Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Suicide of an Oligarch

(Written in March of 2013)
When I was growing up in Russia, Boris Berezovsky was one of the most powerful men in the country. A few days a go he hanged himself inside his English manor. Banished into exile by big papa, aka Putin, Berezovsky died alone, apparently financially broke and heartbroken by his inability to return to his cold motherland, Russia. A country where its hard to find another person who was loathed more than him.

I won't try to recount the details of his life, there are better accounts elsewhere written by professional journalist and not bored customer service specialists devoid of a social life.

The one thing I will say is that Boris was an epitome of an oligarch.

Back in the Soviet Union everything was owned by the state. When the red empire met its demise, the new government faced the challenge of distributing all state assets into private hands.

The new government failed spectacularly in this task. They didn't fail in the sense that they couldn't privatize government holdings. They failed because the process of privatization was thoroughly corrupt.

Instead of the free market in the West where people are incentivized to build business, the new Russian elite had to grab as much government property as possible to prosper.

Basically it was the capitalism of the hungry hippo. The ethos of these guys was closer to ruthless ambition typical of gangster rap than a Harvard MBA program. The path to success involved networking with corrupt officials in charge of handing over things to you and hiring as many former KGB agents as you can to beef up you're security team.

Berezovsky was rumored to have a state of the art surveillance team, he faced numerous assassination attempts including one explosion when the driver of his armored car was decapitated, with the severed head flying by Berezovsky in the back seat.

The final result of this privatization process was the oligarch. A immensely rich and politically powerful man, who prospered in the murky time where most Russians were growing more impoverished and cynical with each day.

Corruption therefore was not one of the facts of Russian life, corruption was THE path to power and social mobility. Corruption was one of the foundations of the new, post-Soviet Russia.

No one epitomized this better than Berezovsky. He was instrumental in choosing Putin as Yeltsin's successor. But Putin did not turn out as compliant as he was expected to be. Instead he went Godfather style on the most independent-minded oligarchs. They were forced to leave the country or face prison in Siberia. This cemented Putin's institutional power but also made him the most popular Russian leader in decades.

I'll just conclude this post about Berezovsky by saying that I was surprised to feel a ping of sadness when I heard that he died. He was a morally corrupt hustler. But what a fucking hustler!

He was a unique character out of the Russian novel. All the other oligarchs were dull, usually fat, gray opportunists. They looked like tired accountants dressed in expensive suits. They were practical and pragmatic. They either adopted to the new political reality and rested their lips on Putin's pale ass as their fortunes grew or they fled abroad and led quiet, private, bourgeoisie lives.

Berezovsky was different. He never stopped scheming to return to power in Russia. For the longest time he presented himself as a democrat exiled by a brutal dictator. He openly talked about financing the overthrow of the Russian government (for which he was reprimanded by his host country, Britain). He wrote a letter to the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church urging him to use the authority of the Church to move against Putin. And yet, after he killed himself, Putin's spokesman reveled that in his final month Berezovsky was reaching out to Putin, offering to make amends to his one-time protege so he could return to Russia. And I have no reason to doubt this story.

Seeing Berezovsky's pathetic demise, is like watching you're favorite TV villain finally be defeated. It is an end to a sad but fascinating spectacle of a life. The big difference is that this villain was not slain by the forces of good, instead he was crushed by the misery of a life devoid of meaning. 

Devoid, in his case, of Russia.

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