Boris Berezovsky and Putin’s Catch 22


Andrei Piontkovsky


Andrei Piontkovsky is the Director of the Moscow Strategic Research Center and Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C. He is the author of “Another Look into Putin’s Soul”.


The former Russian tycoon Boris Berezovsky has stated  he is plotting the violent overthrow of President Putin from his base in Britain after forging close contacts with members of Russia's  rulling elite. In his April 13th interview to the Guardian the multimillionaire claimed he was already bankrolling people close to the president who are conspiring to mount a palace coup." We need to use force to change the regime, " - he said . " It isn't possible to change this regime through democratic means. There can be no change without force, pressure." Asked if he was effectively formenting a revolution . he said: "You are absolutely correct".

In the 1930s Lev Trotsky repeated, in numerous interviews for Western newspapers and radio stations, that he had a vast number of supporters in the Soviet Union, including military personnel, secret policemen,  and members of the top echelons of the administrative apparatus of the Communist Party.  These, he claimed, included many who had earlier fought against Trotskyism.  “Every day I am directly and indirectly in contact with very many people who are persuaded of the necessity of replacing the Stalin regime and that it is impossible to remove Stalin from power by means of intra-party democracy,” the  leader of the October 1917 Bolshevik revolution confided.

It is difficult to judge how far these claims were based on delusion and how far they were  based on cynical political and psychological calculation.

Assuredly, many top dogs of the Russian Communist establishment of the time were giving vent to their disgruntlement in private.  But most probably Lev Davydovich harbored few illusions regarding the Soviet establishment.   On the other hand, he was fully acquainted with the paranoid psychology of the man he so recklessly underestimated when describing him as the “most outstanding mediocrity in our Party.”  Having deliberately set up the entire Soviet “elite” (military personnel, secret policemen, etc., etc.), he supposed that the repressions unleashed by the paranoid dictator would be so monstrous in scope that they would detonate an explosion of outrage which would then sweep away the Stalin regime.

The first part of his prognosis proved accurate, but the follow-up forcible overthrow of Stalin somehow did not follow. In the show trials, the elite corroborated in great and imaginative detail everything Comrade Trotsky had trumpeted urbi et orbi and then and with a sense of having performed their duty to the Party, they climbed the scaffold with cries of “Long live Comrade Stalin!”  The final chord in this heroic symphony was the blow struck with an alpenstock by Ramón Mercader, Hero of the Soviet Union, at Trotsky’s head.  The Moor had done his work, the Moor could go.

Seventy years have passed and, as in Hegel’s bad infinity, we hear once more, only now from London, those same words:  “Military, business circles and the secret services, an enormous number of supporters , for the past year and a half we have been preparing a forcible seizure of power.” What are we to make of this megalomaniac stream of consciousness?  This time there is no possibility of delusion.  Trotsky created the Red Army, not just several financial pyramids like Berezovsky.  He did have some loyal supporters.  Berezovsky has none and never could have and he knows it.

So what does that leave?  If our supreme leader was able to believe on February 23, 2004 in a conspiracy to seize power, and possibly also assassinate our Most August Ruler, and that the author of this plan was the exceedingly mild-mannered Mikhail Kasyanov, why should he not believe in a ramified conspiracy among these elites, orchestrated from abroad by the fugitive oligarch behind whom there stand, needless to say, those familiar “traditional powerful and dangerous enemies of Russia who dream of weakening and dismembering her”?

The Kremlin provocateurs and propagandists do not have to invent anything in order to scare either their boss or society.  Boris Berezovsky obligingly offers them all the arguments they could possibly need, once more dazzlingly confirming my characterization of him on the pages of Grani on his sixtieth birthday:  “For the past six years Berezovsky has been acting as an extremely valuable foreign agent for Putin by trying to ‘head,’ and thereby discrediting, any opposition to Putin’s regime.”

Finally, let us note a strange aberration in the political mindset of such exceptional people as Trotsky and Berezovsky.  Did Trotsky, who undoubtedly passionately desired to see Stalin removed, really not understand that the overthrow of Stalin’s Communist regime would put him, along with all the other “Old Bolsheviks,” in the dock, where they would have to answer, not just for fictitious crimes dreamed up by Stalin , but for the entirely real crimes against humanity that were committed in the course of the civil war they unleashed on Russia?

At my instigation, a call has been inserted in the program of the Yabloko Party for the “removal from power of the Putin regime by all possible constitutional means.”  We will attempt to do this for many reasons, not least to enable a trial to take place in Russia of all those guilty of organizing the series of outrages which led to the Second Chechen War:  Basaev’s raid on Dagestan, the blowing up of apartment blocks (with their occupants) in Moscow and Volgodonsk, FSB “exercises” in the basement of an apartment block in Ryazan, etc.

Once he was in emigration, Berezovsky began claiming, and clearly knew what he was talking about, that these explosions were the work not of Chechens but of the Russian authorities.  In the process, he omitted to mention who was effectively ruling Russia in autumn 1999.  The highest authority in the land was the team in charge of “Operation Successor,” (Berezovsky, Voloshin, Yumashev, Diachenko) who were acting on behalf of an incapable President.  By means of the incursion of Basaev and Hattab in Dagestan, the blowing up of apartments in Russian cities, and the destructive war in Chechnya, they and their television hitmen ushered into the presidency a certain Vladimir Putin, who at the time was totally unknown and unable to take any independent decisions.  Their aim was to avert a takeover of the Kremlin by the rival clan of Luzhkov and Primakov, which threatened their business interests.

The shameful secret of how the Putin regime was conceived binds Putin and Berezovsky with a single chain.  It seems strange that they fail to understand this.  Or perhaps they know it full well, and that is why they pass the ball to each other so deftly.

That is partially the reason why the nature of the conflict over Putin’s successor is quite different from the successor-2000 problem.

In 2000 the successor had to be marketed to an electorate 100 million strong.  We all remember what a huge firework display was required, involving Basaev’s raid on Dagestan and the blowing up of apartment blocks in Moscow. In 2008 there will be no need to market the successor to anyone.  The electorate has been satisfactorily dealt with and will now swallow anything.  In any case, nobody is going to ask its opinion.

All that is required is for Putin to reach agreement with the inner circle of his entourage, five or ten of the boys of the Petersburg Brigade.  This is where the problems begin. The conflict is already spilling out of Churchill's “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”, as the terrible truth becomes evident to Putin’s cronies that He really does want to get out: " Long has the weary slave planned his escape."  In The Brigade, however, a certain equilibrium has been established and “The Chief” cannot simply give orders or make arrangements there, let alone appoint successors.  He needs to negotiate the terms of his departure, if he can, with his business partners.

Most see his longing to get out as easily explicable in a still youthful and no doubt wealthy man:  he does very much want for the next twenty years or so to be another kind of Roman Abramovich.  As a certain Russian billionaire irrefutably remarked, we Russians should, after all, be allowed to compensate ourselves for decades of tragedy and deprivation.  This feeling is undoubtedly present in the psyche of the boy from the Petersburg communal apartment, but it is not by any means dominant.

Putin understands very well the pitiless laws of the system he has built up step by step over the past seven years.  If he takes that final step of agreeing to a third term, he is accepting a life sentence.  He will move into a new existential realm;  he will enter that world of shadows from whose bourne no traveller returns.  The darkness at noon of the Kremlin will engulf him forever.  Not only will he never become a Roma, or Vova, Abramovich, he will never become anyone or anything again.

When Joseph Stalin lost, if he did, the argument on the agrarian question to Nikolai Bukharin in 1929, he could still, if he had so wished, have gone to work at the Institute of Red Professors teaching a course on “Marxism and the National Question” to students in the Workers’ Faculty.  Alternatively, he could have gone home to Georgia, cultivated a vineyard and made his own wine.  So many things he could have done.

Only a few years passed before, as the ruler of one-sixth of the Earth, resigning his position would have been tantamount to standing up against the nearest wall in front of a firing squad.  He had another twenty long years of that before his beloved comrades-in-arms found him where he had been lying unconscious on the floor in a pool of his own urine for twenty-four hours.

But let us return to our present-day hero.  The more doggedly he tries to get out, the more they hate him;  and the more desperately he wants to break free and never let these people hold sway over his life and destiny.  Unfortunately, beyond the confines of his immediate entourage he has nobody.  Beyond there is a scorched earth of his own making in which tens of thousands of “Our People”, his “Nashi”, are marching in T-shirts bearing his portrait.

Two Jungian archetypes were impressed forever on the infant psychology of the future president, and they often burst through from his unconscious to the verbal level:  the cornered rat, and the boy clutching candy in his sweaty fist.