When Alexander Dobrovinsky, lawyer to Russia's rich and famous, announced on his Facebook [ru] that Boris Berezovsky, controversial Russian oligarch living as a refugee in London, had committed suicide, RuNet reacted with disbelief.
Berezovsky, a Shakespearean character, who by his own admission [ru] was instrumental in bringing Vladimir Putin to power only to be betrayed by him and exiled from Russia, was indeed found dead in his posh suburban London home last Saturday, March 23, 2013. However, the police did not immediately disclose the cause of his death, prompting speculations about what actually happened.
At first, bloggers agreed that while it was likely that Berezovsky could have died from a heart attack (he was after all sixty-seven years old), the idea of him committing suicide was less believable. Even Maxim Kononenko and Sergey Parkhomenko, usually deathly foes, saw eye to eye: Kononenko writing [ru] that given the type of person Berezovsky was, suicide was “unthinkable”; Parkhomenko saying [ru] that when he saw Berezovsky a year ago he looked far from a “potential suicide.” Andrey Sidelnikov, another London refugee and former leader of the youth movement Pora, also wrote [ru]:
Хотел бы сказать всем, кто распространяет заведомо ложную информацию о самоубийстве Бориса Березовского, прекратите врать! Я знал Бориса более 11 лет и такой человек как он никогда не мог покончить с собой. Он был исключительно жизнерадостным человеком, и несмотря на разные неудачи в жизни, всегда оставался таким.
I wanted to say to everyone who is distributing the patently false information about Boris Berezovsky's suicide, stop lying! I knew Boris for more than 11 years and a man like him could never have ended his own life. He was an extremely cheerful person, and notwithstanding various setbacks in life, he remained that way.
Sidelnikov ended his post darkly hinting that Berezovsky's death was a political assassination with involvement of Russian intelligence forces. Considering that after Berezovsky left Russia he became staunchly anti-Putin (apocryphally, funding at least part of the Russian opposition movement), such theories spread even before the Thames Valley Police finally revealed that his death was “consistent with hanging”, with “nothing to indicate a violent struggle” — i.e. police-speak that seems to imply Berezovsky actually committed suicide.
A commenter on Maksim Kononenko's blog, for instance, wrote a darkly humorous poem [ru]:
Вновь прислали из колоний
Directly from the colonies
They sent us great polonium…
The commenter was referring to the death of Alexander Litvinenko, a former FSB officer living in London, from polonium poisoning. Litvinenko was connected to Berezovsky, and his death was widely assumed to have been an assassination. Others had similar ideas. Blogger Roustem Adagamov tweeted [ru] (a tweet that he later deleted) right away:
Я ни в какой инфаркт и самоубийство не верю. БАБа нашли в ванной, как пишут норвежцы. Я думаю, что просто убрали свидетеля
I don't believe in any heart attacks or suicide. BAB [Boris Abramovich Berezovsky — a common shorthand] was found in a bathtub, as the Norwegians are writing. I simply think that they took out a witness
After the police report came out, Adagamov tweeted [ru]:
Ну т.е. остается вопрос: он сам себя задушил или его задушили.
So there remains a question: did he asphyxiate himself, or was he asphyxiated.
Other bloggers questioned the police report. The actor Stanislav Sadalsky blogged [ru] that hanging seems an odd choice, since Berezovsky was “smart” and had to have known that it was an “unsightly” way to commit suicide. Journalist Arkady Babchenko thought about potential motives, speculating [ru] that Berezovsky might have been killed to contain some kind of kompromat on Putin. Meanwhile, the commenters of Andrey Malgin's blog, their interest piqued, picked apart the phrasing of the press release, sometimes confused by the translation. (It must be said that Russian mass media have not helped the situation, ubiquitously using the word “udushenie” or “asphyxiation”, to describe what happened, rather than “hanging” used by the police. The word “udushenie” carries connotations of violence.) For example, one commenter triumphantly concluded [ru]:
VIOLENT struggle – не было следов ГРУБОГО насилия (борьбы). А негрубого значит были.
VIOLENT struggle – there were no signs of ROUGH violence (struggle). That means that there were signs of non-rough struggle.
Not everyone who thinks that Berezovsky was murdered claims Kremlin involvement. Pro-Kremlin political scientist Sergey Markov, for example, thought [ru] that Berezovsky could have been killed by western intelligence agencies:
Когда стало ясно, что БАБ решил перейти в Россию с покаянием, стало ясно, что БАБ сдаст российским спецслужбам всю инфо о том, кто из западных спецслужб пытается прямо работать на свержение Путина.
When it became clear that BAB decided to come back to Russia, penitent, it became clear that BAB will giver the Russian intelligence all the info about who out of western intelligence is trying to work directly at toppling Putin.
Journalist Oleg Kozyrev has a different idea — he thinks [ru] that Berezovsky was murdered by Bill Browder, head of Hermitage Capital (the company that is involved in the Magnitsky case), in order to cover up his involvement in embezzling several billion dollars worth of IMF funds loaned to Russia in the late nineties. All agree, however, that if Berezovsky was assassinated, this was the right time to do it. In the words [ru] of blogger Vladimir Golishev, Putin waited until Berezovsky:
[…] окажется в ситуации, хотя бы отдалённо напоминающей пред-суицидальную.
[…] was in a situation even remotely reminiscent of a pre-suicidal one.
Did Berezovsky have reasons to commit suicide? It appears that he did. Recently he lost a case in the British courts against another Russian billionaire, Roman Abramovich, and many bloggers agree that this took an emotional toll, besides from possibly bankrupting him. His acquaintance, Elena Chekalova wrote [ru]:
Где-то месяц назад от общего знакомого узнала, что все продано, что он разорен проигранным судом с Абрамовичем и совсем обнищал, что он просит взаймы даже 100 фунтов, что сам сидит за рулем старой машины […]
About a month ago I found out from a mutual acquaintance that everything is sold off, he has been bankrupted by the lost case with Abramovich and has been completely paupered, that he asks people to loan him 100 pounds, and drives his old car on his own […]
DemVybor's Kirill Shulika concurred [ru]:
Источники в Лондоне рассказывают, что БАБа сильно подкосил проигранный Абрамовичу суд. […] Версия самоубийства правдоподобна, ибо олигарх сейчас был в состоянии глубочайшей депрессии из-за финансовых проблем и невозможности вернуться в Россию.
My sources in London tell me that BAB was really shattered by his loss to Abramovich. […] Suicide is likely, since the oligarch was in a state of deep depression about financial problems and his inability to return to Russia.
This theory is supported by a short piece published in the Russian Forbes [ru], which is billed as Berezovsky's last interview. It is a record of an off-the-record conversation the journalist had with Berezovsky shortly prior to his death, in which Berezovsky muses about existence and says things like “I don't see any meaning in life.”
Berezovsky's legacy is unclear. As popular blogger Ilya Varlamov tweeted:
Больше всего по поводу ухода БАБа сокрушается либиральный полит-твиттер, забыв, что именно БАБ привел к власти Путина.
BAB's departure mostly upsets the liberal political-twitter, who have forgotten that it was BAB that brought Putin to power.
As in life, so in death Berezovsky remains a divisive, polarizing figure. Did he get what he deserved [ru]? Did he auto-erotically asphyxiate himself [ru]? Did Putin murder him, and so cross a line [ru] behind which lies “bloody mayhem”? People can't even seem to agree on the little things, a point proven all too well in a Facebook post by journalist Mikhail Degtyar, which begins [ru]:
В действительности, последним интервьюером Бориса Березовского был я.
In reality, the last interviewer of Boris Berezovsky was me.