Over the last 24 months, I’ve read books across an eclectic set of areas, restricted only by my preference for non-fiction and a general disdain for self-help and autobiographies. The endeavor has been to acquire knowledge across areas and peep into worlds far removed from mine, in the hope that there are lessons I can learn and apply in my context. The point I’m trying to make is that this process has resulted in reading choices that are sometimes hard to justify, and subsequently review. Bill Browder’s Red Notice (not connected to the recently released and extremely disappointing Red Notice on Netflix) is one such book. It’s a little difficult to review and recommend, not account of its pace, language or real-life story but because of the world in which it exists: Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
Bill Browder began an investment fund in Russia, crossed paths with the oligarchs that controlled the companies the fund invested in, and forced uncomfortable conversations around corporate governance and corruption in a market that was just emerging from the shadow of its breakup. He eventually fell out of favor with the Russian government on account of his aggressive activism and was denied entry into the country. His companies were ‘stolen’ and re-registered to convicted criminals. Using forged contracts, the conspirators then secured sham judgements from Russian courts for unpaid dues, equal to the profit that these companies made in 2006. Since these judgements wiped off the companies’ profits for that year, the new “owners” then went on to claim a refund of the $230M that were legally paid in taxes. The story focuses on two aspects: the vindictiveness of Putin’s cronies and Browder’s determination to seek justice for the torture and murder of his lawyer and friend, Sergei Magnitsky. Browder’s fight gave birth to the Magnitsky Act in the US that imposed sanctions on those responsible, a dismissal of frivolous lawsuits filed in the UK, and a rejection of ridiculous red notice requests by the Russian government, among other things. Details of Magnitsky’s torture are brutal, and to call his murder a human rights violation is an understatement.
We live in a world where it’s easy to fall prey to the seductive power of authoritarianism, leaving little space for stories of dissent to emerge. History is strewn with examples of such seductions that cut across boundaries and are not just restricted to former socialist states. I also can’t help but wonder… If such stories can emerge from a country that currently ranks 28 on the ease of doing business and 21 on enforcing contracts, then it begs the question: what happens in other countries that don’t rank up there? It has a rating of 4.41 on goodreads and is a New York Times bestseller. This also happens to be the second highest rated book I’ve read this year, after The Empire of Pain (4.60).
Update: The UK and several EU countries have also imposed sanctions and restrictions on those responsible, preventing them from traveling outside Russia.