NPR for North Texas
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Exiled Russian Oligarch's Death Launches British Probe


And police in Britain are piecing together the final days in the life of a Russian oligarch named Boris Berezovsky. They hope this may shed light on his sudden death this last weekend. Berezovsky used to be one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in Russia. Then he fell out with the Kremlin and sought asylum in Britain. NPR's Philip Reeves reports.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: No history book about the collapse of the Soviet Union is complete without the name of Boris Berezovsky. He was one of the first oligarchs of the new Russia, who made a fortune during the mass selloff of state assets. He used that wealth to acquire great political influence. By the mid-1990s, he was a member of the Kremlin's inner circle, propping up his close ally, President Boris Yeltsin. Andrew Wood was Britain's ambassador to Moscow back then. Wood is stunned by Berezovsky's death.

ANDREW WOOD: I was shocked and I am sad, because one should be sad for anyone. And if he killed himself, that is terrible. If he was poisoned - and it's interesting that people instantly raise that question in one way or another - that is, of course, still worse. If he had a heart attack, well, that was what was coming, anyway, so one should be grateful if it was fast.

REEVES: Berezovsky's body was discovered Saturday in his lakeside mansion at Ascot, West of London. He was 67. Reports say his bodyguard found him on the floor of a bathroom after forcing open the locked door. Police called in officers trained in chemical, biological and nuclear emergencies to search the house. That's helped fuel those rumors about poisoning. So has another strange story. Berezovsky was a close associate of Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB officer mysteriously murdered in London in 2006.

Litvinenko was poisoned by a cup of tea laced with radioactive material. Like Litvinenko, Berezovsky was very publicly hostile to the Kremlin. Thirteen years ago, Berezovsky actually helped engineer the rise to power of Russia's current president, Vladimir Putin, but the two men fell out after Putin began a campaign to cut Russia's oligarchs down to size. Berezovsky fled to Britain and went on the offensive. This is him speaking to the BBC.


REEVES: Police say so far, they found no evidence of any outside involvement in Berezovsky's death, yet in Britain, there's intense speculation over whether the Kremlin wanted him dead. Wood, the former British ambassador, was asked if that was a possibility.

WOOD: I'm not going to say that's what happened to him. It is certainly what he himself believed.

REEVES: Police investigating Berezovsky's death have much to consider. Associates of Berezovsky say he'd been depressed recently. Last year, in London, he lost one of the largest private lawsuits in history, a battle over billions with another Russian oligarch, Roman Abramovich. Berezovsky's fortune took a massive hit when he was ordered to pay costs of tens of millions of dollars. He was reportedly even more upset about the judge's comments characterizing him as dishonest and unreliable. Conspiracy theories about Berezovsky's death will flourish until and unless it's established beyond doubt that he died of natural causes. A postmortem is expected soon. Philip Reeves, NPR News, London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.