Some thoughts RE: Bill Browder and Red Notice

This book came to me highly recommended by people I work with. It’s not the type of book I normally read, but every once in a while I pick up a nonfiction exposition to, you know, keep up with current events.

The premise is an American businessman, Bill Browder, in the early 1990s saw an opportunity in Russia and went for it. After setting up shop and working with the Kremlin for some time, he found himself in over his head when his work was pulled out from under him, and then he got kicked out of the country and charged with a list of crimes against the government for trying to expose corruption. It’s a whirlwind of a story, full of intrigue, suspense, corruption, and murder.

It’s an interesting story and well written overall, but what I’ve been able to skim from the book so far leads me to believe that Browder’s troubles could have been avoided had he done his homework ahead of time.

How I see it: this is a story of an opportunist* who didn’t know what he was getting into and was surprised to discover how deep corruption went in a system and culture that protected the corrupt.

Every government is corrupt, that’s a given, but Russia was and still is a different brand of corruption, a “special blend” of corruption, if you will. It’s corruption that’s accepted as the norm and embedded in every day life. Quite a shock to clueless foreigners, I’d imagine. Before everything soured, Browder had put in a lot of work and got investors on board, and things were great for him for 10 years. Then word got out that he had evidence of corruption, which he did, and that he was going public with it, which he would have, and then things went south quickly. He was kicked out of the country and stripped of all ties and assets, so the government could take over. This is not news. This is what happens when you challenge systemic corruption. It’s like the oldest trick in the oligarchy book. Browder would have known this had he talked to people who used to live in the USSR.

So, naturally, being a businessman and an American, Browder went on a self-righteous journey for justice. This is where people who know about oligarchies (because they’ve lived with them) chuckle and say “like that’s gonna go anywhere.” But Browder is American and that’s a powerful card in his deck. He’s got protection and influential backers that come with being American. If he weren’t American, like a lot of other people who went through something similar, he wouldn’t have had enough leverage to take on a foreign government. Furthermore things would have turned out a lot more tragically for him.

Back to the story. To expose the system, Browder went through several long tedious processes to bring corruption to light and he faced many international roadblocks to on the way. I haven’t finished the book yet, but I’m guessing he achieved some international recognition for his hard work. I think he even got an anti-corruption law passed or is on its way to being reviewed and then passed. One of the people who helped him along the way was a young idealistic Russian lawyer who was murdered for testifying against the system. Tragic turn of events, but not unexpected. And Browder’s story isn’t unique in the world of high risk finance on foreign soil. Maybe it seems unique because it’s happened so recently.

At the time Browder went abroad, the Soviet Union had recently fallen, so Russia was still very much rigidly controlled and openly corruption-ridden. Something like that doesn’t change overnight. But things were fine at first for Browder. That’s how they pull you in. You don’t usually notice anything wrong until it’s too late. If he had done any background research, like talk to people who escaped the USSR or the countries under Soviet influence and/or had family over there, Browder would have known ahead of time the sort of government and “investors” he was getting in bed with. It might’ve made him think twice. At the very least, he would have known the government had a habit of pulling successful business ventures out from under the people who started them. But then again, I doubt someone like Browder would have believed the survivors’ stories. He probably thought things couldn’t have been that bad and that he could have a hand in shaping the “landscape” of the new Russian economy.

I’ve heard this story countless times, and the outcome is always the same: people lose everything and the lucky ones escape with their lives. I suppose this book might come as a shock to those who aren’t familiar with how systemic corruption works. Corruption is usually under the table in forms of gifts and favors, as we’re used to seeing (or not seeing), but it’s a way of life for many parts of the world. And giving up that way of life is…very difficult. So a government swooping in and taking over an enterprise that’s doing well is nothing new, and the people in charge of that enterprise are either kicked out of the country or put on trial for crimes against the state or both, also nothing new. These things happen all the time. We just don’t hear about them because the people involved are either frightened into silence or they don’t have enough evidence to prove that they’ve been wronged or…they end up dead. Browder is one of the lucky few to have escaped and tell his side of the story.

If you think you can go into a newly formed country and work with its newly formed government, you have to do A LOT of research before the plane lands. Talk to the people who lived there and ask them why they don’t live there anymore. Research doesn’t get any simpler than that.

* no offense by the use of the word opportunist. But, really, what do you call someone who seizes opportunities (without looking both ways before crossing the ocean)?

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