Hello, all! Now that I have finally finished migrating all my old content over to its new home, I would like to introduce what I hope will be another recurring feature on this blog- book reviews! One of the fun parts about working in a bookstore is that I often get asked for recommendations. The other day, an out of town acquaintance suggested that I should start blogging my book recommendations to help out people like him, who like getting suggestions for books from independent book sellers, but don’t have any nearby. And because I’m always up for talking about my favorite books and what I’m currently reading, I figured, why not? So from here on out, in addition to all the other book-related nonsense you’ve come to expect, I’ll be posting periodic book reviews. There won’t necessarily be any rhyme or reason to what I review- some will be new releases, some will be older, some will be non-fiction, some will be novels, some will be well-known, some will be more obscure. Basically, it will just be books I’ve read that left me with a strong need to either get everybody I meet to read them or warn everybody I meet to stay away.
All right, enough with the introduction! My first review is of a book I finally got around to reading last month, after hearing an interview the author did on NPR a few years ago (I get a lot of my reading material from NPR, because I am apparently actually sixty years old. Also, it is the only station I can get in my car). And now, without further ado:
Ellie Reviews: Red Notice, by Bill Browder
On November 13, 2005, Bill Browder, the largest foreign investor in Russia, returned to Moscow from a brief visit to London. Fifteen hours later, after being detained without explanation at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo-2 airport, Browder was placed on a plane back to London and banned from entering Russia again. This was the first in a chain of events that would turn Browder from a capitalist into a human rights activist. Along the way, he would be tried in absentia for crimes committed by others, an innocent man would die in a Russian prison, and vulnerable orphans would be caught in the crossfire. This is the twisting narrative of Browder’s book Red Notice (2015), and it is a story both riveting and shocking in equal measure.
The book opens with Browder’s description of his unexpected detention and expulsion from Russia, before backtracking to describe his youth, upbringing, and entry into the world of business. If Browder is an unlikely human rights activist, he is also, perhaps, an equally unlikely businessman. His grandfather, Earl Browder, was a union organizer who spent time in the Soviet Union before returning to the United States to lead the American Communist Party, on whose ticket he twice ran for president. His father, meanwhile, became the chairman of the math department at the University of Chicago, before being awarded the National Medal of Science, while his older brother attended college at the age of fifteen and went on to become a leader in the field of particle physics. Against this high-achieving, left-leaning family, where “if you weren’t a prodigy, you had no place on earth,” Browder ultimately rebelled in the best way he could think of- by becoming a capitalist.
He couldn’t entirely escape his family legacy, however. After receiving his MBA from Stanford, Browder found himself drawn to the emerging markets of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Bloc- the same part of the world that had made such an impression on his grandfather. In 1990, while working for the Boston Consulting Group, he made it to Poland, where the government had just begun privatizing state-owned companies and selling the shares at absurdly low prices. Sensing an opportunity, Browder bought $2000 worth of Polish privatizations, and ultimately saw his investment go up nearly ten times. That was that- “I now knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life,” he writes.
From there, Browder gradually climbed the ladder to the top of the investment world, starting his own company, Hermitage Capital, in Moscow, and eventually becoming the largest foreign investor in Russia. Doing so came at a price, however, as he began butting heads with greedy and corrupt Russian oligarchs. But rather than retreat, as many other foreign investors did, Browder fought back, taking advantage of every opportunity he could to expose corrupt business practices and see the perpetrators brought to justice. For a time, he was successful. His anti-corruption campaigns presented a perfect opportunity for the newly elected Vladimir Putin to reclaim for the presidency (and thus, himself), powers that had been stolen by the oligarchs Browder was exposing. But after Putin felt the oligarchs had been suitably brought to heel, his interests and Browder’s no longer aligned. And Browder didn’t get the memo. He continued exposing abuses of power by the oligarchs, and soon found himself on Putin’s bad side. In 2005, Browder’s was expelled from Russia. His assets were misappropriated, and he was subsequently accused of tax fraud, to the tune of $230 million. When his Russian tax lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky uncovered the truth about the fraud- that it had, in fact been perpetrated by Russian police and government officials, using Browder’s stolen assets- he was accused of being complicit in the crime, arrested, and ultimately beaten to death in a Russian prison.
Horrified by his lawyer’s death and bent on achieving some measure of justice, Browder began a one man crusade against the Kremlin, persistently lobbying the United States government to take some form of action against Magnitsky’s murderers. In retaliation against both him and the United States, Putin issued a warrant for Browder’s arrest and banned the adoption of Russian orphans by Americans. Years after these events, Browder still has a warrant out for his arrest in Russia, and lives with the very real risk that he may yet be the target of a Russian assassin.
Given the events it describes, Red Notice can’t help but be an engrossing read, at times seeming almost more like a fast-paced thriller than an account of actual events. In spite of a few lulls, the narrative moves along briskly and both halves of the book- the first, which details his rise in the business world, and the second, which describes his crusade against Putin- make for engaging reading. Browder is not an exceptional writer, but his prose is clean and clear, and he has a knack for making complex financial transactions understandable for the layman. The reader cannot help but be both moved and shocked by the ordeals suffered by Sergei Magnitsky, and frustrated at how long it takes Browder to achieve even a small measure of justice. The main flaw of the book is a slight tendency to self-aggrandizement on the part of Browder. He describes with perhaps a bit too much self-importance how his speeches about Magnitsky’s murder moved otherwise unflappable crowds to tears and standing ovations, and his descriptions of the danger he continues to live in occasionally seemed tinged with relish.
These are faults, however, that can easily be forgiven in the larger context of the book. Red Notice is not only an engaging and captivating read, it is also a story that needs to be told and that demands wider attention. What happened to Sergei Magnitsky was nothing short of evil. Evil thrives in darkness, depends on keeping others ignorant of its deeds. To fight it, one must pull back the curtain and allow the light to reveal Evil’s ugliness, bit by bit. Few would argue that there is much evil in the Putin regime, and this book acts as a weapon against it, pulling back the veil to allow another small but significant ray of light to penetrate the darkness.