The Kremlin’s Noose by Amy Knight review – vital primer on Putin’s Russia and Boris Berezovsky’s death

<span>Boris Berezovsky, in a Putin mask, leaves court in London, April 2003.</span><span>Photograph: Martin Godwin/The Guardian</span>
Boris Berezovsky, in a Putin mask, leaves court in London, April 2003.Photograph: Martin Godwin/The Guardian

In the week before his mysterious death, the Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky made plans. He booked a trip to Israel. There, he intended to combine business meetings with a holiday. His 23-year-old girlfriend – one of a string of younger lovers – would join him at the beach resort of Eilat. Berezovsky spoke to friends, met the headteacher of his daughter Arina’s boarding school and enjoyed a meal of veal chops and pasta.

All of which made Berezovsky’s end – on 23 March 2013 at his ex-wife’s mansion outside London – deeply puzzling. His Israeli bodyguard found him mid-afternoon lying dead on the floor of the bathroom. Berezovsky’s cashmere scarf was tied around his neck. Surrey police concluded he hanged himself. After all, the bathroom door was locked from inside. A coroner gave an open verdict. Family members and allies were certain he was murdered.

In her definitive study of Berezovsky’s life and flamboyant times, The Kremlin’s Noose, Amy Knight leans towards the second version of events. His actions in the days leading up to his death, she writes, “do not suggest that he was a man about to take his own life”. The main suspect behind this tantalising possible crime was easy to identify. It was a person Berezovsky had, 14 years earlier, fatefully helped to become Russia’s president: one Vladimir Putin.

It’s a fascinating insight into 1990s Russia, where personal bonds counted for everything, and not much was written down

By telling the story of Putin and Berezovsky – a sort of modern reincarnation of Stalin and Trotsky – Knight shines a penetrating light on post-communist Russia. Their relationship began in 1991. Putin had come back from communist east Germany, where he had been posted as a mid-level spy, to work as an aide to Anatoly Sobchak, St Petersburg’s mayor. Berezovsky was a brainy Jewish scientist turned budding entrepreneur.

Their personalities were diametrically opposite. Berezovsky was ambitious, charismatic, wildly egotistical: a garrulous ball of relentless energy. Putin was chilly and unforthcoming. And suspicious: his thinking, as much as it could be discerned, reflected the KGB’s paranoid and xenophobic mindset. As Berezovsky told it, they developed a friendship and went on holiday together, in Russia and abroad.

In 1993, Berezovsky ingratiated himself with Boris Yeltsin by publishing the ailing president’s memoirs. Next, using his TV station, he coordinated an oligarch rescue operation that enabled Yeltsin to defeat the resurgent communists in the 1996 Kremlin election. By the second half of the decade, Berezovsky had become an indispensable Yeltsin family insider. He brokered a peace deal with rebel Chechens. Many people loathed him.

Putin, meanwhile, was rising too. In 1998, he became head of the FSB – the domestic successor to the KGB. The following year, Yeltsin picked him from relative obscurity to become Russia’s prime minister and – months later– his anointed successor. Berezovsky enthusiastically supported Putin. He saw him as a malleable figure who would guarantee his personal interests. It was a miscalculation, born of “hubris”, Knight writes, and a profound misreading of his secret-policeman protege.

Putin had his own uncompromising vision of Russia’s future. In it, there was no space for political dissent of any kind – or, it soon turned out, for Berezovsky. In 2000, the oligarch criticised Putin’s second war in Chechnya. A further row came that August when the Kursk submarine sank and Berezovsky’s ORT TV channel slammed Putin for failing to return from a Black Sea holiday. Berezovsky was told to sell his TV station or go to jail. Instead, he chose exile, decamping to London.

From an office in Mayfair, Berezovsky launched a bitter and noisy campaign to throw mud at Russia’s leadership. His thesis: Putin was a danger, not just to Russians, whose rights were being briskly rolled up, but to the world. Berezovsky was prescient. Few decision-makers heeded his warnings. Putin responded in characteristically vengeful fashion, sending assassins to London. They included two killers who in 2006 poisoned Berezovsky’s close aide Alexander Litvinenko with radioactive tea.

Six months later, the oligarch told the Guardian he was planning the violent overthrow of Russia’s regime. The claim was untrue: it was Boris hyperbole. My byline was on the story; I had called the Kremlin for a quote. The FSB subsequently broke into my family flat in Moscow, bugging it, and summoned me for interrogation. I was eventually deported. It was a sign of Berezovsky’s extraordinary toxicity for Putin’s spy agencies, and of the Kremlin’s new swaggering international confidence.

As Knight notes, Berezovsky was good at tactics but terrible at strategy. In 2011, he sued Roman Abramovich for $5.6bn in the high court in London. Berezovsky alleged he had been forced to sell his assets in the oil firm Sibneft at a knockdown price. Abramovich denied this. It was the biggest private litigation case in British legal history, and a fascinating insight into 1990s Russia, where personal bonds counted for everything, and not much was written down.

I bumped into Berezovsky in the lift. He was an ebullient figure, confident of victory. The verdict, by Mrs Justice Gloster, came as a crushing blow. She dismissed Berezovsky as “deliberately dishonest”, praised the Chelsea FC owner as “truthful”, and exonerated Putin. The judgment was bizarre and one-sided. According to friends, it left him depressed, but mildly so. Outside court, Berezovsky struck a stoical note, observing​: “Life is life.”

Berezovsky had many flaws, not least a capacity for self-sabotage. But he was right about Putin’s ruthless and murderous nature. The list of dead Kremlin opponents grew in the years following Berezovsky’s demise. They include his friend and fellow exile Nikolai Glushkov, who was strangled in 2018 at his home in New Malden. (His killer staged a fake suicide.) Boris Nemtsov was shot in Moscow. And in February this year, Putin’s biggest rival Alexei Navalny suddenly died in a gulag.

Knight – a Soviet and Russian affairs specialist – has written an invaluable primer on Moscow’s transformation from semi-democracy under Yeltsin into ​today’s “closed fortress”. Berezovsky would not have been surprised by Putin’s 2022 full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Or by Russia’s ongoing struggle with the west. The riddle of ​his death may only be explained once Putin finally exits the Kremlin. For now, that moment seems a long way off.

Luke Harding’s Invasion: Russia’s Bloody War and Ukraine’s Fight for Survival is published by Guardian Faber (£10.99)

• The Kremlin’s Noose: Vladimir Putin’s Bitter Feud With the Oligarch Who Made Him Ruler of Russia by Amy Knight is published by Icon (£25). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply