After observing Boris Berezovsky in Moscow for several years and meeting him once or twice, I found I rather liked him. And I suspect from the fascinated tone of his book that Paul Klebnikov does too, notwithstanding the part he considers his subject to have played in hijacking the government of Russia over the past ten years, wrecking its industry, poisoning its public morals, and so on.
There is plenty in that argument, and it would be misleading to suggest that Boris Berezovsky could, by any stretch of the imagination, be described as a nice man, at any rate in his professional life. Russia is not a nice place. And, as Klebnikov records, Berezovsky gravitates to corners of it that are lawless and violent even by Russia’s standards—the car industry and the aluminum industry, for example, and Chechnya, where he has been involved in ransoming hostages. Nice men do not take on a fight with the Solntsevo mafia, which wanted to run him out of the car dealerships from which he made his first fortune; or with Anatoly “the Bull” Bykov, who was let out of prison in August of this year having seemingly conceded defeat to Berezovsky and associates in his fight to control Siberia’s great Krasnoyarsk aluminum smelter; or with Alexander Korzhakov, the ex-KGB general whose place in the Kremlin Berezovsky usurped as Boris Yeltsin’s chief courtier.
But at least with Berezovsky there is another side to his character. He is a clever, well-educated, sophisticated man, proof that brains count for something, even in what seems a brutish world. Before reinventing himself in the early 1990s as an aggressive force in New Russian business, he had spent twenty-five years in Soviet universities as a high-powered mathematician. He saw how to make and take money from the collapsing state, and he saw how to use that money to manipulate his country’s politics and so produce yet more money for himself. He can charm practically anyone when he wants to, and he can terrify most people too. “I literally felt that he could kill me,” George Soros said after an argument with him.
He must still have a billion or two dollars in the bank, even if the political foundations of his fortune have gotten a lot shakier since Yeltsin left office. He still has a lot of friends in high places. You probably do not want him for a partner, and you certainly do not want him for an enemy. But for sheer narrative value he is irresistible. Klebnikov has chosen wisely.
Klebnikov is an American journalist from a Russian émigré family. His book has its origins in a profile of Berezovsky he wrote four years ago for Forbes magazine. That piece was called “Godfather of the Kremlin?” and Klebnikov has merely dropped the question mark for the title of his book.
The Forbes piece identified Berezovsky, previously a relatively obscure figure, as possibly “the most powerful man in Russia,” and certainly …