 in exile.’
It’s not just the fact that Berezovsky had enemies in high places that immediately gave his death a fishy stench. Too many British observers were also gripped by the ahistorical sense that this is just what the Russian state does: it kills its opponents. Little wonder that one broadsheet report couldn’t help but invoke that most famous of dissidents, whose end came with an ice pick through the back of the head: Berezovsky, it read, was ‘a latter-day Trotsky figure for the Russian authorities’.
Others preferred to dredge up the deaths of other Russian expats on British soil, as if convinced of the equation that speculative assertions become truer by volume. ‘A potential line of inquiry is that the death is linked to attacks on other high-profile Russians in Britain’, reported the Mirror. The Guardian joined in: ‘Less than 10 miles from the scene of Berezovsky’s death, Russian supergrass Alexander Perepilichnyy died while jogging last year – his death remains unexplained – while 15 miles away, at Downside Manor near Leatherhead, Berezovsky’s former business partner Badri Patarkatsishvili died suddenly in 2008, sparking fevered speculation.’ (In the case of Patarkatsishvili, a pathologist subsequently concluded he died of heart disease.) And of course, no report was complete without a mention of Berezovsky’s fellow anti-Putinite, the former KGB agent, Alexander Litvinenko, who died in 2006 from drinking tea laced with Polonium-210 – an inquest is due to be held in May this year.
So when the police showed that they, too, suspected something was afoot, and started looking for traces of radiation or other lethal chemical or biological elements, the caricature of post-Communist Russia, as a crazier version of its equally murderous Cold War predecessor, was given an official stamp of approval.
And then came the punchline on Sunday evening, courtesy of DCI Kevin Brown, of Thames Valley Police: ‘It would be wrong to speculate on the cause of death until the postmortem has been carried out’, he said to groans of cynicism from those desperate to resurrect the spectre of the Evil Empire. He continued: ‘We do not have any evidence at this stage to suggest third-party involvement.’ In other words, despite actively looking for ‘third-party involvement’, despite ramping up the suspicion with a search for killer, glow-in-the-dark potions, they had found the square root of bugger all. In fact, if reports are to be believed, Berezovsky was discovered by his one remaining manservant-cum-bodyguard lying on the floor of the bathroom, which had been locked from the inside.
So while an outbreak of anti-Russian, anti-Putin sentiment swept through Surrey, a rather less titillating, sadder picture began to emerge of Berezovsky. The failed attempt last year to sue Abramovich for blackmail, breach of trust and breach of contract in relation to a Russian oil company had cost him dearly, both in pride and cash. Many suggest it left him virtually bankrupt. Since then, he had been on anti-depressants and had stayed at the private clinic, The Priory. His friend and PR adviser Lord Bell said he was ‘very depressed and very low’. Another friend told a newspaper that the court case had ruined him: ‘He talked about suicide. He would say to me: “It’s all over, it’s all finished, there’s no point in anything – the best thing that could happen to me is that I have a heart attack.”‘
Add to that the breakdowns of his marriage and a subsequent relationship – plus the inevitable pay offs – and Berezovsky seems less of a target for malevolent Russian agents than the Samaritans. As Lord Bell remarked: ‘I can’t see any reason why they [Moscow] would bother [to kill him].’ Quite.
It seems, then, that the excited response this weekend to Berezovsky’s death told us rather more about the anti-Russian, Putin-inspired myopia of sections of the British establishment than it did about Berezovsky’s situation itself. That is, so desperately wedded are some to comforting Cold War certainties that they were all too willing to see the death of a miserable, near-70-year-old man as part of some dastardly plot concocted in Moscow. And so willing are the police, it seems, to pander to such anti-Russian prejudices that they are prepared to go on a Hans Blix-style hunt for weapons of Boris’s destruction.
The one thing missing this weekend was clear sense – that, and evidence of any wrongdoing.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.