If Vladimir Putin didn’t have exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky as an enemy, the joke over the last decade in Moscow went, he would have needed to invent him. In the Kremlin narrative Berezovsky was the ideal caricature Penguin to Putin’s Batman: the evil Jewish schemer in his London palace looking to usurp good blonde Tsar Vlad. Whenever Putin had a problem state media would pin it on Berezovsky: Chechen terrorists have kidnapped a school in the Caucuses? Berezovsky is behind it. Pussy Riot? Berezovsky stooges.
Berezovsky became the symbol of the ideology Putin was presented as the antithesis of: the representative of the wild '90s of oligarchs and Yeltsin and destitution, as opposed to the "stable" Putin era. Berezovsky was always the perfect foil, reveling in his role as the great schemer, claiming from his London exile he was behind the revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia, that he would do anything to get rid of Putin. For the last half decade at least, once his last allies in the Russian parliament had been sidelined, it’s unclear whether he had much influence left in Russia at all. So both sides played along: the Kremlin pretending Berezovsky was an all-powerful master of darkness, the other continuing to act as if he were.
There were always rumors, typically conspiratorial for Moscow, that Berezovsky was in fact working with Putin, the two playing out their roles in a choreographed dance. This is hugely dubious, but there was something distinctly theatrical about their sparring, two sides of one performance. Now Berezovsky is dead the Kremlin is faced with a problem: Who will fill the role of uber-baddie to Putin’s goodie?
The easiest thing would be to pluck another exiled oligarch out of the sin bin. Vladimir Gusinsky, the exiled 1990s media magnate, is still around. Jailed oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s allies are still at liberty in the West and make no secret of their grudge against the Kremlin. The problem for Putin is that his narrative as the brave warrior against oligarchical corruption has broken down. His rule is perceived to be just as, if not more, corrupt than the ’90s. His parliamentary party, United Russia, is nicknamed the “party of crooks and thieves.” Tales of his and his best friends’ yachts and castles are ubiquitous.
So could Putin turn inside, Stalin-like, and find imaginary Trotskyist cells among his own cadres to purge? Over the last few months there have been several high-profile raids on ministers and senior bureaucrats, broadcast live on Russian TV, as the Kremlin takes the war against corruption into its own ranks. It’s a dangerous game—Putin’s support among bureaucracy and security services exists because corruption is implicitly condoned at all levels, not least among Putin’s closest allies. For the moment, the hope among the Russian elite is that the anti-corruption drive is cosmetic. If it does become real, it threatens to make the whole system eat itself, and Putin can become one of its victims.
So could Putin turn inside, Stalin-like, and find imaginary Trotskyist cells among his own cadres to purge?
Since the protest movement against corruption and Putinism’s democracy deficit began in 2011, one of the favorite buzzwords of the Kremlin has become “the majority.” The majority of Russians, United Russia politicians repeat endlessly, back Putin; the majority of Russians are against Russian children being adopted by Americans; the majority of Russians are against homosexuality. This leaves a “minority” who can be defined as the enemy: gay activists, hipsters, Pussy Riot.
But these kids make for wan enemies, after the Mephistopheles Berezovsky almost too small to pick on. And there is something a priori weak in defining yourself as the majority versus a minority. When Putin was the president of “stability” he was above politics, a tsarlike figure who could unite the whole nation. Being the president of the majority means you’ve already lost part of the country, are already in a corner. Increasingly desperate, the Kremlin has started blaming the Americans for everything. But post–Cold War, this sounds hopelessly out of date. Enough Russians travel abroad to know the world is not one huge anti-Russian conspiracy.
There is hope for the Kremlin. Bill Browder was the American investment banker who first aligned himself with Putin, making a fortune in Russia in the 1990s and early 2000s before falling out with the president and becoming a critic of his abroad. Since the death of Browder’s lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, in a Russian jail, Browder has lobbied for Western governments to ban corrupt Russian officials from entering and holding assets in the West—the Achilles heel of the Putin system.
Now Browder is rapidly becoming the Kremlin’s new Berezovsky. As a financier associated with the 1990s and American based in London, Browder ticks a convenient amount of boxes for the Kremlin. Protest leader Alexey Navalny, a young pro-Putin activist told me the other day, is a “project” of Browder ((until recently he would probably have said Berezovsky). And there is something in the onomatopoeic similarity of Browder and Berezovsky’s names which make him a natural successor.
Thursday I attended a speech by the nationalist politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky in Moscow. Zhirinovsky kept on shouting a name starting with “B” as the evil genius undermining Russia. At first I though he was saying Berezovsky, but then I noticed the “B” in question was Browder.