Once Upon a Time in Russia (5 page)

BOOK: Once Upon a Time in Russia

Three seconds later, all three cars screeched to a halt in front of the front glass entrance to the building. A half dozen bodyguards fanned out onto the sidewalk, forming a wedge around the limousine. Another second, and the Oligarch was out of the car and being hustled into the building. The glass doors locked behind him. And then—nothing.

Anton waited, engine running. Ivan was still clutching the shotgun while speaking into his transponder. At the response, he nodded. Then he looked back through the rearview window at the four unmarked cars. A light snow had begun to fall, inching up around their tires.

“Calls are being made,” Ivan said. “Nobody seems to know who they are. Interior Ministry, Moscow police, the tax office. Our security chief has reached the FSB. They are sending officers to investigate.”

“So we wait?” Anton asked.

Ivan didn't bother to answer. The only sound was the soft patter of snow against the roof of the car.

It was an hour at least before a sleek, black, Russian-made sedan with official FSB plates pulled into the parking lot behind them and headed directly to a spot a half dozen yards from the four unmarked cars.

Anton watched as two uniformed agents exited the sedan and crossed toward the closest of the mysterious cars. Before the men
had gone half the distance, the rear doors of the foreign car opened and three men exited. Anton's entire body tensed up as he took in the military-grade flak jackets and camouflage vests. The vests bore no insignia. More startling, all three men were wearing black balaclavas and sporting submachine guns slung over their shoulders.

The two FSB officers froze in their tracks. One of them said something to the three men, which evoked only laughter. Then, without warning, one of the three strangers casually pointed his submachine gun at the two FSB men. The FSB men shouted something—then turned and moved quickly back to their car. A moment later, they had slammed the car doors behind them, gunning into reverse, the front left side of their sedan hitting a bit of curb, the fender lost in a cascade of sparks. Then they were out of the parking lot and gone.

Anton looked at Ivan.

“That did not go as expected,” Ivan said.

The snow continued to fall.

Over the course of the next few hours, the scene only grew more surreal. At some point in the early afternoon, an entire squad of Moscow police arrived—but instead of confronting the balaclava-wearing strangers, they cordoned off the parking lot and a large section of the highway. Eventually, a fair number of journalists and photographers also arrived, gathering behind the police barricades, taking photos but not interfering.

It wasn't until after around five p.m. that things went from surreal to absolutely horrifying.

Three unmarked buses suddenly pulled past the barricades and entered the parking area. All three came to a stop next to the four unmarked cars—doors swinging open while the engines were still running. At least two dozen more men in balaclavas and flak jackets
poured out. Anton felt himself beginning to panic. Ivan had the shotgun up but still remained in his seat, shouting into the microphone in his coat.

The swarm of camouflaged men headed straight for the office building, submachine guns raised. There was a loud commotion, someone opening the glass doors from the inside. Anton watched as a handful of bodyguards rushed out, led by the head of security. The camouflaged men didn't even pause; a moment later, the head of security was facedown against the pavement. The other bodyguards had their hands in the air, facing the line of submachine guns.

Anton was about to shift his car into reverse, when there was a loud knock on the window to his left. He turned to see the barrel of one of the submachine guns touching the glass, inches from his face. The man outside in the balaclava said something, but his words were muffled. Even so, Anton had a fairly good idea what was expected.

Bulletproof glass or not, Anton didn't want to take any chances. He unlocked the door and allowed himself to be pulled from the car. The next thing he knew, he was facedown in the snow, a heavy boot on the back of his head. From his angle, he couldn't see much—but he could hear the voices of other men being dragged next to him, also pushed facedown into the frozen parking lot. For all he knew, his boss was right there with him, a boot against his tailored suit.

More than anything, that thought terrified him. You didn't take on a man like Vladimir Gusinsky in broad daylight—in front of half the journalists in Moscow—unless you were completely insane, or powerful enough to get away with it.

And for men with that much power, there wasn't much distance between making a man lie facedown in the snow . . . and putting a bullet in the back of his skull.


December 16, 1994,

Antigua, Caribbean

railing on the deck of a one-hundred-fifty-foot sailing yacht, staring out across an azure stretch of ocean, sun blasting the Moscow frost off his cheeks as the soft, salty breeze tugged at the corners of his open Armani shirt collar, Berezovsky began to understand why billionaires seemed obsessed with bigger and better boats.

Of course, there were boats, and then there were
. The vessel beneath his feet was certainly impressive; comfortable, well-appointed cabins with room enough for five couples, a crew of at least sixteen, not including the bodyguards and the private chefs, parked in a secluded stretch of blue-on-blue water in the shadow of the exclusive playland island of Antigua. But it wasn't one of the true behemoths that would one day become synonymous with lifestyles of extreme wealth: the megayachts, with their multiple helipads, glass-bottomed swimming pools, lit-up disco floors, built-in pizza ovens, even submarines.

But Berezovsky wasn't going to quibble about which shade of heaven
he'd stepped into. The journey from Moscow to Antigua had been long and exhausting, and now that his bare feet were finally touching nautical wood, he could finally come as close to relaxing as his frenetic nature allowed.

Then he turned away from the water to face the deck behind him, taking in the small group of businessmen in shirts and shorts, the elegant, statuesque women in designer dresses from the highest-end stores in Paris, Milan, and even Moscow—and it seemed as though he hadn't traveled far at all. If it weren't the middle of December, and the temperature weren't kissing the mid-eighties, he might have thought he had just stepped into the well-heeled crowd on Tverskaya Street.

“Quite a juxtaposition,” a soft voice chimed at him from his left, and he turned to see a young man—whom he knew, though not well—was now leaning back against the railing just a few feet away, legs crossed as he surveyed the scene. “Have to hand it to Pyotr for arranging this, it's much nicer than being stuck knee deep in a meter of snow.”

Berezovsky smiled, taking in the man's sandy brown hair, two-day stubble, strong jaw, and piercing blue eyes. The man was around half his age, maybe mid-twenties, but he exuded the relaxed confidence of someone much older. He was wearing dark slacks and a white short-sleeved shirt with a polo player above his heart. He was pale, like Berezovsky, but had enough red in his cheeks to show that he had been in the Caribbean for a few days.

“It's easy to love the ocean,” Berezovsky responded. “Pyotr has a very nice group of friends. And already I've seen a handful of fish—but only one or two whales.”

The banking magnate Pyotr Aven, who had organized the junket and the boat, was certainly the latter. One of the wealthiest men
in Russia, he was also one of the smartest. Like Berezovsky and Gusinsky, he had been born an outsider, but not impoverished, not underprivileged. And when the walls came down, he had parlayed the PhD in economics into a massive fortune.

The handsome young man next to Berezovsky was most decidedly still a fish, in Berezovsky's opinion, but maybe had the makings of a whale. Berezovsky knew Roman Abramovich as an entrepreneur from Moscow. They had had a little time to become reacquainted after landing in the island airport, and then again on the way to the yacht's tender.

Certainly, Abramovich had been quite familiar with Berezovsky and his accomplishments, even before they first met. Here on the boat, just as at the Presidential Club, Berezovsky drew everyone's attention. But among the group of businessmen gathered on the junket, the gazes weren't mocking, they were hungry. The purpose of this junket was business; more specifically, facilitating the sort of business relationships that turned fish into whales. And Berezovsky was rapidly becoming a man of consequence in this arena. Already, news of his impending privatization project involving ORT was swirling through the finance community. Added to his auto and banking interests, his interests in media gave him fingers in many, many pies.

The fish were hungry, because they knew that a man like Berezovsky, with his connections to the Family, could make things happen that were otherwise impossible. You could certainly become a millionaire in Russia without connections; Berezovsky himself had done so, and so had most of the men on the boat. But Berezovsky and the men who thought like him were no longer interested in making mere millions.

“I know it's early,” Abramovich said, his voice as easy and confident
as his posture, “but perhaps you have a moment for a proposition?”

And there it was, direct and without flourish. As Berezovsky had suspected, their meeting hadn't been the result of happenstance. Roman was in the Caribbean for a purpose, and Berezovsky was a potential means to an end. This thought didn't bother Berezovsky; quite the contrary, he enjoyed his position as a perceived power broker, and he loved nothing more than to be pursued. But with this young man, there was also something more.

A nice young man who probably has a commercial venture he wants to pitch me
was how he'd first described Abramovich, when he'd called to check in with Badri Patarkatsishvili, his deputy director general at LogoVAZ and closest business partner. After a little checking up on Abramovich, he'd been impressed by the boyish entrepreneur's ambition, if not the moderate level of his success. Like the rest of them, Abramovich had started nowhere—truly, nowhere—orphaned by the age of four, his mother a victim of a blood disorder, his father killed in an accident at a construction site. He'd been shipped off to the Komi Republic to live with relatives—one of the harshest environments on the planet, a frozen tundra at the edge of the Arctic Circle where it was dark for more than three months out of the year. He'd studied engineering but had never graduated; after a stint in the army, he'd become a mechanic—but even at an early age, he'd seen himself as an entrepreneur.

“I can think of no better time or place,” Berezovsky said. “But I hope your proposition doesn't involve rubber ducks.”

Abramovich lost some of the color in his cheeks, until he saw that Berezovsky was joking. Indeed, the young man had begun his career running a toy company, manufacturing plastic playthings and, yes, rubber ducks. But soon after, he'd shifted into something much
more lucrative: the trading and transportation of oil. How a high school dropout from the Arctic Circle with no connections could go from making rubber ducks to trading 3.5 million tons of petroleum products in just a few years was more than a little mysterious—but Berezovsky liked a little mystery. Compared to the circles Berezovsky frequented, Abramovich's trading company, though assuredly lucrative, was small-time. Still, he was intrigued by the man's youth and quick ascent. And then there was the lure of oil itself. There was money in cars, less so in TV—but oil was money in its true, liquid form.

And Berezovsky was certain Abramovich hadn't come to him seeking petroleum expertise.

“As you may know,” Abramovich said, moving closer along the railing, “my trading company moves oil from the state refinery at Omsk in Siberia, which in turn gets its crude from the state-owned production units in Noyabrsk. I've spent the past few years familiarizing myself with this production line—from the drilling to the processing to the barrels I transport—and I've come to believe that, given the opportunity, I could do it better.”

“By that you mean . . .”

“Vertically integrate, combine the production and refining businesses with my trading company. Run it along my already existing shipping network—and we've got an entire oil company moving petroleum across all of Europe.”

Berezovsky no longer felt the boat rocking beneath his feet as he focused in on what the younger man was proposing. Berezovsky had been wrong when he had phoned Badri. This opportunity was much bigger than any simple commercial venture. Abramovich was talking about privatizing a massive, state-owned refinery and combining it with one of the largest producers of crude into one company. In a
single swift act, they would be creating one of the world's largest oil businesses. Berezovsky felt his adrenaline rising at the thought.

“The business is one thing,” he said, thinking aloud. “The politics quite another. But yes, this is perhaps something I could organize.”

Abramovich fought a smile, but his eyes glittered like the Caribbean behind them.

“Of course the oil industry has its risks. It's a very competitive arena.”

The young man didn't need to spell things out for Berezovsky; he was well aware of the industry's reputation. The same sorts who had shot up his car dealerships—and blown up his car—were endemic in the world of oil, and much fiercer. But, as Korzhakov had implied, Berezovsky was not the same man who had crawled out of that burning Mercedes. Berezovsky knew how to take care of the “competition.”

Berezovsky found himself grinning as he thought of his rival, Gusinsky, and the scene that had been documented by dozens of journalists just two weeks ago. The spectacle had been so compelling, the press had even given it a name: Faces in the Snow. A dozen bodyguards dragged out into a parking lot, made to lie facedown in the snow for hours, while the Moscow police stood by impotently. Gusinsky himself had avoided arrest; but after Yeltsin's private security force had finally admitted they had conducted the raid—a “misunderstanding,” they had explained, that had ended with a handful of Gusinsky's bodyguards in the hospital—the banking magnate had reportedly fled the country. He would be back, to be sure, but he had gotten the message. Berezovsky was not to be trifled with.

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