«Yeltsin had only his populist ways to fall back on: he could not challenge or reshape expectations; he could not lead the country in finding new ideals and a new rhetoric. He could only try to give the people what they wanted.
And what they wanted was decidedly not Yeltsin. Tens of millions of Russians held him personally responsible for every misfortune they had encountered over the previous ten years, for their lost hopes and their shattered dreams—even, it seemed, for their vanished youth—and they hated him passionately. Whoever came to lead the country after Yeltsin could win easy popularity by prosecuting him. What the ailing president feared most was that a political party called Otechestvo—Vsya Rossiya (Fatherland—All Russia; the name, a hybrid of two political titles, sounds as inelegant in Russian as it does in English), headed by a former prime minister and several mayors and governors, would come to power and exact revenge on Yeltsin and the Family—and that he would spend his final days in jail.
That is where Vladimir Putin came in.
As Berezovsky tells it, the Family was casting about for a successor. Incongruities of scale haunt this story. A tiny group of people, besieged and isolated, were looking for someone to take over the world’s largest landmass, with all its nuclear warheads and all its tragic history—and the only thing smaller than the pool of candidates seems to have been the list of qualifications required of them. Anyone with any real political capital and ambition—anyone with a personality commensurate with the office—had already abandoned Yeltsin. The candidates were all plain men in gray suits.
Berezovsky claims that Putin was his protégé. As he told it to me at his villa outside London—I kept my promise to forget its specific location as soon as I returned to the city—Berezovsky had met Putin in 1990, when he was looking to expand his business to Leningrad. Berezovsky was an academic turned car dealer. His business was selling the Lada—the name Russians slapped on a car shoddily made on the basis of a long-outdated Fiat. He was also importing used European cars and building service stations to fix what he sold. Putin, then a deputy of City Council chairman Anatoly Sobchak, had helped Berezovsky arrange to open a service station in Leningrad, and had declined a bribe—and that was enough to make Berezovsky remember him. “He was the first bureaucrat who did not take bribes,” Berezovsky assured me. “Seriously. It made a huge impression on me.”
Berezovsky made it a habit to “run by” Putin’s office whenever he was in St. Petersburg—given Berezovsky’s frenetic nature, these were most likely truly run-by visits during which the oligarch would storm in, chatter excitedly, and storm out, possibly without registering much of his host’s reaction. When I spoke with Berezovsky, he was hard-pressed to recall anything Putin had said to him. “But I perceived him as a sort of ally,” he said. He was impressed, too, that Putin, promoted to deputy mayor of St. Petersburg when Sobchak became mayor, later refused a position with the new mayor when Sobchak failed to be reelected.
When Putin moved to Moscow in 1996 to take an administrative job at the Kremlin, the two began to see each other more frequently, at the exclusive club Berezovsky maintained in the center of the city. Berezovsky had used his connections to arrange for “No Entry” traffic signs to be placed on both ends of a city block, essentially marking a segment of a residential street as his own. (Residents of the several apartment buildings across the street could no longer legally drive up to their homes.)
But by early 1999, Berezovsky was a man under siege—like the rest of the Family but more so: he was the only one of them who valued his place in Moscow society. Locked in a desperate and apparently losing power struggle with former prime minister Yevgeny Primakov, who led the anti-Yeltsin political alliance, Berezovsky had become something of a pariah. “It was my wife’s, Lena’s, birthday,” he told me. “And we decided not to invite a lot of people because we didn’t want anyone to have to strain their relationship with Primakov. So it was just friends. And then my security tells me, ‘Boris Abramovich, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin will be arriving in ten minutes.’ And I said, ‘What happened?’ And he said, ‘He wants to wish Lena a happy «birthday.’ And he showed up ten minutes later, with a bouquet of flowers. And I said, ‘Volodya,* what are you doing this for? You have enough problems as it is. Are you just making a show of it?’ And he says, ‘I am making a show of it, yes.’ And this was how he cemented our relationship. Starting with the fact that he would not accept a bribe. Then refusing to abandon Sobchak. And then this incident, which made me sure that he was a good, direct man—a KGB man, yes, but still a man.” It went straight to Berezovsky’s head.»
Masha Gessen: «The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin.»