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His Russian Lawyer Dead, A Former American Turns to Congress for Revenge

More than a few turns of the irony wheel brought Bill Browder to the dining room of the Hay-Adams, to the hotel’s gilt frames and bright silver, to the Cobb salad he would eat overlooking the White House, trying to get some fuel for the long afternoon ahead. There were to be hours spent testifying in Congress on the eve of the House vote to pass the law that would wreak vengeance on Russia, and on those who had plundered his wealth and killed his lawyer three years ago today. After that, he would go and lobby individual senators to cement their support, before catching a flight back home to London to see the premiere of the play “One Hour Eighteen Minutes,” about the last mortal moments of that slain lawyer, the posthumously famous Sergei Magnitsky.

On Nov. 16, 2009, Magnitsky died in mysterious circumstances in a Moscow prison. He was working for Jamison Firestone’s American law firm, which had been hired by Browder to investigate whatever had happened to his assets in Russia. In November 2005, Browder, who had become the largest foreign investor in Russia, had been turned around at a Moscow airport, sent back to London, and labeled a security threat to Russia. His offices were raided and his riches began to disappear. Magnitsky discovered what happened to them: Russian tax and interior ministry officials had used Browder’s company to plunder $230 million from state coffers. When he pried further, Magnitsky was thrown in jail for nearly a year and suffered what was, by all accounts, a grueling and painful death of untreated pancreatitis. (When, in his death throes, he began to howl with pain, the prison called a psychologist. According to some sources, he was put in solitary confinement, handcuffed to a bed and beaten. He died an hour and eighteen minutes later, bruised and in a pool of his own urine.)

Browder, his lawyer dead and $4.5 billion fortune in Russia destroyed, wanted revenge. His friend, former deputy assistant Secretary of State Jonathan Winer, suggested a legal avenue of doing so. “The law banned corrupt foreign officials from entering the country,” Browder explained to me, referring to Proclamation 7750, which prohibits officials tied to corruption from entering the U.S. Browder liked the idea of applying it to those involved in Magnitsky’s death, so he turned to Kyle Scott, head of the Russia desk at the State Department at the time. “He dismissed my suggestion out of hand,” Browder recounts. That’s when Browder remembered a new acquaintance, Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.). “I had testified about Magnitsky’s incarceration at the Helsinki Commission, and I went back to Cardin’s office, and I told him what happened. And the response was, ‘Let’s see if they treat a U.S. senator the same way.’”

From there, Browder’s tale trails through the nooks and crannies of the couloirs of American power. He found a Republican co-sponsor, John McCain, for a bill going after the guys who got Magnitsky, and then expanded it to include other international bad guys. He hired Washington consultants from the Ashcroft Group, the firm founded by former Attorney General John Ashcroft. He navigated the tensions between the State Department and Congress (he gleefully retells the story of Cardin’s showdown with State over its own secret list of offenders, compiled to head off Browder’s bill). He exploited the friction between Congress’s desire to win easy human rights points and a White House that likes to set its own foreign policy (and that has less hawkish ideas about Russia). In the end, he and Cardin won, by striking a bargain: the White House wanted to help Russia enter the WTO, and to do that, the U.S. had to repeal the outdated 1974 Jackson-Vanik Amendment, which denied the Soviet Union “most favored nation” trading status because it blocked Jews from emigrating. Cardin and his allies in the Senate— McCain, Joe Lieberman, Roger Wicker—hitched the repeal of Jackson-Vanik to the passage of the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, which would ban officials implicated in Magnitsky’s death, as well as other human rights offenders, from traveling to the U.S., while also freezing their assets. A quid pro quo in the best traditions of Washington.

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“This is the beauty of the American system, that Democrats can challenge their own administration,” Browder marveled, and speared a perfectly oval slice of hard-boiled egg.

And this is the beauty of Browder’s place in it all: he has none, officially. Born in Chicago, to American parents, in 1964, he moved to the U.K. in 1989. When he became a British citizen, he quit being an American one. What motivated him to do this is not something he’s ever been clear on. “I relinquished it when I swore my allegiance to the Queen,” he explains, shrugging and clearly uncomfortable. “I had emigrated.” Nor does Browder see the irony in this, or the fact that his adopted homeland and a dozen European parliaments currently considering their own versions of the Magnitsky Act are waiting for the Americans to do it first. “Everyone in Europe needs Americans to do it to have the confidence to do it themselves,” he says. Including Britain. 

Why did Browder renounce his American citizenship in an age when it’s possible to carry a deck of passports? It may have something to do with his past: His grandfather Earl Browder was head of the Communist Party USA in the 1930s and 40s. He twice ran for president, twice failed, and was, unrelatedly, twice jailed. “I don’t want to get into this too much,” Browder says, “but we came from a family that was persecuted in America, so I don’t have the same sort of, uh… We were communists and we were persecuted in the McCarthy era.” Earl, he points out, was jailed “by Roosevelt, for being against the War. My grandmother was dying of cancer and they wanted to deport her.” He happily notes the irony that, even after that, and after he became Putin’s champion—he publicly cheered the 2003 arrest of oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky (“Who’s next?” were the words) and continued to lavish praise on Putin even after being expelled from Russia— after all that, he says, “in a certain way, now I’m being politically persecuted in Russia.” (His grandfather, ironically, had similar luck. “He was kicked out of the Communist Party by Stalin, and they started killing all the people who were supporters of Browderism,” Earl’s idea that capitalism and communism could co-exist.)

Browder does whatever it takes. When he was working for Salomon Brothers, in London, he took one of the fund’s biggest investors with him and started a fund in Russia that famously earned a 2,549 percent return. He made that money in notoriously shady times and in hazy, inscrutable ways. When the big Russian corporations weren’t making him enough money, he started greenmailing them, waging war for corporate reform from within. This is where he stepped on large and powerful toes, and probably how he got himself kicked out of Russia, his other adopted homeland. (“I’m still obsessed and fascinated with the place,” he says.) After making billions in the hurly-burly gangland Russia of the 1990s, Browder goes on at length about the pain he still feels about Magnitsky’s death. “I would die of a broken heart,” he said, when I asked him why he’s spent so much sweat and money on pushing this bill. “I have a hard time even thinking about it.” And yet, he admitted he didn’t know Magnitsky well—just one of his many lawyers, a young guy he saw at corporate parties.

It’s a familiar conversion: Khodorkovsky, once the most ruthless of all the oligarchs, seems to have had his soul cleansed by the fire of state persecution and years in a Siberian penal colony. He is now a bona fide opposition martyr. And, like many people in that part of the world, Browder has become yet another former bad guy who got religion when the system turned on him, a man whose desire for revenge has become so entwined with worthy motives that they have become increasingly hard to untangle. In Russia, Browder says, “you either have to be either poor and persecuted and good, or you have to be rich and make compromises and be bad.” Speaking for himself, he adds, “When something like this happens, it kind of changes your priorities.”

The fact that America has helped him in this struggle—the House passed the Magnitsky Act on Friday morning—has not redeemed this country for Browder just yet. He has no plans to restore his U.S. citizenship. He is, he says, “very involved” in British politics. He has a British house, a British wife, two British sons. “My kids go to British schools, they have British accents,” Browder said, and shrugged, as if to indicate that this just about settles the matter. Then he forked some pink-slathered lettuce into his mouth, chewed, and pattered on about American politics.