Bill Browder, the co-founder of the investment fund Hermitage Capital Management, has made a number of headlines of late as the Congressional investigation into potential ties between Russia and the campaign of President Donald Trump has heated up. Browder, who spent years doing business in Russia, is responsible for pushing the passing of Magnitsky Act, a law intending to punish human rights violators in Russia by holding Russian officials responsible for the death of Russian tax accountant Sergei Magnitsky, a friend and former business associate of Browder's. Browder, now actively working as a humanitarian, published the story of his run-ins with Russia's criminal state in the book Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man’s Fight for Justice (S&S), which received a PW starred review, in 2015. PW spoke with Browder about his experience with Russia, the ongoing investigations, how his book keeps him busy, and more.
Did you foresee anything like the Russia scandal while writing Red Notice?
The big insight that I have, not so much from writing Red Notice but from living as the main character of Red Notice, is that Russia was and is a criminal state unlike any other sovereign country. The things they’re willing to do to further their crimes are so far outside the box of what we consider acceptable behavior that almost everything they do doesn’t surprise me. It doesn’t surprise me that they cheated entirely in the Sochi Olympics with performance enhancement drugs, or that they manipulated the U.S. elections and other elections around the world. And most worryingly, it wouldn’t surprise me if Putin ends up starting a major military conflict with the West at some point in the future to save his own skin as head of state in Russia.
Red Notice came about in part because of a big change in your purpose in life after you escaped a terrible fate at the hands of the Russian government. Have your political or foreign policy views evolved since you published it?
The main thing that I’ve learned since writing Red Notice is not so much about Russia but about how many very legitimate people in the West have sold their souls to the Russians to help them in their terrible goals outside of the country. I’ve discovered the crimes of the Western enablers. There’s many different types of people in the West that are helping Putin and Russia achieve their critical aims. There’s whole teams of lawyers and PR executives and investigators on the Russian payroll, unashamedly working for the Russians, who are often people who come from the highest reaches of society in the U.S. and Britain and Europe. And in some ways, these people are even more contemptuous than Putin and his regime because they should know better. Putin is a cold-blooded killer who doesn’t deserve any sympathy whatsoever, but if you’re brought up in a completely amoral criminal country where every incentive is against you, you need to be caged as a wild animal. But people who were brought up in civilized countries, who were brought up with the same values that we are, who are supporting criminals in Russia and knowingly are jettisoning those values for money in order to further the crimes of the Putin regime—those people deserve even more contempt.
My whole mindset when I got there was that it was crazy, it was criminal, but the way that I was going to operate in this system was to make money off of exposing the criminality. And for a long time, it was more profitable than I thought. The big problem was that Putin won his war with the oligarchs and decided to become the biggest oligarch himself.
Do you think Donald Trump and his administration are simply ignorant of the system and how it works? Or do you think there is more at work here, with regards to the allegations that Trump or his allies may have wittingly worked with Russia?
I know many businesspeople in Russia who have knowingly signed up to effectively compromise their values for their own profit motive to become part of this criminal apparatus in Russia. I’ve seen it many times, where cynical Westerners decide that to make more money they’ll become part of a criminal organization in Russia. It doesn’t necessarily happen in one big go. It happens in small compromises leading into much bigger compromises. And what the Russians look for is an opportunity to create a small compromise for somebody. They don’t do it in a negative way—they offer great incentives for someone to compromise themselves. Putin is a KGB operative, and he operates on bribery and blackmail. And what they usually do with people they identify as being compromisable is they offer a small bribe to induce them into their web, and then they offer bigger bribes, and then they use the bribes as blackmail. And those people who get stuck in their web can never get out.
As a nonfiction writer turned talking head, do you find that your TV work has helped to promote your book? Have you seen any sales spikes?
I have three prongs to my campaign for justice for [murdered Russian lawyer] Sergei Magnitsky. The first is a political prong, the second is a criminal justice prong, and a third is what I call a communications prong. On the communications prong we have this book, I have TV interviews, and I’m working on the screenplay for this book. And all of those things sort of ricochet off each other. As a campaigner, the book and the TV appearances are all sort of mutual reinforcement in getting the knowledge of what happened to Sergei out into the public domain. And the other two prongs ricochet off of each other as well—the more press there is about the story in the book, the more politicians and law enforcement officials are interested, and so on.