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Red Notice by Bill Browder
By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
As much as I'm opposed to "recency bias" and the modern world's compulsion toward immediate perspective, I have to admit I'm becoming a bit of a fanatic in reading about the investigation into the 2016 election and the numerous, recently-published books about the current administration. The President has only been in office for seven months, and yet already there are numerous titles about the machinations and players involved in the improbably election of our current Commander-in-Chief.
Right not, I've got two books in my possession that help explain the political zeitgeist in 2017. Devil's Bargain, Joshua Green's examination of the influence of Steve Bannon on the 2016 election, and Red Notice, BIll Borwder's book about the murder of Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky and the subsequent passage of the Magnitsky Act, which punishes human-rights violators across the world. Red Notice was published in 2015, and doesn't even mention Donald Trump by name, but it's suddenly become topical: it's been disclosed that discussions about the Magnistsky Act were a prominent part of the infamous "Don Jr." meeting from last year, which has become a focal point of the special counsel's current investigation.
It's interesting (and probably inevitable) that books are so quickly being released about the current administration — the "lag time" between noteworthy political events and the "behind the scenes" re-telling has become virtually nil. Once upon a time, you wouldn't get a "tell all" book until well after the protagonists had left the stage; now we're getting an almost continuous steam of revelations from events that have just occurred. And it's a certainty that the books are going to continue to pile up — Hillary Clinton's book about the election is due this fall, James Comey's memoir will be out next year, and you can bet that with every new defection from inside the White House, there will be an attendant "insider's account" hitting the bookstores in 2018-2019. Ready for "The Mooch"'s story? Reince Priebus'? My only hope is that the former White House Spokesman chooses Spice World as his publication title.
I've been putting off reading Devil's Bargain because frankly I don't have the stomach for it right now; I've had enough Bannon, Breitbart, and alt-right insanity to last a full lifetime, and I don't really relish the notion of learning their intimate secrets. I'll get around to it, for it's important, I know, but I'm gonna give myself a bit of time. There's only so much overheated, right-wing madness that a person can take, after all.
Bill Browder's book Red Notice is a difficult book to read, too, but for much different reasons. The murder of Sergei Magnitsky by state-sponsored thugs is related in such precise, anguishing detail that it's hard not to be enraged and sickened by the brutish lawlessness and corruption that is endemic to Putin's regime. It is impossible to read the book and feel anything but profound moral disgust for anyone who would ever defend the atrocities committed by the Russian leader.
The murder of Sergei Magnitsky (and Browder's determination to seek justice for the crime) takes up the latter third of Red Notice, but the first two-thirds of the book are pretty compelling as well. Browder's got a fascinating history — his grandfather, Earl, was once the leader of the Communist Party in America (!), and Earl actually ran for president against FDR in 1936 and 1940. That the scion of one of the most famous American Communists of the 20th century ended up being a full-throated capitalist and the largest foreign investor in Russia is a wonderful irony that Browder can't help but find joy in. (Like many success stories, Browder's youthful rationale for choosing a career in finance was to "piss off the family.)” Browder doesn't spend a lot of time on the personal stuff — he covers the time from birth to college in about 8 pages — but chooses, rather, to tell the history of his financial career and how it eventually led him to Russian. And it's an incredible story.
Browder was working for Salomon Brothers in the 90s, when the wall came down, and he was one of the first Westerners to realize what a tremendous opportunity was presenting itself as Russian began its transformation. Browder was Salomon Brothers' lone Russia "expert" — at the time, everybody thought investing in Russia was ludicrous — and he quickly discovered that not only were Russian assets seriously undervalued, they were insanely, ridiculous undervalued. He discovered that the valuation of the entire Russian economy — the whole shebang — was $10 billion. That was one-sixth of what Wal-Mart was worth. It was shocking. Browder seized the opportunity and quickly turned a $25 million investment from Salomon Brothers into $125 million. He then decided to go it alone, and he moved to Moscow and started his own company, Hermitage Capital, which rapidly became a billion-dollar company.
All of this is gripping stuff — I'm not a finance guy, but I ripped through this account like it was a thriller. But then the corruption and the pure anarchy of modern life in Russia starts to become more prevalent in Browder's tale. Browder was well aware of the dangers involved in what he was doing, and he took precautions, but he was also naive in believing that as a foreigner, he'd be exempt from typical Russian coercion and retribution. He wasn't, and when it became clear that things would go bad, they went really, really bad. As Magnistsky himself poignantly told Browder, "Russian stories don't have happy endings."
And Red Notice doesn't either, but at least it offers a bit of hope that even in a landscape of absolute brutality, justice can be served. The Magnitsky Act has helped freeze the assets of hundreds of known human-rights violators and criminals, and it has blocked Putin's ability to steal more money and gain more influence. (Which is why he's so manic about getting it repealed; he's willing to sacrifice Russian orphans as leverage to get the billions that are being frozen.) Red Notice isn't a "redemption" tale, for Browder was never a bad guy, but it's heartening nonetheless to read about a fantastically successful businessman who becomes a passionate human-rights activist simply because he couldn't stand the idea of not doing the right thing.