2017-05-22

Book Review: "Red Notice" by Bill Browder

Recently, I was able to read the book Red Notice by Bill Browder. It is a detailed exposition of his career in finance, specifically his interests and investments in Russia (as well as other parts of Eastern Europe earlier in his career). He discusses how he and his business partners were able to find so many amazing investment opportunities in Eastern Europe after the fall of the USSR just because few other people had seriously considered those countries for investment. This leads to his company being the victim of fraud perpetrated by corrupt government officials and oligarchs in Russia, and once his business partners and lawyers come under threat from governmental and extrajudicial shakedowns, he turns his focus away from his investment company and toward the broader issue of human rights abuses in Russia, thereby going from a friend to an enemy of Vladimir Putin.

The book, though it may seem long due to the page count, is a fast-paced, gripping tale of intrigue and suspense, reading so much like a James Bond-esque spy thriller novel that it is easy to forget that this is all a true story. It was also enjoyable for me to read this because I hadn't really given much thought to the issues of economic inequality, oligarchy, and investment in Russia after the Cold War, and I certainly hadn't considered it from the perspective of a financier who could make both friends and enemies in high places.

What's more interesting to me is to consider that at the beginning of his career (as the story is mostly a chronological account of his career), his actions are essentially amoral, being driven primarily by greed; his exposure of the fraudulent practices of corrupt government officials and oligarchs in Russia was driven not by high-minded morality but by his desire to ensure the success of his company and to do right by his investors/business partners who were counting on him. In a sense, there may have been a weird tribal morality that one could associate with his close kinship with his business partners and his initial desire to push forward with exposing such corruption despite the high personal and business risks of doing so. This is further justified by considering that his focus turns away from his company and toward broader issues of human rights abuses when his business partners and lawyers start becoming targets of extrajudicial shakedowns, most notably including Sergei Magnitsky, whose cruel and inhuman torture and neglect before even going to trial (which culminated in the insane posthumous show-trial of Magnitsky in Russia) made him a cause célèbre in the US and EU, leading to the passing of laws recognizing his work and financially sanctioning those in Russia involved in his torture and murder.

That said, he shows himself throughout the book as believing in the ideals of the rule of law and justice while simultaneously understanding that these are hard to come by in Russia, and as a result, he portrays himself as having some moral core that overrides business and personal considerations as his friends come in danger; it is only his initial naïveté about Putin that makes him initially think of Putin as an ally in the crusade against the oligarchs, and these illusions are shattered quickly enough when Putin co-opts the remaining oligarchs and enriches himself in the process. By contrast, he shows the oligarchs to be thoroughly corrupt in their quest for material enrichment and their ability to shamelessly lie, cheat, steal, and hurt people to that end; they operate at a totally different level of amorality. Of course, this depiction is his own, so it's not surprising that it would elevate his own moral standing, potentially at the expense of others, and the same can be applied, for example, to his rather negative portrayal of John Kerry as desperate to hang onto as well as enhance his existing power; with that in mind, his story seems somewhat more credible to me given the independent validation by all of the different people and news organizations of his accounts of Russia. It's worth noting too that the verb "corrupt" comes from the Latin word meaning "break from within", and can also mean "rot" or "spoil". In this case, the oligarchs may have some thin veneer of seeming morality (if that), but this is quickly eaten away by having a lot of money and power, revealing only the atavistic amoral lizard brain at the inner core; by contrast, the author seems to maintain some moral core throughout the story, and while he is initially motivated by amoral greed at a surface level, once things hit him in a deeply personal level, that surface is stripped off (though again, it is necessary to bear in mind that this portrayal is the author's own). Overall, this book is a very interesting and intriguing read, and I'd recommend it to pretty much anyone.

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