Boris Berezovsky speaks to the Union

James Garner 21 November 2008

An oligarch at the Cambridge Union, what a curious juxtaposition! On the one hand you have a renown for corruption, shady dealings and physical violence. On the other, Boris Berezovsky. My lawyers remind me that Boris is one of the few oligarchs who is not, repeat, not, a rogue. Indeed, he started his business career as a used car salesman.

Compare that to Roman Abramovich. Not many people know this but he made his first turn with a fraudulent debating society. He signed members up on the pretext of having booked the Mayor of Moscow, the President of Ukraine and, implausibly, Jude Law, before running off with their roubles.

Russia, eh? It’s practically a foreign country.

Looking at Berezovsky, with his builder’s waist and his boxer’s shoulders, you might expect him to talk loudly, or at least audibly. Not so.

Thirty seconds had elapsed when a brave individual asked Berezovsky if he could speak up. “I try,” said Berezovsky, with a smile that indicated he would do no such thing.

Thus, save one girl who decisively walked out after five minutes, the chamber was forced into an stultifying silence as everyone strained to hear the Russian. You could hear a pin drop; and then scowl at the person nearest to it.

It quickly emerged that I had misjudged the mood of the evening, surely people go to hear an oligarch talk about the lives of the stinking rich? Instead Berezovsky broached the topic of something called ‘Russian politics’.

It seemed altogether less fun, and positively sinister when he was asked about President Medvedev. Channelling Rocky IV, Boris intoned, “He is nothing.” I think the fingers I saw sliding across his throat were in my imagination.

A fire alarm went off. Cue scowls of consternation in the audience as they missed Boris, still auditioning for an 80s action feature, declaring, “the West is really very weak.”

The acoustic farce reached its climax after Berezovsky began a Q and A and a string of heavily accented individuals sprang up. Boris proved his hearing was a weak as his voice, meeting a question from just three seats away with a quizzical “Vhot?”

Thankfully one questioner got away from heavier issues by asking just how pally Boris had been with Putin, noting Boris had said he only “drank a couple of times vodka with him.”

Berezovsky began to answer, “We were not best friends” but as he continued I thought how much easier it would be to clarify this in Facebook terms. Are they friends? Do they exchange messages on birthdays, but only then? Perhaps they ignore each other completely, save for when Vlad ‘accidentally’ includes Boris in one of his event invitations to six years in the gulag.

Eventually the compère asked Boris if he would take any more questions. He tried to subtlety whisper a reply but, having become accustomed to his quiet speech, we heard him answer, “maybe one more.”

This put pressure on the final questioner with two important topics left on the table: “How many cars do you have?” and “Are Chelsea buying Kaka?”

Instead, as always happens, the person selected was someone who just felt the need to speak, despite knowing nothing, not having paid attention, and being a card-carrying moron. Berezovsky had already said that “Russia is not stable,” and “I don’t see any solutions.”

She chirpily asked his thoughts on Russian “development in the next five years.” Stunned by the question, he replied, “You mean in business, or education…?” “In all areas,” she said, not taking the hint. Boris, demonstrating his unsuitability for political life, answered honestly, “I don’t know.”

James Garner