Russia: An oligarch’s mistake, an oligarch’s fate

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Boris Abramovich Berezovsky diedin London on March 23, 2013.

By Boris Kagarlitsky, translated by Renfrey Clarke

March 31, 2013 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- After everyone had finished their coffee, and reached demonstratively for their brief cases, he overrode the feeble impulses of his companions and placed a 50 pound banknote on the table. The change arrived in the form of a mountain of coins – what a disgrace that in Britain 1 pound notes have been taken out of circulation, forcing people to weigh their pockets down with metal! There were a lot of coins, of all denominations. But he sorted them out in a few moments, counted out a 15 per cent tip, raked the rest into his pocket, said his goodbyes and vanished.

“Mathematician”, I thought.

Boris Abramovich Berezovsky was ideally suited to the role of a demon, a Mephistopheles. He played that role with talent and obvious pleasure. The insane wave of negative charm which everyone who encountered him in Russian talk shops in London felt directed at them was at once repellent and entrancing. It might have been repugnant, but it was never dull. His expression was reminiscent of cartoon villains, and his cunning schemes recalled the plans to take over the world hatched by Pinky and Brain in the animated series of the same name. All his political initiatives ultimately failed, but this became obvious only when he started playing at his own games, counterposing himself to the majority of the newly formed Russian ruling class, which after the dividing-up of public property needed stability and a strong state.

He was ideally suited to the 1990s, to the age of reckless plunder, when if you had a quick mind, initiative and brazenness – and provided, of course, you were not troubled by a conscience – anything was possible. The epoch of bandits and tricksters needed its heroes, who embodied the same qualities but on a higher plane – characters worthy of US comics, whose vices were transformed into superhuman powers. In Russia, the super-fraudster automatically became the national equivalent of Superman.

This period, however, did not last long. Setting in promptly after the euphoria of primitive accumulation was a gloomy epoch that saw the imposing of good order and conservative bureaucratic regulation. Such is the logic of the capitalism which Boris Abramovich served with fanatical devotion, but without understanding its laws and principles of development. In this respect he was strikingly similar to other members of the Soviet liberal intelligentsia of the late 1980s, with the difference that he rode the crest of the same wave that drowned the great majority of his colleagues – scientists, engineers, writers and professors. But for some individual to rise to the top, a great many had to fall; such is the principle of free competition that became the vital rule of life in post-Soviet society. Berezovsky walked on the heads of others, pitilessly blazing a path for himself, but is that not what the ethics of dynamic business demand, especially in a period of transition?

Unfortunately, despite the fact that trade in the early stages of the development of capitalism is inseparable from piracy, even the best pirate rarely becomes a good investor or an effective manager. History records a certain number of exceptions, such as Morgan, who turned himself from a seaborne brigand into an irreproachable administrator, the governor of Jamaica. But those who did not enlist themselves in the cause of stabilisation were doomed to go to the bottom or to hang from the yard-arm.

Berezovsky did not understand, or failed to notice, that times had changed. Or, he could not reconcile himself to the changes. Here lay his fatal error.

In their own way, the Russian privatisers of the 1990s followed in the footsteps of the 17th century Caribbean pirates. The new period required people appropriate to it. The new figures were grey and dull, but far more effective. However much our commentators might complain about the oligarchic nature of Russian capitalism, the oligarchy in our country did not last for more than about a decade, giving way to far more orderly corporate structures. The Russian bourgeoisie has taken on a highly bureaucratised form, and is organically linked to the government apparatus, but these are just normal features for the ruling class in a peripheral country that lives on the proceeds of mineral exports and needs a strong state to defend these resources, both against foreign competitors and against its own people.

From the point of view of corporate-bureaucratic logic, aggressive individual behaviour is unacceptable. The state grew strong as a result of mutual concessions by the new owners, who recognised their collective class interests. For the sake of harmony they were even prepared to let pass some of the opportunities before them – foregoing, for the moment, the final abolition of the welfare state, and showing a readiness to yield certain rights to the state functionaries, so long as the latter guaranteed stability in the country and the loyalty of the population.

Initiatives that were outside the bounds of propriety, and that were pursued without regard for the interests of class brothers and for the still-fragile institutions of government, were no longer perceived as bravery but as hooliganism. The ruling class had to be disciplined, to learn to behave itself, and not to rock the boat. Like disruptive schoolchildren, people who thought and acted differently would be sent out of the class.

Most of the oligarchs of the 1990s understood and accepted the new rules, at times helping to draw them up. Berezovsky, however, could not adapt his personal nature to the new regime, and it was this, far more than his political disagreements with President Putin, that sealed his downfall. Worst of all, once the Russian oligarch had arrived in that very same West which he had sincerely viewed as a model and ideal, he turned out to be incapable of fitting in with life there – neither with political life, nor even with business. Unlike his pupil and rival Roman Abramovich, who assimilated perfectly the first rule of successful business – don’t stick your neck out unless you have to – Berezovsky was constantly coming out with one initiative or another, getting involved in political conflicts, declaring his ideas.

It became apparent that the hero of the great privatisation knew how to spend money, but had no idea of how to earn or invest it, or of how to make his capital pay. He proceeded confidently along the road to ruin.

After taking part cheerfully, recklessly and with genuine talent in the destruction of Soviet society and the destruction of its material heritage, Berezovsky was transformed from a doctor of science and a serious scholar into an oligarch and politician. At a certain point he became fabulously rich and dangerously influential. But did he become happy, even for a time?

His finale might be called tragic, if we look on him solely as the protagonist in a personal, individual history. Losing his capital, the oligarch dies alone, far from his homeland. It’s not even especially important how it happened – from an overdose of anti-depressants, suicide or a heart attack brought on by news of the impending confiscation of deposits hidden in Cyprus from the Russian and British authorities.

Large numbers of people who knew Boris Berezovsky much better than I did can now give their accounts of his personality. They can recall how he gave someone a scholarship, financed some artistic project or simply supported them materially in a difficult period – wealth gives you huge opportunities not only to routinely do evil, but also to perform individual acts of kindness. But alas, for the millions of people who lost their jobs and savings, their social status and their life’s prospects in the final decades of last century, Berezovsky remains the symbol of a nightmare, a catastrophe which Russia experienced and which, to tell the truth, it is still undergoing.

For these people, the personal tragedy of an oligarch is not as important as the triumph of historical justice. At least in one individual case