MOSCOW — Boris Berezovsky, 67, an exiled Russian ex-tycoon who played a key role in bringing Vladimir Putin to power, only to have a bitter falling out, has died in Britain, according to his family and Russian news reports.
Berezovsky had claimed to be the subject of assassination attempts, and there were conflicting reports Saturday about the circumstances of his death.
Rossiya 24, a Russian television news channel, reported that he was found dead in the bathroom of his London home. Other reports said he died at his home in the county of Surrey in the south of England. Well-known Russian lawyer Alexander Dobrovinsky said he learned from a close friend of Berezovsky that he had committed suicide.
Thames Valley police would not directly identify him, but told the Associated Press that the death was being treated as unexplained.
Born in 1946 to a Jewish family in Moscow, Berezovsky earned a degree in mathematics and worked as an engineer and researcher until shortly before the breakup of the Soviet Union, when he set up a private car-trading company.
That endeavor brought him his first millions of dollars, and by 1995, he also ran a bank and helped found Russia’s main national television network.
The next year, he helped organize a group of the richest and most influential Russian oligarchs to back and finance President Boris Yeltsin’s election campaign, which resulted in a controversial runoff victory.
Yeltsin returned the favor, granting Berezovsky and other oligarchs lavish chunks of state property.
Berezovsky eventually had interests in or controlled the Sibneft oil company, two television networks, the largest Russian air travel company, newspapers, magazines, a radio station and a car firm. His wealth was said to run into the billions of dollars.
Berezovsky’s political career also flourished during the late 1990s, when he served as the deputy head of Russia’s Security Council and held the post of executive secretary of the CIS, a union of post-Soviet states. From 1999 to 2000, he was a member of the lower house of Russian parliament.
Berezovsky said he first met Putin in 1991 and that he assisted in promoting him to chief of the FSB, the domestic successor to the Soviet KGB. Seven years later, he allegedly masterminded the campaign for Putin to succeed the ailing Yeltsin as acting president. In late 1999 and early 2000, Berezovsky conducted an unprecedented media campaign to help Putin win the presidential election.
“Berezovsky had an extremely brilliant mind of a mathematician and he also was a genius of political schemes and intrigues, but he grossly miscalculated Putin, which became his fatal mistake and largely served his ultimate undoing,” said Sergei Markov, a member of the Public Chamber, a Kremlin advisory body, and a staunch supporter of Putin.
Shortly after Putin came to power, he distanced himself from most of Yeltsin’s favorite oligarchs and demanded that they return major television companies to the state and pay full taxes on revenues from their oil businesses.
“Those who tried to oppose were thrown out of favor, including Boris Berezovsky, Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky,” Markov said.
Khodorkovsky is now in prison and Gusinsky is in exile in Spain.
Berezovsky had lived in Britain since 2003 and had been sought by Russian authorities, who said they suspected him of embezzling $47 million and conspiring to bring down the constitutional structure of the Russian Federation.
Over the years, Berezovsky conducted an active campaign to discredit Putin, including accusing the Kremlin of having organized explosions at residences in Moscow and two other cities, which resulted in hundreds of deaths and led to the war with Chechnya that helped consolidate Putin’s grip on power.
Last year, Berezovsky begged the public to forgive him for helping elevate Putin to the presidency.
“I repent and ask for forgiveness for bringing Vladimir Putin to power,” he wrote on his Facebook account Feb. 26, 2012. “I should have but I failed to see in him a future avid tyrant and usurper, a man who trampled upon freedom and halted the development of Russia.”
Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that Berezovsky recently asked Putin to forgive him too. “Some time ago Berezovsky passed a letter to Putin, written personally by him, in which he admitted having committed very many mistakes, asked Putin for forgiveness for these mistakes and addressed Putin with a request to be offered a possibility to return to the motherland,” Peskov told Rossiya 24.
In 1994, Berezovsky narrowly escaped an attempt on his life in a car explosion in downtown Moscow. His driver died.
In 2007, British police warned Berezovsky of a plan to assassinate him, and he fled the country for several weeks. In the meantime the police reportedly arrested a Russian suspect in a London hotel and expelled him to Russia.
Berezovsky blamed Putin for a number of assassinations, including that of former intelligence agent Alexander Litvinenko, who defected to Britain shortly after Berezovsky and whose body was found to have contained radioactive polonium.
Russian authorities, in turn, blamed Berezovsky for several killings, including that of Litvinenko.
In recent years, Berezovsky was believed to have suffered major financial setbacks, including a failed suit against pro-Putin oligarch Roman Abramovich, whom he accused of blackmailing him into selling him his shares of Sibneft.
“I know that Berezovsky has recently been living under tremendous stress given his deplorable financial situation,” attorney Dobrovinsky said. “Quite recently he asked our common friend to lend him $5,000 for a plane ticket, so bad his affairs were.”
Lilia Shevtsova, a senior researcher with the Moscow Carnegie Center, said that overall, his contribution to Russian history was largely negative.
“Berezovsky was one of the most talented and vicious minds of the time, and by creating what he thought would be his obedient Frankenstein he created the leader and the regime that threw the country back in time, and Berezovsky himself became one of the first victims of the regime,” she said.
His survivors include six children and a grandchild.