The Death of Boris Berezovsky and the End of the Post-Soviet Oligarchy

The self-made billionaire had been living in self-exile in London, attacking Putin remotely to no avail.
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Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky speaks to members of the media after losing his court battle against Roman Abramovich in London on August 31, 2012. . (Olivia Harris/Reuters)

Boris Berezovsky, the self-made billionaire and archetypical Russian oligarch, has died at the age of 67 in London, where he had lived since falling out with the Putin-led Kremlin more than a decade ago.

In a sense, his death marks the end of the original age of Russian oligarchs. Berezovsky spent his final years in losing blood feuds. He lost a court battle with another wealthy Russian, Roman Abramovich, over the rights to Sibneft, a Russian oil company. And he remained a frustrated political opponent of Vladimir Putin, the Russian president.

But for a period in the 1990s, no one in Russia seemed more wealthy, powerful, and politically connected than the flamboyant Berezovsky. He traded on a friendship with Tatiana Dyachenko, the daughter of then-president Boris Yeltsin, to become a potent power broker in the Kremlin.

His tour de force was the 1996 Russian presidential election, which Yeltsin seemed sure to lose to a resurgent Communist Party, his popularity ratings in the single digits. But, led by Berezovsky, Russia's oligarchs rallied to Yeltsin's aid in order to save their fortunes. In a controversial move that would have longstanding repercussions, the oligarchs exchanged hundreds of millions of dollars in cash for Yeltsin's re-election in exchange for shares in some of Russia's most valuable industrial enterprises. Berezovsky turned over his nationwide television channel--Channel One--to the championing of Yeltsin. Yeltsin, remarkably, won. The oligarchs cashed in their shares, and became even more fabulously wealthy.

It was a consequential strategy by Berezovsky. If he had not acted at that time, Russia would have most probably reverted back to Communist rule, with an unknown sequence of events to follow.

But the seeds were also set for the fall of virtually all of them in 1999. Yeltsin, sick, was casting about for a successor. Again, Berezovsky stepped in. He recommended Putin, who had courted Berezovsky as a functionary, first in the Kremlin and then in the FSB, the latter version of the KGB. Berezovsky felt that Putin would be his man in the Kremlin, and Yeltsin picked him as a successor.

Putin, however, was not Yeltsin. He insisted that the oligarchs stay out of politics. When Berezovsky refused, they fell out. In 2000, he fled Russia for self-exile in London, from which he launched regular fusillades against Putin, but to no effect.

In the end, Berezovsky had no impact on Russian politics. He was cash-strapped, and at the end of his life, Berezovsky auctioned off a cherished Andy Warhol portrat of Vladimir Lenin.

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Steve LeVine is the Washington correspondent at Quartz.

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