Crime, Finance; Continent: Asia

Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man’s Fight for Justice by Bill Browder

  • Pretty much everything in every Cold War spy novel you ever read happened to this guy or someone he knows
  • 396 pages (380 pages before Acknowledgments and Index)

Bill Browder’s story appeared recently on CBS’s “60 Minutes” as part of an update to their piece about poisonings of people who object to Putin’s leadership in Russia. Poll numbers show Putin as very popular among Russians, particularly young adult Russians. Browder says in his story that people who oppose Putin and his cronies risk much more than a little bit of social ostracism from their Russian neighbors.

What Is a “Red Notice”?

A Red Notice is an alert filed with Interpol effectively serving as an international arrest warrant. When Russia filed one against the author and a whistleblower who worked with him, either of them could have been detained if they had tried to cross a national border. Browder was living in London at the time, so a Red Notice applied pressure to the United Kingdom to extradite him for the big show trial Putin and cronies had planned for them.

How Did He Get into This Mess?

Early in Browder’s career, the Berlin Wall was just coming down. Relations between East and West were warming up as Gorbachev loosened the reins. Capitalism was seeping into Soviet Bloc countries. Many in the finance offices of London, New York and elsewhere saw miserable or absent infrastructure, corruption and cultural unreadiness for laissez-faire economics in Russia and its backyard. Browder, however, saw a chance to make a fortune by being the first to arrive with some cash. For a while, he was literally the guy at the office no one wanted to have lunch with, and colleagues made fun of his fascination with Russia. And then he started to make some money.

When he started his own firm, Heritage Capital grew rapidly and achieved a great deal of international notice. However, the business remained relatively small, with employees Browder came to know very well. The mid-1990s saw his hedge fund giving its investors triple-digit returns, and Browder became the party guest everyone wanted to meet.

And then in 1998, the Russian stock market fell apart. Russian bureaucrats played hardball with the International Monetary Fund instead of begging for help, so a deal arrived too late to stop millions in losses. When the agreement with the IMF finally happened, Russian oligarchs used that money to convert their rubles to dollars and then get out of Dodge. The Russian government defaulted on its debt, the ruble went into a freefall. When the smoke cleared, Browder’s Hermitage Capital had lost $900 million, or 90% of its value.

An American Can’t Keep His Mouth Shut

Browder tells us that he was determined to stay in Russia to earn back his clients’ money. In theory, that task shouldn’t have been hard: most of the firm’s holdings were in oil and gas. Those Russian companies sold oil and gas in dollars but paid their expenses in rubles, which had bottomed out. The currency factor accounted for a widening profit margin for those companies, which should have been good for investors like Hermitage Capital. However, the Russian oligarchs who owned the majority of shares in those energy companies still needed access to dollars to operate, and Wall Street didn’t want to hear about it. To keep up their standard of living, they started embezzling and stealing everything that wasn’t nailed down. Browder, among the last Americans in Moscow, opened his mouth and called them on it.

The Murder

Browder had a lot of dedicated help in going after the oligarchs who had ruined his business. Not all of them worked directly for him: he had retained renowned Russian tax lawyer Sergei Magnitsky when Russia began leveling tax charges against him. Magnitsky lived with his young family in Moscow. Along with Browder’s own Russian offices, Magnitsky’s firm was raided by the Russian government for all manner of documentation related to Heritage Capital. Months later, the Russian government arrested Magnitsky. Browder maintains that his friend and attorney died in Russian detention, without formal charges, from torture by his guards.

The particular section of the book describing Sergei Magnitsky’s arrest, detention and death is actually pretty short. The prison didn’t keep detailed records – at least none that the author felt could be relied upon – so he has relatively little to go on for this part of the story. The evidence he does offer convinces one that his friend endured a wholly unjustifiable, ugly death, however. In fact, the evidence compelled the U.S. government to pass the Magnitsky bill, which names specific individuals who are barred from entry into the United States and also can’t have the use of any assets they might have in the U.S.

Reactions

Although I powered through this book in a few days, I did it over a month ago and have been chewing over how to write about it ever since. For most of this post, I’ve been talking around one name: Vladimir Putin figures prominently in this story as the force against whom the protagonist/author struggles. Browder presents him as unscrupulous, even megalomaniacal. We’ve heard a lot of similar language in the American media these past six months or so, and now I can’t share my reaction to what I’ve read without seeming to take a political position.

I hate politics, and avoid talking about it whenever I can. Unfortunately, I can’t leave a review of this book without discussing my thinking about Putin in light of it. Browder has given us his and Sergei’s story with a forgivable flair for the dramatic, but I find him credible. If Browder’s story is even 60% true, then Putin’s willingness to write the law as he goes should concern us. Not just because he has his hands on the levers of power in Russia and visions for his country that echo the Soviet era, but because he is popular. His mandate with the Russian people makes him comfortable enough not to fear consequences domestically, and he isn’t going anywhere until he loses that mandate.

Image: Rubles and kopeks by Miroslavik on Pixabay.com.

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