Boris Berezovsky, one of the earliest and best-known Russian oligarchs, who accumulated vast wealth and influence in post-communist Russia that he struggled in later years to retain, was found dead today at his home in Surrey, England. He was 67.
Tim Bell, Berezovsky’s former public-relations adviser, confirmed the death when contacted by telephone today. Bell said he had spoken to Berezovsky’s lawyer.
The Thames Valley Police issued a statement saying they are investigating the death of a 67-year-old man at a property in Ascot, near London. The police department didn’t identify the individual by name, in line with U.K. practice, though in a statement said, “the death is currently being treated as unexplained.”
Once a multibillionaire, Berezovsky was facing mounting debts and had been entwined in numerous high-profile U.K. court cases in the previous two years.
In August, he lost one of the largest civil suits ever in U.K. courts to Roman Abramovich, the owner of Chelsea Football Club and part of the newer generation of Russian oligarchs. Following the trial Berezovsky was ordered to pay 35 million pounds ($53.3 million) in fees to his former ally by a London judge who criticized him for being “unimpressive, and inherently unreliable.”
In January, Berezovsky’s ex-girlfriend, Helena Gorbunova, won an asset-freezing order against him that covered two luxury French properties and her share of a lawsuit settlement, after saying she was promised money from the sale of an estate in Surrey, England, worth 25 million pounds.
“Mr. Berezovsky is a man under financial pressure,” Judge George Mann said in his Jan. 18 ruling. “It is likely that he will feel a more pressing need to satisfy creditors than satisfy Ms. Gorbunova.”
The legal cases were the latest blows to Berezovsky, who lived in self-imposed exile in the U.K. to avoid potential prosecution in Russia. Once a close patron of Russian power as a friend of Boris Yeltsin, in recent years he sparred publicly with Vladimir Putin.
Berezovsky was born on Jan. 23, 1946, in Moscow. He was the only child of a Jewish construction engineer and a pediatric nurse. At 23, he became a researcher at the Institute of Control Sciences, a prestigious and safe harbor for Jewish scientists, according to David E. Hoffman’s “The Oligarchs” (2002).
In 1989, Berezovsky founded his first enterprise, Logovaz, as Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev allowed opportunities for business under his policy of perestroika. The name was a combination of Italian company, Logosystem SpA, and OAO AvtoVAZ, Russia’s biggest automaker, reflecting his goal of serving as their intermediary, according to Hoffman. Logovaz grew into a dealership chain and later imported Mercedes-Benz cars.
During the Yeltsin era, Berezovsky built his political influence, serving as Security Council deputy secretary in 1996 to 1997 and as a parliament lawmaker in 1999 to 2000. He was long a symbol of Russia’s sharp-elbow brand of capitalism: In 1994, a car bomb exploded next to his Mercedes, decapitating his driver. Berezovsky escaped with burns and continued his business climb.
Berezovsky gained holdings of companies including OAO Aeroflot, the biggest nation’s airline, state-run television channel ORT and the Kommersant publishing house. He claimed stakes in OAO Sibneft, the oil producer now named OAO Gazprom Neft, and Russian Aluminum, now part of fellow billionaire Oleg Deripaska’s United Co. Rusal.
In a 2000 interview with BusinessWeek, Berezovsky acknowledged the rare circumstances that permitted him to accumulate such wealth and power.
“Today, I am at a crossroads,” he said. “Even if I have more personal possibilities, I probably won’t be able to realize them because such events will never happen again.”
After supporting Putin in his first presidential campaign in early 2000, Berezovsky fled the country for the U.K. later the same year and got political asylum three years later. Berezovsky said in an interview in 2007 that he was worth about $4 billion and that he was using some his fortune to finance “a revolution in Russia without blood.”
Forbes magazine dropped the tycoon from its rich list in 2010, after estimating his wealth at $1 billion the previous year.
In March 2010, Berezovsky won a 150,000 pound libel award against the Russian Television and Radio Broadcasting Co. and Vladimir Terluk, a man who told a Russian TV station that Berezovsky was connected to the poisoning of former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko. Terluk lost an appeal in December 2011.
Litvinenko, a critic of the Kremlin who lived in London, died in November 2006 about three weeks after he was exposed to radioactive polonium. Traces of the isotope were later discovered in at least 12 London locations by the U.K. Health Protection Agency.