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The life and death of Boris Berezovsky should serve as a cautionary tale

Comparing the fate of the Russian oligarch and the life of Pope Francis is sad but instructive

By on Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Boris Berezovsky (Photo: PA)

March has seen the dramatic life changes of two very different men: the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires who has been elected Pope Francis and the catastrophic end to the life of the former Russian oligarch, Boris Berezovsky.

Reading all the recent news items about our new Holy Father and the obituaries of Berezovsky, I could not help comparing these two personalities: the first who followed his vocation into the rigorous Jesuit Order and who, despite his rise in the ranks of the hierarchy, has always tried to lead a simple, unostentatious lifestyle, and the second, who rose from obscurity as a maths professor, amassed an enormous fortune, and who met his death in his mansion in Surrey.

Berezovsky is a tragic figure. After the collapse of the Soviet Union he, along with a handful of others, such as football-loving Roman Abramovich (who eventually proved his nemesis) cashed in on the spoils, effectively looting the vast country of its wealth. As his Times obituary comments, “It was a cut-throat business, in which corruption, fraud and violence played significant roles.” According to this same obituary, by 1997 Forbes magazine estimated he was worth $3 billion.

His fortune bought him great influence over the ailing Russian President, Boris Yeltsin, and the temptations of power-mongering made him support the political ambitions of Yeltsin’s heir, Vladimir Putin. When Putin (predictably, one thinks in hindsight) then repudiated him he came to live in exile in England. Yet he never recovered from the betrayal of the man he had helped to power. He also grieved at his permanent exile from the country he loved. Although he owned several properties worth millions, both here and abroad, alongside a posse of bodyguards and flunkeys, his domestic life was increasingly unhappy. He became estranged from the mothers of his six children and after losing spectacularly his court case against Abramovich last year he was also heavily in debt. It seems that at the time of his untimely death he was living alone, apart from a single bodyguard. His trajectory has echoes of Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens: the glitz, the power, the parties – and the ultimate hollowness behind all purely worldly ambitions.

Berezovsky’s life contrasts starkly with that of Bergoglio, the quiet boy from a working-class suburb of Buenos Aires who, as Pope, has taken the name of St Francis of Assisi, the saint always associated with voluntary poverty of a radical kind. Unlike the self-aggrandising Russian oligarch, the Pope has lived a life of service towards others, exercising a loving and self-sacrificing ministry. This flows naturally from his Christian faith.

In his Letter to Catechists for 2012, written as Archbishop of Buenos Aires and publicised by Catholic World Report for March 21, he writes, “Joy is the door for the proclamation of the Good News and also for the consequence of living in faith…This Christian joy is a gift of God that springs naturally from the personal encounter with the Risen Christ and faith in him.”

Bergoglio warned the catechists “never [to] allow the evil spirit to spoil the work to which you have been called. An evil spirit that has very concrete manifestations that are easy to detect: anger, ill treatment, closed-mindedness, contempt, negativity, routine, murmuring, gossip…” We have all had experience of these. Berezovsky, although from a Jewish background, does not appear to have had any religious belief; in his rise to riches, his business dealings, in the thuggish atmosphere of Kremlin politics and in his years of exile, he would known all these “manifestations” (except perhaps “routine”) and much worse. What desolation would have thus attended his final hours, glimpsed through the press reports and in the reactions of his associates.

I feel no sense of the schadenfreude normally associated with reading about a life like his. God have mercy on his soul.

  • Benedict Carter

    I lived in Russia for very many years. To this day, one encounters there the remains of human beings, empty shells who move and talk and laugh and stare but in an alien kind of way. The hardness is palpable. Their lack of peace is tangible. You know it will not be possible to trust the person. What is it, then? They speak like human beings, they move like human beings. But you feel yourself in the presence of something inhuman.

    It is the result of seventy years of militant atheism. Emptied out human beings. Unable to love. Unable to trust. Cruel. Attitude of “one must win, the other must be crushed”. The soul, the spirit, horribly deformed or even missing, in the worst cases.

    Berezovskiy was one of these. The result of a deliberate attempt to create a new kind of human being: a producer and a consumer, but one with no soul and no moral compass at all.

    THIS was the core, the heart of Communism!

    And it remains the objective of the Cultural Marxists, the PC Brigade, the militant homosexuals and militant atheists who hold us all in the palms of their hands through their total dominance of the mass media.

    Be warned! These people, just as much as the Bolsheviks, hate God and His Son Our Lord Jesus Christ with all their hearts! They too are engineering “Soviet Man” in every way they can.

    What is the Church doing to combat this?

    Not a lot: the enemy is already over the ramparts, swarming over the doctrine, theology and liturgy and soul of the Church. Part of the institutional Church is already completely in the enemy’s hands.

  • South Saxon

    Interesting and informative. Thank you.

  • Laurence

    Your description of these individuals in Soviet Russia sounds awfully like psychopathy (or sociopathy), which is believed to be prevalent in approximately 4% (at least) of the US population. However, I am intrigued that this figure is anecdotedly higher in Russia on account of a programme of institutionalised atheism, which would explain much of what has happened in UK and US media; indeed, it is something that I (and surely many others) have suspected for some time.

    Where does this leave us regarding free will? My belief is that free will remains regardless (whether to act or not on psychopathic or sociopathic tendencies).

  • Benedict Carter

    It’s of course my belief too. Even those who have had zero moral values instilled in them know that murder or stealing another’s wife or thieving someone else’s goods is evil. But the militant atheism gives them a rock-hard shell which the conscience in many cases cannot crack.

    The lack of gentleness and kindness in such people is staggering. They are often pitiless.

    I hasten to add that there are some magnificent human beings in the former USSR and I am privileged to know many and be married to one. These are invariably, in my experience, the products of poor, unimportant, tight families whose old babushka would ensure the children were baptised.

  • Laurence

    Thank you for the hopeful note at the end (of which I am a great fan!). Regarding the, “atheism [that] gives them a rock-hard shell which the conscience in many cases cannot crack.” I understand that psychologists who specialise in psychopathy (Robert Hare, Martha Stout etc) refer to such individuals as lacking a conscience (perhaps better referred to as having no remorse or, as you say, pitiless) and imply that psychopathic tendencies may be inherent but require social factors to really develop, such as, “zero moral values instilled in them” for whatever reason.
    Does any of this affect our veiw of free will (again I would say no) or moreover how seriously we should read psychologists like Hare and Stout?

  • Benedict Carter

    Only God can judge these things. Remember – an evil act is an evil act. But the guilt to be imputed to the individual soul for committing this or that evil act may be great or it may be small, depending on all sorts of criteria, including background etc.

    I am not a fan of psychology beyond a certain point. If as Catholics we believe in the existence of Natural Law (which we must), let alone Divine Law, then we must believe that every soul has the capacity to know good from evil whatever conditioning one has been subject to. And further, that “my Grace is sufficient for you”.

    Even the likes of KGB men (and I have met a few) can be melted – over time – by God’s Grace.

    Knowing that one is spiritually ill is surely the first step. Then the Sacraments, over and over again, regular Confession and Holy Communion. I know this from my own life.

    Our Lady at Fatima promised that Russia would be converted after Russia is consecrated to her Immaculate Heart. Knowing Russia as I do, I am certain that the Consecration has NOT been done. The impact of the Russian Orthodox Church has come back from nil to .. something; but we are not talking about a Christian people yet, not yet.

    But are we any better? Not much.

  • Max

    Berezovsky lived an interesting life of mathematical genious, hi gave life to many childrens, who admire of him, his death at 67 dosen’t justifies his bad luck, just the fact that at some point everything dies

  • Laurence

    I very much appreciate your response. Yet again, our truly wonderful Faith, born of millenia of God given wisdom, provides us with the answer.

    I was somewhat struggling myself with the implications of the prevailing view that such individuals are beyond redemption (i.e. the fatalistic, “they’re born like that, end of” attitude). It occurred to me that this would be a form of redemptive euthanasia, a sort of old people’s home for the problem of evil and would, however ironically, require the same psychopathic tendencies attributed to the subject, on the part of the psychologist.

    Nevertheless, as you say at the end, there are in our times very disturbing trends, increasingly unquestioned, throughout the ultra-modern, yet mainstream, cultures of the US and UK that are diabolical (the old term for sociopthatic perhaps) and it would be very interesting to know what those KGB men would make of it…

  • agent.provocateur

    Dear Ben, I find your comments regarding Russia quite bizarre. In fact, every time I visit the West and especially England, I feel like Russia is the oasis of humanity. As for the Orthodox Church…there is no versus populi Mass, no liberal nuns and I must say the impact of Russian Orthodox Church is much bigger and better than …forgive me…the impact of Roman Catholic Church in the West. Finally, KGB was a secret service. Some people working for the KGB were good, some bad. At any rate, the simple fact of being KGB officer doesn’t imply goodness or badness.

  • Laurence

    To ‘agent.provocateur’,
    although Mr. Carter can speak for himself, in his defence (if I may), please note his following statement:

    “I hasten to add that there are some magnificent human beings in the former USSR and I am privileged to know many and be married to one. These are invariably, in my experience, the products of poor, unimportant, tight families whose old babushka would ensure the children were baptised.”

    He may be, from a position of great knowledge, critical of some aspects of Russian society but this does not detract from the ancient and much respected culture of Russia (pre pan-atheism, of course).
    One may rightly point to the recent magnificent rebuilding of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, as evidence of the impact of the Orthodox Church. Nevertheless, as I understand it, most Russians would concur with Mr. Carter regarding, “the result of seventy years of militant atheism. Emptied out human beings. Unable to love. Unable to trust. Cruel. Attitude of “one must win, the other must be crushed”. The soul, the spirit, horribly deformed or even missing, in the worst cases.” This is an inevitable result, Mr. Carter argues, of institutionalised atheism of the sort currently being promulgated in the West; there is desinfortsiya in the Western world too!

  • Arguminium

    Benedict Carter’s experience meshes with my own. I spent 6 years in the CIS. At times it felt like living in a prison, or perhaps in a mental institution for criminals.

    As a western lawyer schooled in the dictum of Lord Atkin, who, speaking for the majority in a 1932 House of Lord’s decision, asked “Who is my neighbour?”, it was difficult to face the ugly reality that in Russia, no one had a neighbour, and the community lacked a soul. I saw one body in a subway carriage in St. Petersburg which people walked around. In Kiev, I saw a man collapse in the street, and was the only person to come to his aid. The motto of these countries might easily have been, “Nobody cares.”

    Some have compared Eastern Europe to a feudal state, with rich thugs treating the masses as mere chattels. I think it is worse than that, because there is no institutional expression of genuine concern for individuals, and great perceived persona risk in demonstrating care for others. In a true feudal state, there was at least some sense of stewardship upon which evolution to a better and fairer state was possible.

    The Russian poem every school child learns, “Umom Rossiyu ne ponyat” (Russia cannot be understood with the mind) is so much hogwash, but mere special pleading, a form of perverse argument that says Russian thugs and leaders don’t need to follow the social norms common to civilized states, simply because they are Russian.

    Unhappily, Berezovsky can best be understood as a prisoner with a difference, one braver, more violent and more brilliant than the rest, and at the end, one as morally bankrupt as those around him.

    Putin seeks greatness for Russia internationally, and I wish him well. Would that he understood Russia better than he thinks he does, and empowered Russia by transforming Russian serfs into authentic human beings.

  • Julian Lord

    Well said — I’ll add that the feudal system was based, not on tyranny as the Soviet propagandists loved to claim ; but on families, and the heads of these families and extended families engaged in councils with their Feudal Lords.

  • Roderick Blyth

    The paralells with Robert Maxwell are not without interest – if people want to know why Our Lord said that was easier for a camel to pass through they eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven (Mtt.19.24), cases like these may be instructive – wealth and the excessive craving for it seem to distance men from the operation of divine grace

  • $27740841

    With no intimate knowledge of the former Soviet Union, I can however make observations of the way Communists see things, since my mother came from a family of Communists and I knew lots of Communists during my teens and early twenties.
    Time and time again I heard the following – that the destruction of the Kulaks was regrettable but justified given their refusal to cooperate with the Collectivisation of Soviet agriculture; that the deliberate starvation of millions of Ukrainians in 1931-32 was also justified because Moscow needed the grain.
    The Great Terror, labour camps, the Secret Police, all were either justified or glossed over. The Revolution is everything and nothing must stand in its way, was the attitude, because Communism, world Communism that is, represents the final, great stage in the evolution of history. It is therefore inevitable and anything and anyone standing in its way must be swept aside.
    Having rejected God and the moral absolutes of revealed religion, Communists believe that the end justifies the means, the end being International Communism. That ‘the end justifies the means’ is one of the principles put forward by Saul Alinsky in ‘Rules for Radicals’, the handbook of the 1960s radicals who ‘cut their hair and put on suits’, and set about becoming the Establishment that we have today.
    And as community organisers and agitators they set about infiltrating and thereby influencing every institution they could think of – the schools, the universities, local government, the media, the legal profession, medical professions, the police, and yes, the Church. I, personnaly, have witnessed this happening over the years. Is the Church unduly influenced by the radical agenda? Look around.
    Read ‘Rules for Radicals’, which incidentally Saul Alinsky dedicated to Lucifer. How better to understand those who oppose you than to study how they operate?

  • Laurence

    ‘Rule for Radicals’?! Sounds like something out of ‘The Young Ones’ and would be a good joke were it not so serious.

    “And anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man, it will be forgiven him; but to him who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven.”

  • Benedict Carter

    Great post. Was this the book Alinsky dedicated to Lucifer? The same book Cameron said he based his “Big Society” on?

  • Benedict Carter

    Not an insurmountable barrier but a very big barrier nevertheless.

  • Benedict Carter

    Yes, “well said” from me too. Excellent post.

  • Benedict Carter

    Agent, you already know that you and I have many views in common. Russia is in my soul and always will be. Russian blood flows through my young daughter’s veins and I am proud of the fact. But let’s not kid ourselves. Russia is a hell-hole. Long-term expats like myself lauded the freedom there from the stultifying grip of insane Political Correctness; and yes, if you have no contact with government nor with bureaucrats in your day to day life, Russia is more free than the West.

    But it’s the deceptive freedom of the jungle. In the Russian jungle there are very many animals with sharp teeth, and they all have two legs.

    The Mongols and the Communists were two of a kind: wild beasts, death worshippers.

    The Church? 75% of Russians are baptised but around 1% go to Mass regularly. That’s not a “Marian conversion” by any stretch of the imagination.

  • Benedict Carter

    Oh yes, Laurence, the heart and soul of Marxism, the wilful and hate-filled rejection of Christ, has WON in the West, as Our Lady foretold.

    “Russia will spread her errors throughout the world …”.

  • Benedict Carter

    On another positive note (!) Laurence, my love of Russia (like most people who know her pretty well, both love and hate are inextricably mixed) was started by reading GULAG memoirs in my early teens, and then the classics of Russian literature. Surely Dostoevskiy is the greatest novelist of all. Russia’s is one of the world’s three great literatures, along with the English and French (or maybe Italian).

    Apart from “Archipelag Gulag”, which made an indelible impression on my life, the greatest book I think I have ever read is the collection of short stories about his 17 years in the death camps of the Kolyma, “Kolyma Stories” by Varlam Shalamov.

    I would be suspicious Laurence of any attempt to conflate sociopathy with demonic possession or oppression. While they can indeed have identical symptoms, the two are clearly separate realities.

  • Laurence

    I remember too as a teenager being both thoroughly disturbed at the darkness of institutionalised atheist Marxism, yet somewhat reaffirmed in my faith in the potential courage of humanity, by Grigorenko’s memoirs. Reading your post, I now wish I had continued reading the literature in the same vein. Never too late though; thank you for the references!

    Point noted on the latter.

  • $27740841
  • $27740841

    Are you serious, Benedict? David Cameron based his ‘Big Society’ on ‘Rules for Radicals’? I must have missed that and shall be Googling it immediately.

    It would explain a lot.

    Actually, on the dedication to Lucifer, Alinsky in fact only writes a prominent tribute to Lucifer as ‘the first radical’.

  • No Man Is An Ice Cream Van

    the overiding lesson is never convert from Judaism to Christianity, when one is allready driving a Rolls Royce why hop on a rickety broken down Donkey ?

  • $27740841

    Russia HAS spread her errors throughout the world.
    Agreed, Benedict, that Marxism is alive and kicking in the West. The Marxists have simply adapted their revolutionary tactics to a new set of circumstances -it’s the dialectic, dontcha know!
    But what about Russia? The Soviet Union went bankrupt – some say the USSR was allowed to collapse – but did the 60 million or so members of the Soviet Communist Party all change their minds overnight and agree that Communism didn’t work?
    From your inside knowledge, is there any chance that Communism might make a come back in Russia? Or did it never really go away?

  • $27740841

    It’s true, Benedict is right. According to this Melanie Phillips article, David Cameron based his ‘Big Society’ idea on ‘Rules for Radicals’, written by a Marxist intent on overthrowing Western society.
    I’m amazed.

  • Benedict Carter

    Communism in economic terms is finished in Russia. But the system of government shows great continuity from Mongol to Tsar to Commissar to Putin. It’s called a “patrimonial” system (not feudal at all in the Western sense). In the patrimonial system, the boss owns everything and leases it out; but whereas in the West the feudal tenant ended with freehold of the possession (land), in Russia it’s a conditional leasehold only. That remains the case (in practice) today.

    No, the triumph of Communism could ONLY be averted (Our Lady’s own words – “Only I can help you”) by the Consecration of Russia to the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

    This wasn’t done in 1960 as Our Lady asked, nor has it been done since. Result? The West has collapsed. These things are absolutely intimately connected.

    The catastrophe of Vatican II and all the changes.
    No conversion of Russia and no period of promised peace.
    The collapse of the West into paganism.
    The End Times (I myself am convinced that we are in the Last Days right now; or at the beginning of them for sure. Lots of evidence for this).

  • Benedict Carter

    When I read the short story “Prosthetic Appliances” in Shalamov’s book mentioned above, I cried. You will understand why when you have read it.

  • $20596475

    I have visited Russia, but never lived there. I too found the people different and untrustworthy. However, I put that down to their system, and the strong mafia influences. I have also lived in a Catholic country and found the people different and untrustworthy, so I don’t think religious belief makes the slightest difference.

    I am an agnostic humanist. I detest communism, and strongly believe in capitalism and democracy, albeit with social responsibility. To suggest that those who hold similar views to mine are some kind of communist inspired 5th column, is just nonsense. It might suit your world view to make such claims, but that doesn’t mean it is true.

  • a man

    it is foretold by the Virgin, war is coming and this pope will be betrayed by his own people.

  • agent.provocateur

    Benedict, I prefer dangers of the jungle than safety of the prison..As to how many Russians go to Mass is difficult to estimate, but it’s certainly more than 1%; more likely around 10%. The 1% lie is propagated by the Western liberal media. I know you are a good man, but even the best can fall into their traps..God bless!

  • agent.provocateur

    It was interesting to read comments about Russia…I would strongly recommend Tomas Spidlik’s book “Russian idea” to those who are unfamiliar with Russia. He (himself a Jesuit and thus a product of the West) introduces to a Western reader a different world of thinking and perceiving. People who complain about Russia should finally understand, that Russia will never change. It is simply different…Finally, someone said the poem ” Umom Rossiju ne ponyat” is hogwash…Well, how to put it mildly Mr. Simpleton…it would have been much better for you if you would stay in your little Hogwashire…..

  • ol’ timer

    I read “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” in high school, in 1973. It has never left me. I pray for the Russian people, but continue to cultivate the ability to live “in the belly of the beast” as our government in the US is surely getting more and more like Stalin’s.

  • scary goat