I was at a conference in Moscow for international journalists to meet members of Russian political parties when the news came through of Boris Berezovsky’s death. ‘It’s the end of an era,’ someone said. The standard account, especially on Russian state news, is that Berezovsky’s era ended long ago: he personified the ‘wild’ 1990s, the antithesis to the ‘stable’ Putin era. But look closer and you see that the Putin era is not the antithesis but the apotheosis of the tactics, patterns and attitudes that Berezovsky put in place.
‘We raped the media,’ Berezovsky confessed in an interview with Snob magazine earlier this year, talking about the elections in the 1990s when he used his control of television and the Kremlin to buy off journalists, magic up pseudo-parties, transform Putin’s image from grey bureaucrat to strongman, and engender a politics where the show was all and content was nothing. One of the Kremlin’s many tricks in the late 1990s was to use the nationalist demagogue Vladimir Zhirinovsky as a potential (and puppet) fascist threat to frighten both Russians and Western observers into the arms of the Kremlin’s party.
Zhirinovsky was the first politician to speak to us at the conference. ‘The translator will have trouble making you understand how much I hate all of you Western journalists,’ he said. ‘The West is dirt, dead carrion, spreading its disease across the world.’ In the 1990s Zhirinovsky still had the potential to cause genuine alarm: now he was smiling and we were laughing; after two decades of the Zhirinovsky show, he knows that we know he is a ruse, and we know he knows we know. All there is left to do is for both sides to play a mock version of the original game.
After Zhirinovsky’s fascist fireworks came Sergey Zheleznyak, the speaker for United Russia, the party of power. A dull man in a nice suit with an MBA from a Swiss university, Zheleznyak was meant to convey a sense of the sensible. United Russia (originally called Unity) was created by Berezovsky in 1999 as a parliamentary base for Putin. ‘I meant Unity as one-off condom, a party to make sure Putin won, later I planned to give it an ideology,’ Berezovsky said in 2011. The one-off condom never gained an ideology, but it has been Putin’s base ever since.
Now the ‘party of crooks and thieves’ is collapsing in on itself, and a burden rather than a prop for the Kremlin. ‘Our main mission for the next term is to fight corruption,’ Zhleznyak said, to titters from the journalists: he has himself been accused of corruption by the protest leader Aleksei Navalny (Zheleznyak says his expensive lifestyle, vastly disproportionate to his parliamentary income, is funded by savings built up during his time working in an advertising company belonging to Rupert Murdoch).
Then it was the turn of the pseudo-opposition parties Just Russia and the Communists. ‘You always vote together with United Russia on major policies,’ a German journalist said. ‘How can you say there is any real opposition in Russia?’
‘Of course we always back the Kremlin on matters of national importance,’ the Just Russia representative replied, not even trying to pretend he belonged to a genuine opposition party (why bother – we all know it isn’t).
After being exiled to London, Berezovsky never left the front pages in Russia, becoming the bogeyman for all the conspiracy theories the Kremlin would spread to strengthen its position: a typically Berezovskian strategy. But he was the bogeyman because he was a caricatured reflection of the system rather than someone who was actually different from it.
‘I found Mr Berezovsky an unimpressive, and inherently unreliable, witness,’ Mrs Justice Gloster said in the recent case he brought against Roman Abramovich, which finally destroyed both his fortune and his reputation. He ‘regarded truth as a transitory, flexible concept, which could be moulded to suit his current purposes’. She could almost have been summing up the Kremlin’s power strategy since the mid-1990s. When Muscovites took to the streets in 2011 it was not just because they were sick of Putin personally (they were), but as a response to a model of politics that Berezovsky established: another faked election, another Kremlin-scripted show of a change of power. Could it really be the end of an era?