When the once-powerful Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky died in exile near London on Saturday, I recalled an interview I did with him in Moscow in the late 1990s.
Back then he was one of the richest and most powerful of the Russian tycoons, a highly unlikeable man who billed himself, with some truth, as responsible for maintaining Boris Yeltsin in power. Berezovsky would later would help install an obscure KGB agent, Vladimir Putin, as president.
At the peak of his success, the tycoon controlled a huge oil company, along with the Russian airline Aeroflot, as well as Russia’s national TV channel one – the main source of news for much of the population outside Moscow. When I met him, it was hard to imagine he would die despondent and almost improverished by a failed London lawsuit against another oligarch, whom he accused of conspiring with Putin to deprive him of his oil wealth.
What Berezovsky told me sums up what has gone so wrong with Russia since the break-up of the Soviet Union.
When I asked how he justified the oligarchs’ purchase of large chunks of Russia’s natural resources on the cheap, in return for financing Yeltsin’s 1996 campaign, he responded huffily that I should regard him as akin to the 19th century American robber barrons. He said their wealth - amassed by a select few - was a necessary stage of capitalism. Yet he missed the essential difference between a Carnegie or a Rockefeller and himself.
Despite their questionable tactics, the Carnegies and Rockefellers of American history did contribute to the development of the nation; many of them later bequeathed large chunks of their wealth to charitable foundations.
Berezovsky and the Russian oligarchs, on the other hand, excelled at extracting gigantic wealth from the state, and living on a scale that a Rockefeller could never have imagined, while giving little back to their country. They gave capitalism an ugly name in Russia. Their corruption paved the way for Putin to re-nationalize much of Russia’s natural resources, with no peep of complaint from the Russian people.
Now Putin has assembled his own circle of oligarchs whom he permits to retain their riches so long as they bow to his power, and sell back their assets to the state if and when he demands it.
RIP, Boris Berezovsky. You will be remembered not for fostering Russian capitalism but for godfathering a corrupt, state-controlled system run by a new tsar.