Red Notice, Bill Browder

Naïve American-born (but later a British citizen) investment banker stumbles upon vast opportunities in post-Soviet Russia, makes a fortune for himself and his hedge-fund clients, then runs afoul of Putin’s thuggish cronies, with tragic consequences, especially for one of his Russian attorneys, who is imprisoned, tortured and beaten to death.

Coming from a background of self-importance, Browder’s brief youthful rebellion is followed by a dive into the hyper-establishment world of investment banking.  It is from that platform he learns the post-Soviet Russian government has given every citizen a voucher to invest in their newly-privatizing economy – a laudable goal, on its surface. Realizing that most citizens have no idea how to benefit from this historic opportunity, Browder organizes the means necessary for himself and other non-Russian investors to buy up those vouchers and benefits, instead.

Perhaps not surprisingly, there are Russians who resent this.  Not, the ordinary citizens, who have made at least a tiny gain by selling him vouchers they believe to be worthless, but rather the local sharks, who resent not being able to gobble up this bonanza themselves.  When they, with the help of corrupt police and courts, begin stealing from Browder’s organization and, even more tellingly, from their own government (and thus its citizens) Browder, being a good child of American idealism, tries to use the rule of law to stop them.  The majority of the text, and its drama, concern this white-hat intrigue, and the death of Russian attorney Sergei Magnitsky, whose only sin was believing to the end in the myth of his nation’s legal system.

This is a compelling tale, worthy of LeCarre or Green, and Browder tells it pretty well for a first-timer (no other pen is credited…).  While one can almost hear the author swearing not to aggrandize his own role, though, he does come off as…well…a crusader for justice.  A jet-setting lifestyle, financed by taking advantage of the same lax government which cultivated Russia’s oligarchs and oligarchy, is hardly a stable perch from which to condemn others, but the degree of corruption and cruelty he uncovers makes such criticism seem rather a quibble. 

The real hero here, as Browder frequently and forcefully reminds us, is Sergei Magnitsky, attorney, husband and father, who risks all for the truth, and pays the ultimate price, his last weeks recounted here with justified horror and sympathy.  It is to Browder’s credit that he then pursued the only form of justice available; the Magnitsky act by which the USA (and later several other nations) put Russa on the public stage and on record as a criminal conspiracy dressed up in nation’s clothing.  (Browder appears also to have taken financial care of Magnitsky’s family after his death, another stand-up move.)

The events of this book took place in the aughts, the first decade or so of Vladimir Putin’s presidency.   As the autocrat now wreaks his havoc on Ukraine, Red Notice (not to be confused with the movie or another novel of the same title, btw) is more valuable than ever for its glimpse behind the curtain, confirming that his tyranny is no recent development, but the true measure of the man, evil rooted and growing for many years.   All the way back to his KGB days in the old Soviet Union, in fact.  Clearly, there is no hope Putin will ever change his ways, and no wisdom in ever believing anything he spouts about agreements, cooperation, the rule of law or any alternative to simple brute force and self-service.  Fair warning to the next president who believes he has seen the Russian’s soul in his eye (43), or finds in him a friendly bro’ with whom to shoot the breeze – with no witnesses and no notes taken (45).

Pass this one around; people deserve to know.

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