Bill Browder: 'Putin is a mafia don'

The former financier's autobiography is a gripping account of his rise and fall from Russia - and his fight for justice.

by Rachel Savage
Last Updated: 30 Jan 2015

Bill Browder is angry. Angry in a quiet, measured kind of way, but angry all the same. He is also full of guilt.

‘My main regret was going to Russia in the first place, because it ended up with a man dying,’ he says.

There are people Browder blames more than himself for the death of his lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who was denied treatment for a painful pancreatic condition, beaten up and then left to die in a Russian jail cell in 2009 after he uncovered a $230m (£151m) government fraud. But it was Browder who put Magnitsky in harm’s way.

Browder was once the biggest foreign investor in the Russian stock market and a big cheerleader for President Vladimir Putin. But now he is on an earnest, single-minded crusade to bring those he holds responsible for Magnitsky’s death to justice – including Putin himself.

We have heard this story before. ‘Sergei was a national hero, who uncovered crime in his own country. It will not go unpunished,’ he said when MT interviewed him here in his Soho office last summer.

But it is so powerful it bears repeating again – not least because Browder is about to release his autobiography Red Notice. Indeed, the book so hooked our editor Matthew Gwyther that he came along as well to ask a further round of questions.

It’s a gripping read - tightly written with no narrative slack points. The account of how Magnitsky discovered Russian officials had stolen Browder’s companies to commit the aforementioned fraud rattles along like a detective thriller. And even before all of that kicks off, Browder’s journey from prep school burnout to investing billions in Russia, via Stanford business school, the eastern European investment business of corrupt media magnate Robert Maxwell (‘it was like a corner shop’) and run-down hotels in post-Communist Poland, is fascinating (helped along by a ghostwriter who Browder says worked with him on every single sentence).

Browder has been criticised for being blind to the very obvious flaws of the Russian state until the very moment it turned on him. Not so, he says. ‘I wasn’t thinking that Russia was going to become Norway or England. My idea was just that it had to progress from Nigeria to Brazil.’

‘I thought there was great financial risk in being there. But I thought the personal risks were actually overstated.’ Browder believed he was safe ‘sitting in some anonymous building trading stocks,’ unlike shopkeepers at the mercy of armed, organised criminals and bribe-extorting bureaucrats.

‘The one risk that I had no anticipation of was that the president of the country was going to turn into a gangster,’ he continues, quickly returning to his favoured theme. ‘If you read this book, you can’t walk away with any other feeling that Putin is a mafia don.’

The world is starkly black and white when seen through Browder’s eyes – because of compromise ‘there’s no justice in the world,’ he says. He is also adamant that no one should campaign for change from within Russia. 'It would be unreasonable to go and tell someone to become an opposition leader in Russia so they are arrested or killed,' he insists.

Fighting from exile, as he does, is apparently the safe option (well, relatively anyway - look what happened to Litvinenko), in part because even with Russia in the economic mess it’s in, Browder thinks Putin could do a Mugabe and hang grimly on. The outlook for the former Soviet state is currently pretty bleak.

In the meantime, Browder is absolutely determined to press on with passing more Magnitsky Acts to go with the American one slapping visa bans on the officials held responsible for the lawyer’s death. ‘The Khmer Rouge wasn’t going on holidays to St Tropez. But now the president of Uzbekistan's family is,’ he argues. ‘And they value those things.’

About a year ago Browder gave back the outside capital invested in Hermitage to focus on this activism. He still manages his own money, though. How much is that? His deadpan composure flickers.  ‘Can I see your underwear drawer?’ he requests.

It’s hard to see Browder sating his righteous thirst, but he insists he has an end in sight. ‘If one can create consequences for evil, even small consequences like people not being able to come to Britain and France, I think that’d be a big accomplishment,’ he says. ‘If I could actually succeed in doing that on a global scale… I’d feel pretty good about myself.’

Human rights abusers certainly have a doughty opponent in the former financier. And if gets what he says he wants, maybe, just maybe, he’ll stop blaming himself.

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