By David Michael Newstead.
Three biographies converge in Bill Browder’s new book, Red Notice. The first is Browder’s own life, which follows the ebb and flow of modern Russian history. The grandson of an American communist leader, Browder set out to become a successful investor in Eastern Europe 25 years ago as communism was collapsing. And with considerable humor, he writes about the start to his career when he was often ridiculed as “that crazy fuck who wouldn’t shut up about Russia.” But not long after that, his foresight proved to be wildly profitable and Browder became the single largest foreigner investor in the country throughout the 1990s and the early 2000s. During that time, his business was able to thrive through its research abilities and by publicizing widespread corruption and malfeasance in companies like the energy giant Gazprom. But this also made him some powerful enemies. And in 2006, Bill Browder was unexpectedly deported and declared to be a threat to national security. Browder would go on to hire several lawyers to determine what was happening and among them was a tax attorney named Sergei Magnitsky.
Born in Odessa, Sergei was a married father of two employed at the law firm Firestone Duncan in Moscow where he specialized in civil law. Quiet and studious, Magnitsky uncovered a complex plot by corrupt officials in the Russian government to steal millions of dollars of taxpayer money. When things became increasingly dangerous during the investigation, Sergei was steadfast, refusing to flee his country and he would later testify against the officials involved. Not long after that, Magnitsky was arrested by those same officials and forced to endure horrific conditions in an attempt to make him recant his testimony and sign false confessions. Again, Sergei refused.
Over the next year, he was denied badly needed medical care, transferred to ever worsening prisons, and forbidden any contact with his family. Despite this treatment, authorities failed to obtain a false confession and they never broke Sergei’s spirit. In 2009, Sergei Magnitsky would die at age 37 in Butyrka prison, having been beaten to death by guards there. But the information highlighted in the 450 criminal complaints he filed while in jail document consistent refusals of medical treatment as well as human rights abuses designed to coerce a seemingly mild mannered tax attorney. This detailed evidence combined with the brutality of his death compelled people like Browder and others to push for some form of justice for those responsible, realizing this case to be emblematic of problems that plague Russia today. The result was the 2012 Magnitsky Act in the United States and a similar 2014 law in the European Union, which place visa bans and asset freezes on corrupt officials involved in Sergei’s death and the ensuing cover-up. It is considered a major piece of human rights legislation and a particularly effective tool for punishing criminals who act with impunity in their own countries.
But beyond the crimes of a few mid-level government employees, the information presented in Red Notice is very much an indictment of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Looming large as the book progresses, Putin’s system of government is gradually revealed to be one of corruption and violent repression completely at odds with men like Sergei Magnitsky. It’s worth noting that all the corrupt officials named throughout the book went on to be promoted and awarded top honors, while financial records reveal that their lavish spending in places like Italy and Dubai could not possibly come from their modest salaries. But while his killers walk free, Sergei Magnitsky was put on trial in 2012, despite the fact he had been dead for 3 years. In some perverse caricature of the law, Sergei was found guilty as guards stood watch over an empty cell throughout the proceedings.
Ultimately, the events in Red Notice are a telling sign of life in Putin’s Russia – where criminals run rampant and the innocent are prosecuted even after they’ve died. But even then, if history were to compare these two Russian biographies, Putin and Magnitsky, you would find one person who desperately tries to project strength and manliness in everything that he does. Then, there’s the other man who fought for the principles he believed in, refusing to ever give in.