Published: 11 March, 2015
by ILLTYD HARRINGTON
THE traffic hum around Hampstead tube station has always seemed to me to be a gateway to subversion. I saw my first Eisenstein films there at the Everyman Cinema. It is a very public place, but at the same time conducive to anonymity. Well, think John Le Carré. But throughout the 1980s, a fascinating man came down a narrow street behind the station to catch the tube to Fetter Lane.
This is a man who claims to be the principal enemy of the Russian Federation, who invested there as an American fund manager. His grandfather, Earl Browder, had been the leader of the American Communist Party in the 1930s and under the punitive anti-communist laws he went to prison for it. It was President Roosevelt who intervened to reduce his long prison sentence.
The Browder family produced brilliant mathematicians who were zealously head-hunted, even during the McCarthy anti-communist hysteria. Bill Browder writes in a continuing narrative, including details of conversations, and even menus of lunches and dinners eaten years before. Plot lines, and coincidences are reminiscent of Charles Dickens. If you can endure Browder’s self-aggrandisement, he leaves no doubt about how deep corruption grew under Vladimir Putin. The roots of what is more of a detective story than anything else starts with crazy underselling of state assets by Boris Yeltsin in his privatisation programme. Browder looks on as ordinary Russians were given vouchers worth about $20 to join in and share in the spoils. Most Russians bought vodka or slabs of pork with this.
The man from Hampstead snapped up shares in a Murmansk fishing fleet. All at this time, wealth created by Russian workers was being flogged as if at a jumble sale. This disastrous essay in free market economics gave rise to 22 oligarchs who ended up owning 40 per cent of total Soviet wealth. This was the bonanza, and its tide was seen as a gold rush.
No one was quicker than Browder. Yet even his get-rich mind stood and looked incredulously at this polarisation of wealth. He remembers that in the early revolutionary days of 1917 the Communists drew up a wage structure which said that between the highest and the lowest paid there should be a factor of six. Come Yeltsin, with his manipulative daughter, and the gap grew to 250,000 times. The Moscow tax office was under the control of a very powerful and conniving woman and her husband, who were pushing money all over the world. People on medium salaries were buying properties in Switzerland or parking their yachts off Cyprus.
It was certainly a good time to be alive for the likes of Browder.
But all good times come to an end. Standing in the middle of this extravaganza, it slowly began to unwind for him. Any student of Franz Kafka would not be surprised when we come to his revelation that he is being pursued by Department K of the FSB, the regenerated KGB. And sitting at the centre of this poisonous web is Viktor Voronin, a worthy successor to Holmes’s nemesis Moriarty, a master of crime.
The world turned upside down.
Browder, the white knight, became the devil incarnate. He was presented with a bill for over $800million and charged with tax evasion.
One of the few growth industries in western capitalism is trading money illegally. The advent of Putin loosened up a bit on the strangulating legal system, though there were a few brave and independent lawyers. Browder dedicates his book to Sergei Magnitsky with a quote to “the bravest man I ever knew”.
If his account of the arrest and abuse of this young lawyer is true, it is barbaric. Browder alleges that he was kicked to death by eight investigators from the tax office.
After a lot of pressure, the American Congress passed a bill called The Magnitsky Act, freezing the assets of Russians who were alleged to have condoned illegal acts.
It is a very easy read, very slick, but I still entertain some suspicion about its absolute accuracy, given Browder’s apparent total recall, with endless flying times and descriptions of hotel interiors.
I must state a bias, for I am someone who has travelled in the Soviet Union, and never forgets how patient the long-suffering people are. Twenty million of them died in the war against fascism. It must be conceded that, in spite of human rights abuses, Putin has captured the spirit of nationalism which holds Russia together.
Browder in fact won his case against the tax office when it eventually reached court in Russia, but it was empty victory – he got no damages or legal fees.
A strange epilogue: Red Notice is, of course, an international police arrest warrant. After losing the court case, the Russian government sought one against Browder. It was rejected.
• Red Notice: How I Became Putin’s No. 1 Enemy, by Bill Browder, published by Bantam Press at £18.99.