MOSCOW, March 24 - From Kremlin king-maker and billionaire tycoon to political exile in Britain, depression and a ruinous court battle, Boris Berezovsky’s rise and fall was one of the most extraordinary dramas of post-Soviet Russia.
In a country with a rich history of court intrigue and murky politics since tsarist times, Berezovsky’s maneuvering at the top of Russian politics saw him compared to Russia’s ultimate eminence grise, the “mad monk” Grigory Rasputin.
A mathematician by training, Berezovsky’s expertise at political calculus gave him power beyond his position in a career that made him many enemies - the most prominent of them Vladimir Putin, the man he helped bring to power.
But in an astonishing tale of feuding, betrayal and revenge, Berezovsky fell out with Putin and fled to Britain, where more than a decade of self-imposed exile ended in humiliation in court, divorce and the loss of a chunk of his fortune.
His unexplained death at the age of 67 in a mansion just outside London will only add to the myth-making that has followed him for years.
Friends said his defeat in a multi-billion pound legal fight against Chelsea soccer club owner Roman Abramovich in London last year had eaten away at his fortune and led to a spiral of depression.
“He had no money, he had lost it all,” Tim Bell, one of his closest British advisors, told the Sunday Times newspaper. “He was unbelievably depressed.”
The Russian edition of Forbes magazine quoted Berezovsky as saying less than 24 hours before he was found dead that he had lost sight of the “point of life”.
“I do not know what to do. I am 67 years old. And I do not know what to do next,” it quoted him as saying in an interview in the Four Seasons restaurant, which it said it conducted off the record but was publishing anyway because of his death.
“I’ve ... lost the point,” Berezovsky said.
“Of life?” asked the interviewer.
“The point of life,” Berezovsky agreed.
Berezovsky was born in Moscow on January 23, 1946. After graduating from the Moscow Institute of Timber Technology in 1967, he earned an advanced degree in physics and mathematics and membership in the prestigious Academy of Sciences.
A fierce opponent of communism, Berezovsky made his name selling cars and rose in the 1990s to control a vast financial empire based around the LogoVAZ industrial giant, which had its roots in the auto sales business.
As a friend of President Boris Yeltsin’s family, a financier of his 1996 re-election campaign and a board member of a main TV network, he helped Yeltsin overcome ill-health and a Communist challenge to win a new term.
Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov later compared Berezovsky to Rasputin, the wild-eyed monk and mystic who wielded influence over the family of the last Russian tsar, Nicholas II.
Rewarded with a seat on Yeltsin’s national Security Council, he helped implement the peace deal that ended Russia’s first war with rebels in the Chechnya region and was a go-between in talks to free hostages there.
Many - not least Berezovsky - say he played a key role in plucking Putin out of obscurity and engineering Yeltsin’s appointment of the former KGB officer as acting president when he stepped down abruptly on the last day of 1999.
“He presented (Putin) to the Russian establishment of that time, brought him into Boris Yeltsin’s close circle, and he was the first to believe that out of this indistinct bureaucrat, a successor could be made,” commentator Sergei Parkhomenko said.
But Berezovsky fell foul of the Kremlin early in Putin’s first term and moved to Britain, where he was given asylum.
Sheltered from criminal cases in which he has been sentenced to years in prison in absentia, and which he has dismissed as politically motivated, he harried Putin for a decade from London. He teamed up with other exiles to implicate the Russian state in killings and rights abuses.
Berezovsky traded unofficial accusations with Russian authorities over killings such as the polonium poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006, and survived assassination attempts himself.
In 1994, Berezovsky’s car was blown up and his driver killed - reportedly decapitated. In 2007, he said British police had warned him of a plot to assassinate him.
Russian authorities have rejected those claims as bids to blacken Russia’s reputation and tried to turn the tables, with officials and state media casting him as an almost clownishly villainous figure responsible for some of the same crimes himself.
Berezovsky’s fortunes turned when he lost a $6 billion legal battle last year with Chelsea Football Club owner Roman Abramovich, a former protege he accused of using the threat of Kremlin retribution to scare him into selling assets cheaply.
“After the loss in court ... he was in deep depression,” said Alexei Venediktov, editor of Russia’s Ekho Moskvy radio.
“I think it was probably his health, including depression, and his age,” Venediktov said of his death. “Boris Abramovich never took it easy - he was a fighter, he led an active lifestyle, and unfortunately he has left life in this way.”
Berezovsky leaves a deeply mixed reputation. Many Russians, Venediktov said, “see Boris Abramovich as a mythological figure — as Heracles or, on the contrary, as Hades.”
Additional reporting by Peter Griffiths in London and Megan Davies in Moscow; Editing by Jason Webb