The Prairie Spy

Alan “Lindy” Linda

Disclosure: This is a biased-against-Russia column. As a long-time student of Russia, I have consumed a great deal of its history. Except for some very brief periods, it is a country that is and always has been run by thugs.

Anyone who thinks differently? I quite strongly believe you just haven’t studied and read enough about Russia. 

The book “Red Notice” is by and about Bill Browder, a graduate of Stanford who took his MBA overseas and after a short time in European investment firms, learned the following information about Russian business.

1. In the 90’s, in one of Russia’s brief non-totalitarian moments, Russian industry was taken away from state ownership and given to the people. One of the ways they did this was by giving each of the 150 million citizens one voucher, which, taken together, provided a tiny piece of ownership in over 30 percent of Russia’s industry. Oil, gas, shipping, etc. Anyone could purchase these vouchers, and Bill Browder did, in a big way.

2. Once these vouchers are accumulated—which meant that in most cases, the Russian people, not knowing what to do with them, often traded them for a bottle of vodka, or some food—they ended up in Moscow. There, the enterprising folk who accumulated them bundled them and sold them for fifteen or twenty bucks each, which Bill  B. realized meant you could basically buy stock in world-sized industries for pennies on the dollar. The vouchers could then be used to buy actual stock in Russian industries in a “voucher auction.”

And 3.  Browder’s investment group saw what a cheap deal this was, and that their value would rise once the world discovered what a cheap deal this was.

But before the world could discover it, a couple of dozen Russian moguls also purchased them. Putin, the Russian now running Russia, at first condoned Browder’s purchases. This was interpreted as any enemy of my enemy is a friend, because the Russian businessmen were becoming so wealthy and so powerful that they represented a threat to Putin. Better, it was thought, to have someone at least competing with them.

Putin, who was newly in office, slowly began consolidating his grip on Russia, and in doing so, began to demand his cut from these “oligarchs,” these wealthy few individuals who now owned most of Russian industry. They began to cooperate and cut him in on the money after he sent a few of them to prison. (Where a couple of them still are, incidentally, and Russian prisons are nasty, brutal places.)

As Putin gained in power, he turned his attention to Browder and his Hermitage Investment Group, since they were nonresponsive to cutting him in. As the pressure through fines, taxes, lawsuits, etc., ratcheted up, Browder and his group sold everything, and did so before anyone knew what he was doing. Russia—Putin, actually—kicked him out of the country, which was one of many dumb moves on their part, because they spent the next ten years trying to get him back so they could put him in prison with the other “businessmen.”

A “red notice” is a request to Interpol—a multi-nation police force formed to combat financial and other crimes–to arrest someone and extradite him back to Russia. Interpol put out an arrest order on Browder, but since he was in Britain, and Britain by now through international news stories isn’t buying this Russian bullying, he was safe. He just couldn’t leave.

He hired a solid, well-respected Russian lawyer named Sergei Magnitski to represent him in Russia as all kinds of bizarre legal proceeding were filed against him.

Russia, upon finding this out, arrested Magnitski and over the next several months, through various forms of torture, deprivation, and beatings, tried to get Magnitski to say that Browder really was guilty of all these cooked-up charges against him.

Magnitski, a pretty normal guy, believed so strongly in the justice system that he refused, and he was finally beaten to death.

As details of his treatment leaked out—including pictures and names–, international reaction against Russia and Putin built, to the point where the United States government passed the Magnitski Act, which prevented any Russian involved in crimes against humanity from entering the USA.

Since many of these oligarchs and their private thugs had money in the USA, this got them where it counted. (Lately, as world opinion has affected these oligarchs and their wealth, some of them have spoken out. Against Putin. At last count, eight of them have oddly enough “fallen” to their death out of tall hotel windows.)

Reading this book taught me nothing new about Russia. When our political leadership believes that Putin is a friend, they are wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. There is only one way to handle a bully—stand up to him.

At least the Magnitski Act got Putin and his oligarch friends in their wallets.

This is a great book, and an unbelievably good read.