U.K. Police Investigate Death Of Exiled Russian Oligarch
Boris Berezovsky, the Russian oligarch who made headlines in 2000 after falling out with President Vladimir Putin and moving to the U.K., was found dead at his home on Saturday. He was 67.
Berezovsky's body was found in a bathroom at his home in Ascot, the BBC reported. British police were treating his death as unexplained, but ruled out Sunday that it may have been caused by chemical, biological or nuclear material — methods that were used in 2006 to kill former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko, a Berezovsky ally. The Associated Press reported that police said they had no evidence of third-party involvement in Berezovsky's death. An autopsy is yet to be completed.
The AP reported that Berezovsky's lawyer said his client had been in a "horrible, terrible" emotional state in recent days.
At his peak, Berezovsky was among the most prominent Russian oligarchs, but he himself took exception to that word. He told NPR's Robert Siegel in 2000:
"I completely disagree with your definition of oligarch that they in Russia who are rich are oligarch and you here in the United States who are rich are not oligarchs. It's completely wrong, and I try just to say that, yes, today in Russia we are not equal like in Soviet time," he said. "We have rich people. We have, unfortunately, a lot of poor people. But those people who become rich, they share a responsibility for building a new country."
Berezovsky made his money following the demise of the Soviet Union and the subsequent privatization of state assets. He took over the Sibneft oil company and ORT television, both of which he used to amass political influence during the Boris Yeltsin years. As NPR's Michele Kelemen reported in 2003, he was a Kremlin insider when Vladimir Putin, then a relative unknown, was plucked from obscurity. But the relationship between the two men later soured after Putin assumed the presidency. Berezovsky left Russia in 2000 and was granted asylum in Britain three years later. The oligarch's fortune had diminished considerably in recent years because of legal troubles.
In a 2002 interview with Siegel, author David Hoffman spoke about how Berezovksy made his first fortune:
"When Berezovsky was in his mathematics institute, he had a laboratory which was just really a small room of a bunch of scientists. And Berezovsky loved the science, but he was really the organizer. Everyone says he was a compressed ball of energy running around town. If you needed a windshield wiper or a car for half a day, he was the hustler. He was the guy that always got everything together. So his little laboratory had a contract with the big, big AvtoVaz auto factory in Russia, producing huge numbers of cars for a country that didn't have enough cars.
"And Berezovsky went down there and began to realize there was an enormous demand for cars and for spare parts and for everything to do with the auto factory. He also realized the assembly line of this factory was filled with thieves, small-time, petty thieves. They stood on the assembly line and they took every eighth car and they slapped a sticker on there and said, `That's mine. That's mine.' Berezovsky never thought small. He went to the head of the auto factory and said, `Look, I'll take 35,000 cars in one big contract. I'll give you 10 percent down and the rest in two years.' And you know what happened? When it came time to pay them back, Berezovsky paid them back. But guess what? The ruble had crashed. He made $105 million. He knew that the ruble was going to crash; they didn't. He paid them back, but he paid them back in worthless money, he got the cars, he made his first fortune."
Berezovsky spent the early part of his time in London financing a Russian opposition party, which, as the BBC reports, ended in disaster when two of its top members were assassinated. Berezovsky was an also ally of Litvinenko, the former KGB agent who was killed in London in 2006. He used Litvinenko to publicize claims in 2002 that Russian security police were behind bombings in 1999 that killed more than 300 people in Moscow and other cities. British police named a former KGB agent as the prime suspect in Litvinenko's death; the agent said Berezovsky had orchestrated the killing to embarrass the Kremlin.
It emerged this week that Berezovsky had tried to return to Russia. Here's more from the AP:
"The Russian president's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said in a telephone interview on state television that Berezovsky had sent a letter to Putin about two months ago asking to be allowed to return to Russia. In the letter, Berezovsky acknowledged having made many mistakes, Peskov said.
"Peskov said he did not know how Putin reacted to news of the death.
"'But you can say that information about the death of someone, no matter who he was, cannot elicit positive emotions,' the spokesman said."