Boris Berezovsky -- who was found dead of as yet undetermined causes in his London home on March 23 -- was a key figure among those who brought Vladimir Putin to power in 1999. And although Berezovsky was driven into exile by the end of 2000, over the years he became something of a necessary feature of Putin’s Russia.
Independent political analyst Andrei Piontkovsky wrote shortly after the businessman’s death that Putin and Berezovsky were “the Stalin and Trotsky of our time.”
In an interview with gazeta.ru, leading television moderator Vladimir Solovyov recalled his recent conversations with Berezovsky, saying that the onetime oligarch “lingered on the smallest details of their relationship” like “an offended, abandoned wife speaking about her husband who is gone.”
Despite widespread speculation that Putin would be delighted with the news of Berezovsky’s death, Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov struck a different note in comments to Dozhd television on March 24.
"I am not aware of how the president reacted [to Berezovsky's death],” he said. “All I can say is, whoever it is, the news of anyone's death is always sad."
For years now, Kremlin-controlled media have heaped scorn on the 1990s as a time of lawlessness that nearly destroyed Russia. And Berezovsky was the emblem of all that Putin had saved Russia from.
Igor Bunin, director of the Center for Political Technologies, told gazeta.ru that Berezovsky “was used in Russia as the image of a terrible evil that was to blame for everything. The figure of Berezovsky was demonized.”
Berezovsky was an easy target for demonization thanks to his questionable business dealings, his penchant for secrecy and closed-door skullduggery, his unprincipled melding of business and politics, and the tendency of his business rivals and personal enemies to meet violent ends. His long list of sins seemed somehow to cancel out in the public mind startlingly similar accusations against Putin and his inner circle.
Public relations specialist Igor Mintusov told gazeta.ru that Berezovsky played such a crucial role as “the enemy” for Putin’s ruling elite that “they will have to replace him.”
In this regard, Berezovsky was a victim of a tactic he himself perfected when he dominated Russia’s media landscape in the 1990s.
PHOTO GALLERY: The Rise And Fall Of Boris Berezovsky
Former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov described in his blog how Berezovsky allegedly threatened him in 1997 for opposing the oligarch’s bid to become chairman of the board of Gazprom.
“I will destroy you,” Nemtsov quotes Berezovsky as saying. “All of Channel One television. All my media resources. I will summon all my connections until you are gone.”
After years of blaming Berezovsky for all of Russia’s problems -- from anti-Putin demonstrations to the Pussy Riot case -- Putin spokesman Peskov on March 24 minimized his role in the years since his exile and even refused to categorically condemn his actions from the 1990s.
"Obviously, [Berezovsky] played a very important role [in the 1990s],” he said. “I don't know if it was positive or negative, but he was a very, very influential person. I would not, however, exaggerate his role in the 2000s. It was probably minimal. He had no influence here."
Regret And Repentance
In February 2012, Berezovsky posted on Facebook a now famous – and remarkably brief – statement of repentance
. In it, he asks forgiveness from Russians for three things – his greed, his role in destroying freedom of speech in Russia, and his role in bringing Putin to power.
Nonetheless, on March 23 Peskov claimed that Berezovsky had also written a private letter to Putin, seeking the president’s forgiveness for opposing him. The Kremlin has not made the purported letter public.
There may never be a clear narrative of Berezovsky’s role and significance -- although rumors are already swirling that an authorized, tell-all biography was prepared during the last years of his life.
His years of duplicity made it impossible for him to tell the truth and be believed. As the British judge said while ruling against Berezovsky in his $5 billion suit against Roman Abramovich, Berezovsky “regarded truth as a transitory, flexible concept which could be molded to suit his current purposes.”
Journalist Ilya Zhegulev, who writes for the Russian edition of “Forbes” magazine, has said he interviewed Berezovsky on March 22 and found him depressed, homesick for Russia, and searching for meaning in his life in exile.
Zhegulev also said Berezovsky expressed respect for fellow deposed oligarch Milkhail Khodorkovsky, who faced two trials in Russia and has been in prison since 2005. Berezovsky reportedly envied Khodorkovsky for “preserving himself” in his conflict with the Kremlin.
But, true to Berezovsky’s ultimate legacy of ambiguity, Russian commentators are furiously arguing about whether that interview really happened the way Zhegulev has reported it.