Books

book review

‘Red Notice’ by Bill Browder

Justin Renteria for the boston globe

This is the tale of an accidental activist. An American goes to Russia in the Wild East 1990s. He makes a pile of money investing in the stock market, runs afoul of Vladimir Putin and his thugocracy of thieving oligarchs, and gets deported. His lawyer is killed.

Instead of lying low, he fights back. He becomes an international crusader for justice. The same skills that brought him financial success — stubbornness, creativity, and media savvy — now bring about an act of Congress.

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Not a proverbial one, but an actual act passed by the House and Senate and signed into law by President Obama.

Bill Browder, the unexpected hero and author of this suspenseful memoir, is no ordinary investment banker. His grandfather was Earl Browder, leader of the Communist Party USA in the 1930s and 40s and twice a failed candidate for president. Purposefully rebelling against his left-wing family, Bill Browder became an ardent capitalist.

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As a young management consultant in London, he expressed a vague interest in Eastern Europe, and just after the Berlin Wall falls, he had a hilarious escapade trying to restructure a Polish bus company. This led to him launching his own investment firm, Hermitage Capital. In December 1995 at age 31, Browder moved to Moscow.


It is fascinating to follow him as he navigates the kleptocratic Russian economy, with its stonewalling secretaries and opaque, if not nonexistent official annual reports. He describes an expatriate life both odd and mundane (Hermitage uses secondhand picnic tables as desks); dangerous (Browder gets bodyguards after he publicly protests when Russian oligarchs start to rip off minority shareholders like himself); and, at times, hedonistic (parties featured caviar and champagne and “the next thing you knew, some slender vixen with perfect lips and mysterious eyes was wrapping herself around you as your mind calculated where the nearest bed — or private room of any kind — was”).

But most of the story is about finance, revolving around things like valuation anomalies and share dilutions, and all of it comes surprisingly alive in Browder’s vivid, if sometimes breathless storytelling. Hermitage Capital started with $25 million under management; it rose to more than $1 billion in 1997; crashed to $100 million in 1998; and a few years later skyrocketed $4.5 billion. Browder became the largest foreign investor in the country

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Then in 2005 while flying back from London, Browder was detained at a Moscow airport for 15 hours and expelled from Russia with no explanation.

Here “Red Notice’’ takes a dark turn. Moscow doesn’t stop at kicking him out. Law enforcement and tax officials try to steal his assets with arbitrary tax claims (after his expulsion, Browder stealthily sells all of Hermitage’s shares in Russian companies). They take over Hermitage’s shell company and request and receive a fake tax refund of $230 million.

After trumping up criminal charges against Browder — now in London — they ask Interpol to issue a “red notice,” an international arrest warrant, for him. Interpol refuses. Moscow convicts him of tax evasion in absentia. His Russian lawyers fight these absurd, almost Kafkaesque developments. The government imprisons one of them, a thirty-something tax attorney named Sergei Magnitsky who is tortured and in 2009 killed in detention.

An underlying thread of “Red Notice’’ is that to win and to win big, you have to know how to work the media-industrial complex. During his decade in Moscow, whenever he discovered something shady happening to a company he had invested in, Browder researched and cobbled together a dossier and then shared it with journalists to bring pressure for changes.

This strategy, which proved effective in business, also works when he is looking to punish his lawyer’s killers. Browder the investor morphs into Browder the human rights activist. He comes to Washington and lobbies hard, pulling out his Rolodex and getting meetings with key people. He pushes stories to the press and creates YouTube videos about the corrupt Russian civil servants who on small salaries manage to buy posh apartments and vacation overseas.

In December 2012, President Obama signs the Magnitsky Act: It bans 18 Russian officials responsible for Magnitsky’s death from entering the United States and freezes their assets. You might remember this measure because right after it became law, Russia retaliated by forbidding American families from adopting Russian children.

Browder’s media skills are also in evidence in the blurbs for “Red Notice,’’ as he manages to assemble an impressively eclectic, all-star cohort including Senator John McCain, chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov, biographer Walter Isaacson, playwright Tom Stoppard, and two members of feminist Russian rock band Pussy Riot.

It is a wonder Michael Lewis didn’t blurb it. “Red Notice’’ at the beginning is strikingly similar to Lewis’s first book, “Liar’s Poker’’: the rake’s progress of a young innocent who discovers a lot of dog-eat-dog avarice, uncouth language, and ill-tempered vice presidents in the financial world. Browder even works for a time at the same notorious firm that Lewis did, Salomon Brothers.

Browder is a banker not a writer, so you can’t expect his memoir to be Lewis-like in detail or control. One small, but obvious note of tone deafness. Underneath the drama of his career is a rarefied private life. There is a continual drumbeat of receptions at Davos, hikes in Cornwall, a “lovely brunch at the fifth-floor restaurant at Harvey Nichols” in London and trips to Cape Town, Lake Como, Crete, Paris and the south of France. It seems that every time there is a crisis at work, Browder is vacationing at a five-star hotel. It isn’t surprising, but after a while it feels like boorish place-dropping.

But there has been a heavy price paid for such luxuries. Browder dedicates the book to Magnitsky, “the bravest man I’ve ever known.” You get the sense that Browder is still reeling from his lawyer’s death, and this book, like all the lobbying he did for the Magnitsky act, is another way to honor his memory.

James Zug is a Globe correspondent based in Wilmington, Del. He can be reached at jzug@earthlink.net
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