Red notice: A true tale of high finance and murder in Russia

  • Books
  • Saturday, 24 Oct 2015

Red Square in Moscow, with the colourful turrets and domes of St Basil’s Cathedral in the background. Modern Russia might seem to have come a long way from its czarist days but oppression still rules, and heavily, according to Bill Browder, the author of 'Red Notice'. Photo: TNS

Red Notice: A True Story Of High Finance, Murder And One Man’s Fight For Justice

Author: Bill Browder

Publisher: Bantam Press

I had expectations that Red Notice, thanks to its subject matter – Russia, politics and finance – would be a dry treatise.

So I was pleasantly surprised that I ripped through the book in a day, entertained, enlightened and horrified by what the pages revealed. A treatise it was, but dry it was not.

At times I forgot that Browder’s aim was not to entertain but to rail against injustice. Whatever Browder’s intent, Red Notice is a page turner because it was written like a thriller: there are heroes and villains, secret police subterfuge and the evil machinations of powerful governments. And caught among these forces are ordinary people who just want to give their families a good life.

The essence of a rollicking good story. Only this isn’t fiction, it’s real life.

It seems wrong to be entertained by Red Notice. In its pages, real men and women had been killed, tortured and impoverished by people fattened on the shallow coffers of the poor.

The title of the book, by the way, refers to the Interpol arrest warrant which, according to the United States Attorneys’ Manual from the US Department of Justice is “the closest instrument to an international arrest warrant in use today”.

Bill Browder claims that Russia’s President Vladimir Putin had tried to arrest him using this document numerous times. In fact, he asserts that he is in danger of being murdered by “Putin or members of his regime”.

“If I’m killed, you will know who did it. When my enemies read this book, they will know that you know,” declares Browder in the book. Yet he didn’t set out to become Putin’s No.1 enemy. The thing that set him on this journey, it would seem, was a fascination with the land of his ancestors.


Browder is the grandson of Earl Browder, a leader of the American Communist Party who tried to run for president twice in the 1930s. Earl met his wife in the Soviet Union in 1926 and the two started a family in the United States. However, Earl’s communist ties complicated his family’s lives; not only was he imprisoned for his beliefs, his three talented sons were shunned because of it.

By the time Browder became an adult, Earl’s legacy no longer haunted the family. However, Browder became fascinated by Russia and worked from a young age to get there.

Thus begins the first half of the book, an exciting memoir of Browder’s rise in the financial world. A lot of it reads like Michael Lewis’ Liar’s Poker. Browder, like Lewis, has the gift of making the financial world fascinating and exciting.

He had a rocky start. As one of Robert Maxwell’s workers, Browder was under immense pressure to perform. Maxwell, a billionaire Czech-British tycoon who once owned the Daily Mirror newspaper, is described as a “monster ... he fires everybody almost all the time”.

Browder survived being red-slipped, but when Maxwell dies, Browder finds himself out on the street and unemployable until scandal-ridden investment bankers Salomon Brothers take him on.

From then on, Browder goes from strength to strength, eventually achieving his dream of working in Russia and then running his own investment company, Hermitage Capital, which became one of the biggest firms in the world.

Wall Street culture comes alive in this section as Browder recounts his successes, then crushing setbacks, and then even bigger successes. But then Russia’s politics bite him, and this is when the optimistic, hopeful tone darkens as Browder vows to inflict “economic pain” on his “oppressors”.

Little did he know then that he had awakened a serpent that would eventually get him expelled from Russia, nearly bankrupt him, endanger his life, and allegedly kill his friends.

The second half of the book concerns Browder’s battle with Russian bureaucracy and, eventually, with Putin himself.

“But for the average Muscovite,” says Browder, “a single act of Good Samaritan-ship could lead to a seven-year prison sentence. And every Russian knew this. This was the story of Russia.”

The Samaritan he talks about is his lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, whose belief in a good Russia proved to not just be wrong, but a deadly error.

When Browder began his crusade against financial injustices, Magnitsky was on his team of lawyers.

When the Kremlin began biting back, Magnitsky, a gentle man who lived for his family and loved classical music, would pay dearly for this decision.

The reader is plunged into a morass of excitement, despair, righteous indignation, and anger as Browder charts his journey to save Magnitsky and his family.

I did wonder if Browder is as heroic as the memoir portrays him to be. Yet it is also undeniable that if not for Browder’s determined crusade, Magnitsky’s story would have remained buried, just another one of the world’s many gross miscarriages of justice forgotten by time.

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