Once Upon a Time in Russia (2 page)

Though the meetings had dragged on, and as tedious as the subject matter had been, it was the time between each assignation that Berezovsky hated most. That was why most of his business took place at the club, where he could quickly pirouette between appointments, losing mere seconds in transit. Going off-site meant dealing with the necessary delays of the outside world—traffic, physical distance, the whims and inefficiencies of other people's schedules. It wasn't just Berezovsky's internal wiring that made him miserable at the thought of wasted minutes—the fact that he couldn't sit still, even with his back against the most luxurious leather that Mercedes could manufacture—it was the knowledge of how valuable every lost minute could be. To him, the Breguet on his wrist didn't measure time; it kept track of lost opportunities.

Berezovsky was well aware that this impatience was yet another symptom of the seismic shift that had engulfed his world, beginning less than a decade earlier. Impatience, ambition, the ability to dream big and live even bigger—none of these things had mattered in the Russia of his childhood. The best a young, mathematically gifted Jewish kid from Moscow, with no connections among the Communist elite and no knowledge of the outside world, could have hoped for was a doctorate in mathematics from one of the few universities that accepted the less desirable ethnicities. No matter how many awards he'd gone on to win, or papers he'd published, he'd been heading toward a simple, quiet life of books and laboratories.

And then—
Perestroika
, the lightning bolt that had shattered everything. First, the old world fell in fits and bouts to Gorbachev and, rising parallel to him, Yeltsin. Then a chaotic new world haphazardly emerged, buoyed by an infant form of capitalism that was just now reaching its chaotic teenage years.

Suddenly a man who was good with numbers, could think theoretically and far enough ahead not to get bogged down in the absurdities of the nearly lawless moment—and light enough on his feet to dance over the inevitable aftershocks of a science-fiction-level restructuring of an entire nation from the ground up—suddenly, such a man had a chance at a brand-new future. Being different, being an outsider, the very qualities that had impeded success in a world built behind walls, were a form of insulation when those walls came crashing down.

Berezovsky hadn't wasted a moment wondering what would come next. He'd turned his attention toward a world where money suddenly had meaning. That, in turn, had led him to what he earnestly believed to be the holiest relic of this new, free, capitalist system his country hoped to become.

Berezovsky grinned as he ran his gaze over the parked cars flashing by on either side of his limousine. Aside from the odd foreign model—mostly German, like his Mercedes, or almost as frequently Japanese, Toyotas and Hondas—the majority of the cars they passed were Ladas. Squat, compact, rugged, and without a hint of glamour or wasted expense, each Lada represented the culmination of a previously unimaginable dream. Perestroika or not, a Muscovite didn't simply wake up after 1991 with a pile of rubles under his bed, ready to stroll to the nearest car dealership.

In truth, the Lada had become the first symbol of the new, free Russia. Owning a Lada was everything, and to get one a person needed more than money. You also needed knowledge of the right person to bribe.

Berezovsky hadn't set his sights on owning a Lada; he'd set his sights on the company that made them. Initially, he'd worked with the skill set he'd acquired in his academic life; he'd founded LogoVAZ as a computer software company aimed at solving numerical payment issues for the newly accountable auto conglomerate.

Working his way deeper into the sprawling corporate behemoth, he'd quickly realized that the men who'd been placed in charge of AvtoVAZ were functionaries of the old world: dinosaurs who didn't understand the economic changes exploding around them. These Red Directors, as the history books would eventually label them, had been handed the reins of major companies across every industry by a government that itself hardly understood the capitalist world that perestroika had unleashed.

In the back of the Mercedes, Berezovsky's attention settled on a pair of Ladas parked next to each other in the driveway of a two-story office supply company a few buildings down from his headquarters. He could envision it all in his head, the journey those automobiles
had taken to get into that driveway. Birthed on an assembly line in the vast manufacturing plant on the banks of the Volga river, then a lengthy trek via barge and truck to the urban centers where the buying public lived; on to guarded dealer lots, where the cars would be briefly stored before finding their way into a showroom. And then the final transaction itself, rubles changing hands, usually through a “connected” middleman—along with a silent prayer that the seeds of cash would somehow bear automotive fruit.

So much distance traveled, so much time wasted: but in this situation, Berezovsky had realized, they weren't simply minutes to be mourned. These were minutes to be
utilized
. The Americans had a saying, born of capitalism: time is money. Berezovsky had made his first fortune off the literal application of that cliché.

Berezovsky's Mercedes slipped past the driveway and the pair of Ladas, then worked its way by another row of parked cars—a Toyota, a handful of older AvtoVAZ models, then a dust-covered German-made Opel, squatting directly in front of a curbside fruit stand. Berezovsky didn't spend a lot of time thinking about his past, but it still gave him pleasure to remember the scheme that had first put him on the map. It wasn't something he would have talked about in an interview, nor was it something an interviewer would ever have dared ask him about. Even so, he was quite proud of the simple elegance of his first real venture.

Manufacturing line to consumer, an incredible journey of miles and minutes: these had been the perfect ingredients for an epic level of arbitrage. In the free-fall economy of Russia's teenage capitalism, time was usually considered an enemy to money. Double- and triple-digit inflation had turned every ruble into a rapidly leaking balloon, shrinking by the second. But Berezovsky had been able to turn this enemy to his advantage. He had come up with a scheme to take a
large number of cars on consignment, paying the Red Directors only a nominal down payment, which, for the most part, they had happily pocketed. Then Berezovsky sold the cars through his various dealerships. After that, he'd wait months—or even years—to make good on the balance of what he owed AvtoVAZ, letting inflation do its work. By the time he'd paid off his debt, he was putting down kopecks on the ruble. In short order, Logovaz was earning more than six hundred percent profit on every car it sold.

And that had only been the beginning. Berezovsky had built on his reputation as the premier Lada dealer to open a banking fund to pre-order even more cars. He'd raised almost sixty million dollars toward that end—money he was in no rush to turn over to AvtoVAZ, or anyone else.

Perhaps the most incredible thing about his venture was that none of what he was doing was technically illegal. It was simply arbitrage, a mathematical and ambitious mind taking advantage of an inefficiency in an existing market. Of course, the fact that Berezovsky hadn't broken any explicit laws didn't mean he hadn't ruffled any feathers. The car business, like every other business in modern Russia, existed in a chaotic vacuum many people liked to call the Wild East. Where there was money to be made, there were often men with guns involved. Almost daily, the Russian newspapers had reported stories of businessmen murdered because of deals gone bad.

To Berezovsky, the dangerous elements on the fringes of the business world were simply an unfortunate cost of this new, free market. Successful corporations adapted, dedicating resources to defend themselves against what they called “wet work,” perhaps an overly graphic term for the assassination trade, borrowed from the world of organized crime. Rumor was, Logovaz had outsourced its wet
work to a team of “specialists”—a murky association about which Berezovsky wanted to know as little as possible. Even so, his dealerships had not been immune to the violence. A few of his showrooms had even been shot up over the past few weeks, though nobody had been killed. Even more frightening, a known member of a powerful Russian gangland outfit had recently approached Berezovsky himself, demanding the resolution of some unimportant difference of opinion. Berezovsky had essentially waved the man away—and, a few days later, there had been a pitched gun battle outside one of his regional Lada showrooms. A half dozen unclaimed Chechen and Russian bodies were carted off by the local police.

Bulletproof limousines, high-priced bodyguards, paid mercenaries: business as usual under perestroika. Unpleasant but necessary, and the furthest thing from Berezovsky's thoughts as he watched the parked cars flashing by. His mind shifted ahead to the dinner he was about to attend; more deals to be made, more rubles to be mined out of minutes. After dinner, he would take the short ride back to his club—and maybe arrange a visit to the upstairs apartment. As his Mercedes moved alongside the dust-covered Opel, he was imagining the smell of perfume, curves shifting beneath sheets. And then, entirely by accident, Berezovsky noticed something odd out of the corner of his vision. It might have been nothing at all—maybe a trick of light against the bulletproof window to his left, or even a shadow from the high fruit stand that rose up behind the parked car. But he thought he saw a wisp of dark smoke coming out of the Opel's trunk.

He opened his mouth to say something to his driver—but before the words could come out, there was a sudden flash of light.

And then the shock wave hit.

The Mercedes was lifted three feet off the ground, tilting sickeningly
in the air. The window to Berezovsky's left exploded inward, jagged shards of bulletproof glass pelting his face, neck, and shoulder. He felt a brief moment of weightlessness—and then the limo crashed back to the ground, both axles snapping from the force. The sound came next, a howling roar loud enough to pop both his eardrums, hitting him like a fist against his skull, slamming him back against the warping leather seat.

And then the heat.
His eyes went wide as a ball of searing flame engulfed his entire world, bright orange licks of fire clawing at the exposed skin of his face, neck, and hands. He screamed, slapping at the pain, then found himself rolling forward, almost by instinct. The next thing he knew, his knees and hands hit pavement, and he was crawling through broken glass. A strange scent, acrid and sweet at the same time, filled his nostrils; he realized it was the scent of his own skin burning. He screamed again, lurching forward on the glass-covered road, away from the heat. Finally, he was able to lift himself to his feet.

He turned back toward his car—and stared at the burning, mangled mess of metal. It took him a full minute to understand what he was seeing; much of the chassis was melted right into the pavement, the windows were all blown out, the outer fuselage warped beyond recognition. He shifted his attention to the front seat. His bodyguard wasn't visible, but he could see his driver, still sitting behind what was left of the steering wheel. The man looked strange, hunched forward at an odd angle, smoke rising from his jacket. Berezovsky was about to call out to him—when he came to a sudden realization.

The man no longer had a head.

Berezovsky collapsed to his knees, as sirens sang in the distance.

CHAPTER THREE

June 8, 1994, 2:00 a.m.,

Logovaz Club

“W
ELL, THIS IS NEW.”

Alexander Litvinenko ran his fingers through his hair, as he watched Igor Davny, a junior agent under his command, trying to pry what appeared to be a piece of a leather seat cushion from the base of a partially melted, steel trash can. The leather had fused to the steel, making the task nearly impossible, but Davny wasn't going to give up so easily. The young man cursed as his gloved hands slipped off the material, then he bent at the waist for another go.

“Now they're blowing each other up,” Davny continued, with a grunt of effort, as he worked on the leather. “Less efficient than a bullet, but I guess it makes a statement.”

Litvinenko grimaced, refusing to see the humor in the situation. It was the middle of the night, and he had much better things to do than pick through a still-smoldering crime scene. As a newly promoted officer on the central staff of the FSB, the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation, specializing in counterterrorism and organized crime, he had thought he was beyond this
sort of menial task. When he had gotten the emergency call, he had just crawled into bed with his new girlfriend—Marina, a ballroom dancer, twice as beautiful as he deserved—after a long dinner at a friend's house.

He took great care as he stepped over a piece of wood from the nearby destroyed fruit stand. They were still a good ten yards from the center of the blast radius, but even here, the air was thick with the scent of ash, burning pavement, and melted rubber.

He shifted his gaze toward the spot next to the mangled Mercedes limousine at the direct center of the crime scene, where the most senior investigators were crawling through a pile of rubble and shrapnel—the remains of the parked Opel, or ground zero, as the inevitable report would declare. Litvinenko was already certain what the investigators would find; he'd surveyed the blast area when he'd first arrived on the scene. A fairly sophisticated explosive device, hidden in a parked car. The bomb had been detonated by remote, and despite what the younger agent might have thought, this wasn't a unique crime scene at all. Litvinenko was well aware, from his latest officer's briefing, that over the past few days, there had been at least two other bombings in Moscow—one of them right in front of the Tchaikovsky Concert Hall. Both had been “business related”—and considering the most likely target of this evening's attack, this incident was of a similar nature.

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