Among the Russian tycoons who emerged after the fall of the Soviet Union, there were many reclusive figures who sheltered behind the tinted glass of their armored limousines, their armies of public relations men and bodyguards. They kept the outside world at bay, including the people of Russia who came to despise them. Boris Berezovsky had his share of protection, too, but he could not resist the limelight and the lure of being a kingmaker.
He would hold court at press conferences and breakfasts, give interviews in his club, and appear endlessly on television. He was a short man, with arching eyebrows and a soft, hurried voice. He was always rushing toward something big. When he was in mathematics in Soviet times, it was a quest for the Nobel Prize. When he was in politics, it was controlling President Boris Yeltsin.
At the time of his death outside of London on March 23 at 67, he had slipped into near-obscurity, known primarily for his periodic outbursts against Russian President Vladimir Putin and for a legal battle with another oligarch, Roman Abramovich. Perhaps the final irony of Berezovsky's life is that his last great act as kingmaker -- bringing Putin to power -- backfired on him, and he was never able to recover. After a series of disagreements with Putin, Berezovsky moved from Moscow to London in late 2000 and never went back.
But the most important part of Berezovsky's story is not the last. Rather, it is how he rose to power.
He wasn't the most visionary oligarch. Others began to squeeze fortunes from the dying Soviet state much earlier. But once he got going, Berezovsky showed a particular knack for exploiting the nexus between wealth and power.
The collapse of the Soviet Union gave rise to enormous imbalances. Prices, property, and trade were set free. The transition between failed, centrally-planned socialism and the rapacious new market capitalism left a huge opportunity for arbitrage and rent-seeking. The hyperinflation of the early 1990s destabilized the economy and wiped out the savings of the population. But for the most daring businessmen -- men like Berezovsky -- the wave of inflation was an incredible opportunity. The lure was especially strong for those who already had connections.
Berezovsky grasped how connections were vital in the lawless days of the early 1990s, an era when the state was feeble and power was something to be wrangled and co-opted.
An early example was his move on the Soviet-era car factory, Avtovaz. He knew that the boxy little Zhiguli cars made on the banks of the Volga were a dream of many people in the late Soviet era. "I understood one important thing," he told me once in an interview. "At that time, an enormous number of people wanted to buy cars. It didn't matter if they lacked an apartment. It didn't matter if they lacked clothes. But if only there would be a car!"
When he said this, Berezovsky was sitting in the 19th-century mansion he had transformed into the Logovaz club, wearing a pressed white business shirt and an elegant maroon silk tie, sipping from a glass of red wine. He savored the memory, as if it had rushed back to him again through all the years, of how desperately people wanted a car of their own, a dream that he too had shared. He once swapped a car with a friend every other week.
"Possessed," he told me, pausing again. "I remember myself. My first car appeared when I was 40 years old. Half a car. One week mine, the other week his."