Dark Roman history: Dirty laundry aired in billionaire battle

It has been described as something British courts have never seen before. But aside from being a battle for some $6.5 billion, Boris Berezovsky's lawsuit has also made public some little-known details about his fellow tycoon Roman Abramovich’s past.

The process has been dubbed the battle of the oligarchs.

In one corner is “Mr. A,” with an estimated wealth of $15 billion. His assets include four yachts, Chelsea Football Club, and a French Chateau.

In the other corner is “Mr. B,” with a fortune valued at $500 million. He had to sell his yacht, but he does still have his trusty stretch-Maybach, which he never fails to show off.

Roman Abramovich’s rise to riches is a story precious few knew until now. His turn in the witness stand has lifted the lid on a life in the shadows. He revealed how some of his companies employed primarily disabled staff, landing lucrative 30 per cent tax breaks.

Abramovich also came clean on the piles of cash he paid for protection as he dived into the infamous aluminum wars, where someone involved was murdered every three days. It is not exactly the clean-cut image of one of Britain’s most-loved foreign imports.

He did once say, I think it was to le Monde, that the only difference between a rat and a hamster is PR,” says the author of Abramovich: The Billionaire from Nowhere, Dominic Midgley. “And his PR has been very good: presents a very benign image, doesn't really come across aggressively, he doesn't really say anything at all. He wants to go respectable, and suddenly we are all made aware of the seedy origins of his wealth.”

It is a third of that wealth that Boris Berezovsky claims is his. Still a wanted-man in Russia, he is suing Abramovich for $6.5 billion.

They set up the oil company Sibneft together in the 1990s. Berezovsky claims he was blackmailed into selling his stake at a fraction of its true worth – a mere $1.2 million.

The money here is massive and the case is expected to smash the record for the UK’s most expensive privately-funded litigation, which is thought to be costing $80 a second.

Abramovich’s legal fees are rumored to be $16 million, while Berezovsky’s lawyers are on a “no win, no fee” basis.

The pair used to be close. Berezovsky gave his protege the all-important leg-up into the world of the super rich. And we now know he was paid for his troubles.

But Abramovich says that was just protection money, denying they were ever business partners. It is that claim this case rides on, but there is no concrete evidence. After all, this was the Russia of the ’90s, and none of their deals were in writing.

We are five weeks in and I've counted a cast of nine billionaires, five Russians, one Kazakh, one Uzbek-born Israeli, one British, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi's now suddenly involved for transferring $1.3 billion from one to the other,” says Tom Peck, a reporter for The Independent. “Not to mention Boris Yeltsin, President Putin, Chateaux on the French Riviera, huge yachts, strange deals, recordings of meetings that maybe never happened. The whole thing is extraordinarily bizarre, and you try to piece it all together, which becomes another difficult task because you don't know how much of this is in any way true.”

According to Mr. B’s lawyers, Mr. A has hidden his billions in a complex web of offshore holdings. So even if Mr. A does win, he will have a difficult task extracting any money.

With so much as stake, it is painstaking progress. The battle is expected to go on into the New Year.