Asheville – Four years ago, by request, Red Notice, by Bill Browder, was reviewed for the Tribune Papers. It was, therefore, considered not a stretch that Browder’s sequel, Freezing Order, might also be of interest to readers.
Red Notice was one of those works that is almost a genre of nonfiction in which the hero challenges the nihilism of daily life in Russia. That is, a brave soul stands up for truth and justice rather than acquiescing in feigned adoration of a kleptocracy in which the “rule of law” is more preposterous than an episode of Whose Line Is It Anyway?”
In Red Notice, Browder is portrayed as a clever, American-born financier who made a figurative “killing” by investing in corporations sold during the so-called privatization of the former Soviet Union. Soon-to-be oligarchs were doing the same thing, only they were keeping the wealth for yachts and such, whereas Browder was running an investment fund, and he wasn’t in with the in-crowd.
This spelled trouble when Browder’s accountant, Sergei Magnitsky, discovered higher-ups in Russia’s Interior Ministry had stolen the investment companies in Browder’s Hermitage Fund and then proceeded to procure a $230 million tax refund for those companies. So, in spite of the risks, he insisted on reporting this to the authorities, even though they were part of the same machine that had stolen from Hermitage, the Russian people via the Treasury, and at least one other large business identified early in the game.
The predictable result was that Magnitsky was held on false charges and then was abused to death in prison. Not wanting his colleague to die in vain, as so many others had, and citing an innate passion for justice, Browder launched a campaign to get governments around the world to adopt policies granting themselves the power to sanction and seize the assets of people found guilty of human rights violations.
The first country to do so was the United States, with the passing of the Magnitsky Act. Russia cold-bloodedly retaliated by banning families in the United States from adopting Russian children with serious physical disabilities, for whom inadequate healthcare was available in their mother country. Russia, of course, has another side of the story.
Freezing Order picks up the story with new revelations about an international money-laundering operation that appears to have appropriated over $1 trillion in assets; the first actors to have their assets frozen under the Magnitsky Act; and the backlash Browder and others faced for questioning the power structure. Driven, Browder made it his hobby to follow the money and lobby to make murderous, organized crime rings answerable to the law. He surrounded himself with the best people, like data geeks, who figured out how to trace the crimes with available data.
He worked with the best lawyers, too. In one case, the Russian company Prevezon was alleging funds stolen from Hermitage and traced to Prevezon’s bank accounts were actually stolen by Browder. The opposing lawyer had actually worked with Browder before, and was well-acquainted with private corporate information that should have disqualified him from a conflict of interest. The judge, however, was described as addled and continuing to side with Prevezon’s high-powered legal team.
Having lost multiple rounds in this case with a great attorney who was operating under the impression that things should proceed logically in court, Browder hired Michael Kim, who counseled him to comply with all Prevezon’s ridiculous requests. This bought time until the addled judge could be retired. Prevezon eventually settled for $5.9 million.
Other adventures concerned the paranoia of constantly living under death threats. Browder was always getting threats, being served illegitimate subpoenas from Russians, and getting hassled at border crossings. Even his family was stalked. Browder mentions several high-profile heroes of the time who were killed or survived assassination attempts, as well as the infamous villains who benefited from it.
One of the final chapters goes back to the story behind “Remember Helsinki.” At the time, Trump was newly elected as president, and many Americans didn’t know what to make of his random comments. The Mueller investigation had just indicted 12 Russian agents for hacking and interfering in the 2016 election when, on-stage with Trump during a press conference in Helsinki, Putin said he would consider extraditing the agents in exchange for twelve Americans, and he named Browder as a possibility. Trump merely replied, “I think that’s an incredible offer.”
Another name put on the chopping block was former Russian ambassador Michael McFaul, who has spent his life fostering US-Russian relations and stressing the distinction between the well-meaning Russian people and the kleptocracy that breaks their backs. The crazy Russian state narrative at the time was that Browder, who was living in Great Britain, was the leader of a group of American spies that included McFaul. For days, Russian dissidents and their sympathizers held their breath in suspense for days until, after much waffling, Trump finally said he would not be amenable to the exchange.
Tales of a life of receiving renewed threats from Putin every few months may be a little hard to believe. What is harder to believe are Browder’s stories of his principles and his associates who stand up for theirs. Besides being a wild adventure, the book is full of concern for those who may endure collateral damage, tributes to those who have passed before their time, and praise for people like Magnitsky, Boris Nemtsov, and less-known persons who died for defecting, and leading others away from a life of servitude to the unappeasable appetites of the powerful.
The book reads more like an update on the latest tranche of absurdities Browder has dodged as punishment for “tugging on Superman’s cape.” So, there is no tidy conclusion tying everything together. One can at least expect a trilogy.