Bill Browder is the founder and CEO of Hermitage Capital Management, through which he became the largest foreign investor in Russia until 2005. Sergei Magnitsky was his lawyer. Through sharp practices with a new twist, Russian authorities misappropriated three of Browder’s companies and used them in a scheme to take $230 million from the Russian government in the form of a tax refund.
When Magnitsky figured out what had happened and declined to go along with the authorities, the authorities took Magnitsky into custody on false charges. Once he was in custody, the authorities tortured and killed him. In the 2015 memoir Red Notice Browder tells the story in riveting fashion.
Browder’s grandfather, by the way, was Earl Browder, the former head of the Communist Party USA. He ran for president on the Communist ticket in 1936 and 1940. Browder tells the family story in sketchy form early in the book. Although there is much more to it, as Browder tells it the background serves mostly as an unbelievably ironic element to the tale that is the focus of the book.
Since Magnitsky’s murder, Browder has dedicated himself to exacting justice in some form from the perpetrators. He names the names of the guilty and memorializes their deeds. To get his campaign off the ground in 2010, he funded a series of short documentaries that he called Russian Untouchables. They are posted on their own YouTube channel. The English-language version of episode 1, for example, on Artem Kuznetsov, is posted here.
Browder’s grandfather was a famous Communist, but Browder’s memoir doesn’t let us in on Browder’s own politics. I have no idea how he leans politically. Politicians of both parties come off well in the book: Senators Ben Cardin, Joe Lieberman, John McCain, and Roger Wicker, for example, along with former Attorney General John Ashcroft.
By contrast, only one Senator comes off extremely poorly: John Kerry. Kerry comes off poorly for several reasons. One of them is his reflection of the Obama administration’s hostility to Browder’s efforts. Browder surmises that Kerry was angling to succeed Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State and refused to do anything that would land him crosswise of the Obama administration.
In chapter 32 (“Kyle Parker’s War”), Browder sketches the opposition of the Obama administration (i.e., the Obama State Department) to Browder’s efforts. Browder frankly states that “ever since Barack Obama had become president in 2009, the main policy of the US government toward Russia had been one of appeasement. The administration had even created a new word for it: reset.” Browder explains that “in practical terms it meant that the United States wouldn’t mention certain unpleasant subjects concerning Russia so long as Russia played nice in trade relations and nuclear disarmament and various other areas.”
Browder continues this theme in chapter 37 (“Sausage Making”). Browder exposes the duplicity of the Obama administration’s opposition to the Magnitsky Act as it cruised through Congress but for the opposition of Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Kerry in the Senate. Cardin struck back against the opposition in the 2011 Washington Post column “Accountability for Sergei Magnitsky’s killers.”
The bill stalled in the Senate until Russia joined the WTO in the spring of 2012. As Browder explains, the United States would have been left out of the resulting benefits of trade with Russia if the Jackson-Vanik Amendment were not repealed. Jackson-Vanik had to go; the Magnitsky Act became part of the legislative horse trading.
Browder describes Kerry’s performance at the June 2012 Foreign Relations Committee hearing at which the Magnitsky Act was passed out of committee: “He began the meeting with a strange speech about how the United States is not a perfect country, and the people in that room should be ‘very mindful of the need for the United States not to always be pointing fingers and lecturing and to be somewhat introspective as we think about these things.'” Browder observes: “Kerry’s fuzzy diplospeak made it clear that he was there only because he had to be, and that he couldn’t reconcile himself with what had to be done.”
As I read the book, Browder put me in mind of Jake Gittes in Chinatown. Browder doesn’t realize that he is over his head doing business in Russia. His Russian friends warn him “Russian stories never have happy endings.” As Browder wrangles with Putin’s thugs, I wanted to shout, “Forget it, Bill. It’s Russia.”
In the last chapter of the book Browder himself reflects: “If I could do it all over again, I would never have gone to Russia in the first place. I would gladly trade all my business for Sergei’s life. I now understand how completely naive I was to think that as a foreigner I was somehow immune to the barbarity of the Russian system.”
Browder’s little window on the foreign policy of the Obama administration in the matter of Putin’s Russia on the one hand serves as a useful reminder and on the other hand forms a telling backdrop to the Russia hoax perpetrated by Hillary Clinton, the Democratic Party, the Obama administration, and their handmaidens in the American press.