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.
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