How tycoon Berezovsky lost his billions

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LONDON -- How do you burn through billions?

The death of Boris Berezovsky, whose body was found Saturday inside his upscale English home, has refocused attention on the fantastic wealth racked up by Russia's ruthless oligarchs -- and their propensity for spending it.

Mr. Berezovsky, 67, had once been considered Russia's richest man. But by this January, a British judge was wondering whether he would be able to pay his debts.

British police said Monday that a post-mortem examination found that the self-exiled Mr. Berezovsky died from hanging, and there was nothing pointing to a violent struggle. Thames Valley Police said further tests, including toxicology examinations, will be carried out. They did not specify whether he hanged himself.

A forensic examination of Mr. Berezovsky's home will continue for several days, police added.

Mr. Berezovsky fled to Britain in 2001 and claimed political asylum after a bitter falling out with Russian President Vladimir Putin. He had since been a vocal critic of the Kremlin.

An employee found his body Saturday on the bathroom floor of his upscale home in England. The employee called an ambulance after he forced open the bathroom door, locked from the inside. Police said the employee was the only person in the house at the time.

His lawyer said the oligarch had been in "a horrible, terrible" emotional state. He had previously survived several assassination attempts, including a 1994 car bomb in Moscow that killed his driver, and there was speculation whether his death was natural, a conspiracy or suicide.

To understand how one man could lose so much money, it helps to see how he made it.

Mr. Berezovsky, a mathematician, made his fortune in the 1990s during the catastrophic privatization of the Soviet Union's state-run economy. That era was marked by hyperinflation, contract killings and rampant corruption. As Russia's GDP crumbled, oligarchs leveraged their ties to ruthless criminals and crooked officials to tear off huge chunks of the nation's assets for themselves, draining resources and stripping factories to build fabulous fortunes.

Mr. Berezovsky -- whose interests ran from automobiles to airplanes to aluminum -- was one of this dark period's primary beneficiaries. He became a political operator in Russian President Boris Yeltsin's inner circle, trading on his ties to rack up assets Forbes estimated to be worth roughly $3 billion in 1997.

The tycoon had been instrumental in orchestrating the accession of Mr. Yeltsin's successor, Mr. Putin, but when he and the new leader began to clash, his political cover disintegrated. Mr. Berezovsky then fled in 2000, eventually claiming political asylum in Britain.

How much money Mr. Berezovsky really had, and how much he was able to take with him from Moscow, remains shrouded in uncertainty. Rich Russians at the time routinely stashed their money in labyrinthine offshore trusts or held assets under names of associates or kin. Many deals weren't even put into writing.

What's clear is that the 1998 Russian financial crisis, coupled with Mr. Berezovsky's spectacular fall from political grace, had a big impact on his bottom line. Forbes estimated his post-Moscow fortune in the hundreds of millions. Rival oligarch Roman Abramovich testified in court that Mr. Berezovsky had been down to his last $1 million when he fled Russia.

If Mr. Berezovsky had been strapped for cash, he didn't show it. He rode around London in a reinforced Maybach limousine and was often seen huddled with business contacts in exclusive hotels that line London's Hyde Park. His oversized mansions in England, France and the Caribbean suggested that he was a cut above the average millionaire.

Russian officials seemed to believe that Mr. Berezovsky had plenty of cash, trying -- with mixed success -- to claw back some of his assets. Charges are still pending against him in relation to the alleged embezzlement of some $13 million from Russia's now-defunct SBS-Agro bank. Mr. Berezovsky had previously been convicted in absentia of bilking hundreds of millions of rubles from the airline company Aeroflot and the carmaker AvtoVaz.

A British court records search finds roughly three dozen judgments -- libel, fraud, divorce, breach of contract -- involving Mr. Berezovoky in some way.

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