Among the initial wave of Russian oligarchs, Boris Berezovsky was the first among equals, and among the last.
By the mid- to late 1990s, he had become the most powerful figure, after the ailing President Boris Yeltsin, in the Kremlin. A mathematician and engineer of ability, Berezovsky leveraged an early success as a car salesman at a time of rampant inflation into huge wealth and control of media, auto, aviation and oil assets.
He strongly backed Vladimir Putin for president after Yeltsin’s resignation; indeed, he was his main promoter. In Putin, the apparently modest and amiable former KGB officer, Berezovsky saw somebody with self-discipline. He also saw somebody with the need for financial and intellectual support from somebody who had much of both – somebody like Berezovksy.
It was a huge misreading of Putin, a man well-trained to appear bland. In 2000 the new president summoned the oligarchs to the medieval fortress of the czars and told them they could keep their wealth if they left the politics to him. Three oligarchs ignored the order: Mikhail Khodorkovsky, now in a Siberian prison colony; Vladimir Gusinsky, in exile; and Berezovsky, who died this past weekend at his Berkshire estate.
These men, whose Jewishness had kept them out of the Soviet establishment for much of the Communist period, were brilliant, bold and ruthless. They were forces of nature who created the first draft of capitalism in the ruins of a completely socialized economy. They built it the only way possible, through expropriation, state capitalist corruption and a wholesale disregard for the rules ‑ permitted to do so by the Yeltsin governments in the ’90s, which, though often chaotic, held to the belief that even corrupt private ownership was better than the party-state version from which Russia had just emerged.