Russian Capitalism and the Death of Boris Berezovsky

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I was in the midst of interviewing former KGB officer Konstantin Preobrazhenskiy when we learned the news that the Russian “oligarch” and tycoon Boris Berezovsky had died. I couldn’t resist asking Mr. Preobrazhenskiy his thoughts on Berezovsky’s life, which turned into a fascinating discourse on the nature of Russian capitalism. To give readers a little background, Konstantin Georgiyevich Preobrazhenskiy worked for the KGB as a spy in Japan from 1980-85 and was an advisor on China, Japan and Korea to Leonid Zaitsev, the Head of the KGB’s Technical Intelligence Directorate “T” in the First Chief Directorate.

I wanted to know how Russia’s billionaires made their money. The answer is not what many would expect to hear. “As far as I know,” replied Preobrazhenskiy, “Berezovsky did not conceal very much the fact of his being a KGB collaborator. Such collaboration in the Soviet period was normal for scholars of Jewish origin, especially those who were engaged in natural science. The USSR was a country of official anti-Semitism, and it was very hard for a Jewish Scholar to get a Ph.D. And in 1983 Berezovsky became a Doctor of Technical Science, which is higher than a Ph.D.! It was the year of Andropov’s fight against dissidents and especially against Jews willing to repatriate to Israel. Under such conditions, a Jewish scholar simply could not get his doctorate without contacting the KGB and proving his loyalty to the Soviet Union.”

Should we be shocked at Preobrazhenskiy’s statement? As this column has explained again and again, the fall of the Soviet Union was not a straightforward event; and the new Russian economy, the new business climate, and the new men of business, were not like their Western counterparts. This is because they were not chosen by the market. They were, in fact, chosen by the KGB. According to Preobrazhenskiy, “In the early 1990s Berezovsky became one of the first Russain oligarchs. How? Nobody knows. As far as I know, the oligarchs were mostly reliable KGB agents to whom the KGB gave Communist Party money in order to turn them into KGB milk cows.”

It is only obvious to those who understood how the old Soviet system worked, that the new system was founded squarely upon the old. And if Boris Berezovsky was a KGB agent before becoming an oligarch, he was not alone. He was part of a systemic transplantation wherein KGB agents were made into billionaires because the new Russia needed billionaires in the same sense that a modeling agency needs models. “Or maybe you think that oligarch Vladimir Gusinsky was not a KGB agent?” Preobrazhenskiy asked as he tested my credulity. “If so, then why was one of the leading councilors of his company (MOST) an elderly Army General named Philip Bobkov, a former head of the Fifth Directorate of the KGB? The Fifth Directorate was fighting dissidents and, in particular, Jews, and had a lot of Jewish collaborators. In the 1990s I was still living in Moscow, and my friends told me that Gusinsky was paying Bobkov 10 or 12 thousand dollars monthly. What for? It might be, sort of, ‘good-bye money’ to his KGB recruiter.”

And then Preobrazhensky began going down the list of Russian oligarchs, noting their KGB connections and special relationships: “Another famous Russian oligarch, Roman Abramovich, is a KGB agent too. The late Alexander Litvinenko told me about this.  Alexander Litvinenko was an FSB officer poisoned [with polonium-210] in London in 2006. He told me that the KGB had recruited Abramovich as a soldier during his conscript service in the Soviet Army. The KGB was backing them all: Berezovsky, Gusinsky, Abramovich, like all the other Russian oligarchs. That is why it’s so hard to guess the reason for Berezovsky’s death. In fact, being a KGB collaborator does not give you any life guarantees! Mostly it’s the other way around: if you are a KGB collaborator, it is very easy for you to die.”

Of course, a secret agent would have secrets. And sometimes those secrets are best kept in the grave. What was Berezovsky doing in the last years of his life? How did he come to be at odds with the Kremlin? There is a mystery around this man, and the mystery is as impenetrable as Russia itself. “In Russia,” said Preobrazhensky, “Berezovsky was ill-liked, and here in America some of my friends thought Berezovsky was still on Putin’s side…. But nevertheless, Berezovsky has managed to accomplish so many important historical tasks. These were deeds that any other mortal man could hardly do. These included the ascension of Putin, the war in Chechnya, constructing the political structure of Russia and many outstanding business projects.”

In an article written for The Washington Post in 2000, Berezovsky argued that since Russia had almost no middle class it was up to Russia’s tycoons to “interfere directly” in Russia’s political process and stop the “former” communists from retaking full control. But the humble Jewish academician was no match for the not-so-humble KGB master, Vladimir Putin. On 17 July , 2000, Berezovsky resigned from the Duma, saying he didn’t want to be part of an authoritarian restoration. He used his media empire to criticize the Kremlin until President Putin publicly warned, “The state has a cudgel in its hands that you use to hit just once, but on the head. We haven’t used this cudgel yet. We’ve just brandished it…. On the day we get really angry, we won’t hesitate to use it.” Such was the signal for Berezovsky’s exile.

I remember conversing with the Republic of Korea’s ambassador to Russia in April 2001 at a conference. I asked her about her experiences in Moscow and she was positively mesmerized by one person: - Boris Berezovsky. “I think he’s a genius,” she told me. And so, indeed, he must have been an extraordinary man. “As an Orthodox Christian,” said Preobrazhenskiy, “I appreciate very much his conversion to Orthodoxy in 1994. That is why, now, Berezovsky is suffering the trial of our Lord Jesus Christ, which is far more just than any human court.”

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