Daniel Treisman is professor of political science at the University of California, Los Angeles, and director of the Russia Political Insight project.
By Bill Browder
Simon & Schuster.
396 pp. $28
Bill Browder arrived in Moscow in the spring of 1996 with $25 million to wager in the fledgling Russian stock market. Over the next few years, he earned his clients a 700 percent return, lost almost everything in the 1998 financial meltdown, and won it all back and more in the boom that followed. At the peak, his Hermitage Fund had $4.5 billion in assets, making him the country’s biggest foreign portfolio investor and the market’s most enthusiastic cheerleader. Then things began to go horribly wrong.
“Red Notice” is the riveting account of Browder’s journey through the early years of Russian capitalism. A red notice is a global arrest warrant issued by Interpol. In 2013, the Russian authorities tried to place one of these on Browder. Interpol, uncharacteristically, rejected the request.
Browder’s story begins as bildungsroman and ends as Greek tragedy. The grandson of a leader of the American Communist Party, he grew up on the South Side of Chicago in a family of math prodigies. To annoy his left-wing, academic parents, he decided early on to go into business. With an economics degree from the University of Chicago, an MBA from Stanford and a few years of banking in London, he found his way to Moscow just as the country’s Soviet-era enterprises were being privatized.
As he openly acknowledges, Browder speaks no Russian and knew little about the country. This, in fact, became the secret of his success, along with talent, luck and an obsessive streak that kept him hunting deals in the ruins of communism even as his marriage collapsed and his ride to work changed from a Chevy Blazer to an armored car. Had he understood the risks — political, criminal and economic — behind the low share prices, the stocks might not have appeared quite so undervalued to him. More-seasoned investors stayed out. They missed an opportunity but had a point.
After tussling with a few oligarchs in the late 1990s, Browder became Russia’s first shareholder-activist in the early 2000s, setting a model that the protest leader Alexei Navalny later followed. With perfect timing, Browder documented waste and abuse at major companies just as President Vladimir Putin was starting to replace old managers with his own. Some investors were shocked by the arrest of oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky in 2003. Browder at first cheered Putin’s victories over the business titans.
But then the worm turned. By 2005, Browder was exposing problems in Gazprom, where Putin’s old associate Alexei Miller had taken charge. That November, Browder flew into Sheremetyevo Airport, only to be detained overnight and frog-marched onto a plane back to London, his visa revoked. Meanwhile, a ring of police and tax officials was stealing three of his companies and using them to obtain a fraudulent $230 million tax rebate. When, after quietly withdrawing his assets, Browder fought to expose the crime, he was threatened, and he evacuated most of his people to London.
One lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, refused to leave. Escalating matters, he filed a criminal complaint against the police officers behind the scam. Those same officers then arrested him, held him in jail without medical treatment for months as he endured pancreatitis and gallstones, and eventually sent guards to beat him to death in his cell.
Browder is clearly devastated by his role in Magnitsky’s death, and the last quarter of the book recounts his efforts to prod Western governments to do something about it. The result was the Magnitsky Act, passed in December 2012, which imposed a U.S. asset freeze and travel ban on a list of officials involved in Magnitsky’s mistreatment.
It is a powerful story, and Browder tells it skillfully. He is not always generous to those who disagree. Any Western officials who questioned the “name and shame” strategy of the Magnitsky list are assumed to be moved by shallow careerism rather than, say, a belief that such measures don’t work. Browder claims that then-Sen. John Kerry sought to bury the bill as part of a deal to be named secretary of state. The source for this allegation? That well-known authority, “the rumor in Washington.”
But for the most part, Browder sticks to what he observed, giving the book a feel of authenticity. One glimpses the struggle at the top in the mid-2000s, as the more pragmatic technocrats around Putin try to convince him that his security-service friends are poisoning the business climate. A series of regime insiders intercedes unsuccessfully on Browder’s behalf. Even some in uniform seem disgusted by the corruption and brutality. One mystery informant — at what must have been great personal risk — repeatedly leaks details to Browder about the secret operations planned against him.
What defeats the technocrats’ message is the market itself, which, flushed with global liquidity, soars 170 percent in the three years after Khodorkovsky’s arrest and 66 percent in the year after Browder’s expulsion. By the time the crash comes in 2009, Putin has stopped listening.
An enigma hangs over the book — that of Magnitsky himself. What caused this gentle tax lawyer and father to stubbornly refuse to save himself by retracting his complaint, even as his jailers left him to suffer the agony of gallstones and then fatally beat him? From where does such moral strength arise? “Russian stories never have happy endings,” Magnitsky tells Browder, in the book’s most memorable line. Perhaps not, but they do have inspiring ones.