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'Red Notice' reads like a Russian thriller – but finishes as a real life tragedy

The capitalistic grandson of a noted US communist meets turmoil in today’s Russia.

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Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder and One Man’s Fight for Injustice
By Bill Browder
Simon and Schuster
416 pp.

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Bill Browder made piles of money as a foreign investor in Russia. At least, he did until the Russian government expelled him in 2005 for continually pointing out the country’s corrupt business practices. With Browder out of the way, two police officers then hijacked his company, Hermitage Capital, and set in motion an elaborate $230 million tax refund scam.

An American with British citizenship, Browder was nervy enough to believe he could use the Russian courts to refute the government’s contrived case against him. But when Browder’s Russian lawyers followed the money trail, they found that the police officers who had seized Browder’s company had criminal connections inside the justice system.

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Then Browder’s lawyers were themselves charged with crimes. A few of them, weighing the odds of successfully battling the Russian government in court, sensibly fled the country, but one, a mild-mannered 37-year-old father named Sergei Magnitsky, remained. “He insisted that nothing would happen to him because he had done nothing wrong,” writes Browder. “He was also indignant that these people had stolen so much money from his country.”

Sadly, Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man’s Fight for Justice is not the kind of David-and-Goliath story that finishes well for the little guy. Magnitsky’s courage and conviction were countered by the governmental powers railroading him. “Red Notice” is a dramatic recounting of Browder’s battle with the Russian system. But more important, it’s a tribute to Magnitsky – making it a book that reads like a thriller, yet finishes as a tragedy.

Magnitsky was ultimately arrested by the very officers he had documented as part of the tax fraud. For almost a year the judicial system subjected Magnitsky to physical abuse and denied him emergency medical attention in its quest to get him to perjure himself. “His only misfortune was to stumble across a major government corruption scheme and then behave like a Russian patriot and report it,” writes Browder.

Magnitsky died in prison in 2009, seven days before the expiration of the one-year term during which he could be legally held without trial.

From England, Browder spent five years rebuilding his company while simultaneously publicizing Magnitsky’s case. Through the doggedness of Browder’s campaign for justice for the lawyer, he eventually succeeded in getting American politicians interested in what has become known as The Magnitsky Act, whereby the dozens of Russian government officials involved in the persecution of the stubbornly truthful lawyer would be denied visas to travel to the United States. With a sigh of relief, as the law passed in 2012, Browder reflected in wonder, “There is no shortage of suffering in this world, but somehow Sergei’s tragedy resonated and cut through as few tragedies ever do.”

I don’t know anything about investment banking except what Browder has taught me in “Red Notice,” yet as a reader I was fully engaged by the book’s monumental presentation of the risks, rewards, and personal and financial dangers of doing business in Russia.

The first half of “Red Notice,” about Browder’s life and career up to his expulsion from Russia, is just as compelling as the Magnitsky-focused second half. As the grandson of Earl Browder, the head of the American Communist Party who ran twice for president against F.D.R., Bill Browder was an aimless Midwestern boy, unsuccessful and uninspired in school until he transferred to the University of Chicago, where he found his calling.

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After getting an MBA at Stanford, he started working at a big firm in London. He recognized an opportunity for himself in his first year there, just after the collapse of the Soviet Empire in 1989: “My grandfather had been the biggest communist in America, and as I watched these events unfold, I decided that I wanted to become the biggest capitalist in Eastern Europe.”

Browder’s earnestness about Magnitsky and candor about his own weaknesses and regrets are disarming and make “Red Notice” an unusually affecting book.

Browder only wishes Magnitsky’s fate hadn’t needed to become newsworthy: “If I could do it all over again, I would never have gone to Russia in the first place,” he writes. “I would gladly trade all of my business success for Sergei’s life. I now understand how completely naïve I was to think that as a foreigner I was somehow immune to the barbarity of the Russian system.”

What Browder says he intends to do now is to “carry on creating a legacy for Sergei and pursuing justice for his family.” A book as resounding as “Red Notice” may be a step in that direction.
Bob Blaisdell is editing “Essays on Civil Disobedience” for Dover Publications