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9 August 2021updated 08 Sep 2021 4:37pm

“I am not intimidated, I will carry on”: Bill Browder, the banker who became a thorn in Putin’s side

The financier and architect of the Magnitsky Act on his battle with Vladimir Putin’s gangster state.

By Emma Haslett and Phil Clarke Hill

Russia is not short of billionaires, but that doesn’t mean making money in the country is an easy business. Last week (6 August) Michael Calvey, one of Russia’s most prominent foreign investors, was given a five-and-a-half-year suspended sentence for embezzlement, and the case has rattled the country’s business community, reminding them of the risk of working there: according to the New York Times, around one in ten prisoners in Russian jails are white-collar criminals.

Calvey’s is fate is one that the US-born former hedge fund manager Bill Browder narrowly escaped. Until the mid-Noughties, Browder, who was born in Princeton, New Jersey, and grew up in Chicago, was at one point Russia’s largest foreign investor. Having co-founded Hermitage Capital with the legendary banker Edmond Safra in 1996, he took advantage of the “Wild West” atmosphere in the country’s fledgling stock market, and made billions.

As the returns grew, so did his troubles with oligarchs, who found increasingly creative ways to edge minority shareholders such as Hermitage out of the Russian market. So Browder became an activist investor, putting pressure on companies and their shareholders to improve corporate governance practices.

Eventually, his actions were noticed by Vladimir Putin and Browder’s visa was withdrawn in 2005. That led to years of legal fights, which in 2009 culminated in the brutal murder of his 37-year-old lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, who died in a Moscow jail.

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Since then, Browder has been lobbying governments to introduce laws named in Magnitsky’s memory. The first Magnitsky Act, which Barack Obama signed into law in 2012, allowed the US to freeze the assets and prevent travel to the US of the 18 people thought to have been involved in the lawyer’s death. That has since been extended to become the Global Magnitsky Act, which places sanctions on people from all over the world who are associated with human rights abuses, including some involved with the death of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi Arabian journalist killed in Turkey in 2018, and those accused of perpetrating the genocide of Uighur Muslims in China.

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Similar rules have been signed into law in Canada and the UK, including in tax havens such as the British Virgin Islands, Jersey and the Cayman Islands. The EU has begun work to create its own version of the law, and Browder says he is in talks with Australia, New Zealand and Japan to do the same.

Browder peppers his conversation with statements that sound like one-liners from an Avengers movie. “The driving force in my life right now is justice,” he growls, like Batman, when I talk to him over Zoom. He calls the Magnitsky Act “a sort of remarkable human rights success” which has “completely changed the whole chemistry of evil in the world”. He describes his personality as “tenacious to an extreme”.

But fighting for justice is perhaps a more natural occupation for Browder than his career in finance would suggest. Born in 1964, he is the grandson of Earl Browder, the general secretary of the American Communist Party in the 1930s and 1940s. His family, including his two brothers, are left-leaning academics. In his book, Red Notice (2015), he writes that he spent his teenage years figuring out a way to rebel against his liberal family. “Then… it hit me,” he writes. “I would put on a suit and tie and become a capitalist. Nothing would piss off my family more than that.”

His move away from finance in later life (Hermitage is still active, but Browder says he now only invests his own money) is “hard for anyone in my family to criticise”, he says, although he adds that his father began to “be impressed” by his work when his fight against corruption became a case study at Harvard University.

In his new life, however, Browder has been the subject of accusations relating to his history of employing legal measures to minimise taxes, including the use of a scheme which gave tax breaks to employers of disabled people (“Who wouldn’t employ a disabled person to reduce their taxes?” asks Browder). A 2018 New Yorker profile of Browder quotes a fellow banker who also managed Russian funds: “We’re not generally disciples of Mother Teresa, but Bill was singularly bottom-line focused.”

He has also been accused of renouncing his US citizenship and adopting British citizenship to minimise the amount of tax he pays, although he says shedding US citizenship was more to do with the way the US government persecuted his grandparents for being communists. “I don’t think there’s anything sinister about being British,” he says.

In 2018 Browder proved he had, in his own words, got “under Putin’s skin”. At a summit between Putin and Donald Trump in Helsinki, the Russian leader offered to hand over 12 Russian intelligence officers accused of interference in the 2016 US election. In return, he wanted access to Browder. At a press conference after the meeting, Trump called it “an incredible offer”. Browder admits he was terrified, but adds that “to a certain extent… [the episode] has only increased the success of what I’ve been campaigning for, because everybody all over the world now knows about the Magnitsky Act”.

Still, perhaps such battles require a personality like Browder’s, one that is unshakeably confident in the virtue of his goal. At the end of our interview, he resumes full superhero mode. “When I embarked on this mission for justice, I was ready for whatever came my way. And… I’m not gonna back down. I will continue to fight for justice, fight for Sergei Magnitsky and fight for other victims of the Putin regime. I am not intimidated by their actions and by their statements and by their threats, so I will carry on.”

[see also: Trapped in the Cold Web]