20 years under Putin: a timeline

Boris Berezovsky was a symbol of an era in which politics and business in Russia were led by distinctive, larger-than-life personalities. Such people cannot be painted simply in black or in white. IMR Senior Policy Advisor Vladimir Kara-Murza discusses the life and the times of the late Russian oligarch.



Many of those who passed away in the last few years were said to have symbolized an entire era—Boris Yeltsin, Yegor Gaidar, Viktor Chernomyrdin, Boris Fyodorov. Now, the same is being said of Boris Berezovsky. All of these people—very diverse, often at odds with each other, with differing values, biographies, convictions, and methods—were nevertheless similar in one respect. They all came from an era when politics and big business in Russia were led by larger-than-life personalities—controversial, difficult, anything but black-and-white, but also strong, remarkable, and distinctive. Today, when Russia’s government and business are dominated by mediocrities, nostalgia for such personalities is understandable. Even those who disliked Berezovsky are, today, grudgingly finding words of respect for him—and not merely because one should “speak no ill of the dead.”

That era—Russia’s multifaceted 1990s—was as remarkable and as controversial as he was. It was a time of disappointment and success; of poverty and opportunity; of inflation and independent media; of the “rule by the bankers” and democratic elections. It is difficult to imagine Boris Berezovsky in any other era. “We became rich because we realized faster than others that a new era is upon us,” he once said in an interview. His was not, however, a case of “from rags to riches. By the early 1990s, Berezovsky, by Soviet standards, was already an accomplished person who had a successful scientific career, with a PhD, dozens of monographs, and election to corresponding membership in the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Berezovsky gave his all to the establishment of the new Russian capitalism; LogoVAZ, AVVA, United Bank, and Sibneft (automobiles, banking and oil) were just the most prominent projects in which he participated. Yet a personality of his caliber and his ambitions demanded more, and, in the mid-1990s, he became an active player on the Russian media scene. At the height of his influence, Berezovsky controlled ORT and TV-6 television channels, Kommersant, Novye Izvestia and Nezavisimaya Gazeta newspapers, and other media outlets, which, as he readily admitted, he viewed not as business ventures, but as political tools. In the late 1990s, thanks to a phrase coined by then-Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, the entrepreneurs who strove to influence Russia’s political life became known as the “oligarchs.” Among the events in which Berezovsky played a (sometimes decisive) role were: the creation of the alliance of businessmen in support of Boris Yeltsin’s 1996 presidential campaign, which prevented a Communist victory; the Khasavyurt Peace Accords, which ended the first Chechen war; the public smear campaign against the reformist government, which dealt a severe blow to the political prospects of Nemtsov, who was then leading in the presidential opinion polls.

People often hate those to whom they owe the most. As president, Putin owed Berezovsky nearly everything.

Yet Berezovsky’s most successful political project—not in terms of its consequences for the country, of course, but in terms of achieving his objective—was Vladimir Putin. It was Berezovsky, using his formidable influence over the then-Kremlin leadership, who pushed for his “friend Volodya” to become Yeltsin’s successor in 1999—the same “friend Volodya” who brought flowers to his wife’s birthday during Berezovsky’s first fall from grace during Yevgeny Primakov’s premiership. “Operation Successor” was politically backed not only by Berezovsky’s ORT channel (with Sergei Dorenko, known for his character assassinations and dubbed “television killer,” in a lead role), but also by the pro-government Unity Bloc, hastily established by Berezovsky for the parliamentary elections in 1999. Many of the leaders of today’s United Russia (the successor to Unity), who began their political careers with the 1999 election, do not like to recall who was, in fact, their party’s founding father. Berezovsky also gave media and financial support to Putin during his 2000 presidential campaign. After Putin’s victory, Berezovsky—then an independent member of the State Duma—came to Boris Nemtsov, who led the Union of Rightist Forces parliamentary caucus, and complained of boredom: his friend has been elected president, everything is under control, there is nothing more to do. This was in the spring of 2000.

Many of Berezovsky’s associates contended that he was not a good judge of people. In the case of Putin, he had underestimated his “friend’s” KGB experience—that organization, after all, taught its employees the art of recruiting and tricking people into believing them. Another factor that the oligarch did not count on was a psychological one—people very often hate those to whom they owe the most. As president, Putin owed Berezovsky nearly everything.


The promotion of Vladimir Putin (right) to the Russian presidency turned out to be Boris Berezovsky's greatest triumph and greatest defeat.


The expulsion of Putin’s erstwhile patron from the establishment (and from the country) was swift. The conflict was initiated from both sides. In the summer of 2000, Berezovsky protested against Putin’s counter-reforms that curtailed the rights of the regions—the first step in the construction of the “power vertical”—and the Kremlin’s impending attack on big business. In a pointed gesture, he resigned from the Duma. In September 2000, in a final break with Putin, Berezovsky’s ORT channel heavily criticized the president for his behavior during the Kursk submarine tragedy. That same autumn, ORT was transferred to Kremlin control, and the once-powerful oligarch became a political émigré.

For the last 13 years of his life, Boris Berezovsky was trying to undo what he had done in 1999-2000. But success had abandoned him. Political projects that he devised from his London exile—Liberal Russia party, an alliance with “national patriots,” former Duma Speaker Ivan Rybkin’s nomination for president—resulted in nothing. In the last few years, he suffered new financial and legal setbacks, chief among them the loss of Berezovsky’s London court case against his former junior partner, Roman Abramovich.

In the spring of 2001, after the state seized control of NTV television, Berezovsky offered his TV-6 channel to the purged journalists.

Yet there are at least two things Berezovsky did after he left Russia that deserve mention. In late 2000, he saved the Andrei Sakharov Foundation and Museum, giving it—unconditionally—the financial aid needed to keep it going. In the spring of 2001, after the state seized control of NTV television, Berezovsky offered his TV-6 channel to the purged journalists, allowing them to work on the air for one more year—until TV-6 itself was shut down by the Kremlin.

For Vladimir Putin and his propaganda squads, Boris Berezovsky was a convenient “scarecrow,” akin to Orwell’s Goldstein, who could be blamed for everything. Just three months ago, the Rossiya-1 television channel aired a movie containing new “revelations” about the former oligarch. According to Vladimir Bukovsky, who personally knew Berezovsky, he “in no way fit the role of the devil that the Kremlin stubbornly tried to create for him.”

The Kremlin will now have to create a new “enemy.” As for Berezovsky himself, he is already being smeared posthumously: Dmitri Peskov, the presidential press secretary, announced that the ex-oligarch had recently written a “letter of repentance” to Putin. The Kremlin is not planning to publish the letter, though, and Peskov’s reputation is not likely to lead many people to believe his word. In any case, an objective biography of Boris Berezovsky will not be written anytime soon—a biography of a remarkable and complex man, with virtues and defects, just like the era in which he lived.