<i>Red Notice</i>: Honoring Sergei Magnitski

We discover, laid bare by an expert, the inner workings of the staggering extortion scheme that is the heart of Putin's system, and we understand that the act of revealing those workings is the most unforgivable crime in the country.
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The story begins in the early 2000s, as Vladimir Putin comes to power.

At the time, Bill Browder, author of Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man's Fight for Justice (Simon & Schuster 2015), is an investment advisor like any other.

Except Browder understands a little before anyone else the opportunities available in the former "people's democracies."

And he detects the iron law of these just privatized enterprises, which is the correlation between their stock-market value and the value-sapping factors of bad governance, ubiquitous corruption, the pillaging of assets by the oligarchs to whom they were handed over, the lack of transparency.

Result: This self-made-man, the grandson of Earl Browder, founder of the American Communist Party, this man who grew into an intimate of those kings of the new capitalism, Edmond Safra and Robert Maxwell, creates a fund called Hermitage Capital Management that buys up undervalued Russian companies, assembles an army of auditors to unmask the secrets of the piracy behind their undervaluation, and, once those secrets are revealed -- once the wrongful transfers of Gazprom assets, Sberbank's fraudulent share issues, and the ransacking of Yukos by the henchmen of Khodorkovski, then at the peak of his power -- are brought to light, he watches the stock prices of the purified enterprises rise steadily and pockets the resulting gains.

So everything proceeds for the best in the best of all possible markets.

The grandson of Earl Browder is thinking that he has the only job in the world where he can make a country more honest while earning billions of dollars.

Until the day when Putin, who had at first seemed satisfied enough with the cleaning of the post-Soviet Augean stables (this was the moment when, according to Browder, he sealed with the survivors of the amazing clean hands operation initiated by a single individual, a corruption pact whose terms were, more or less, "I promise to protect you, but in exchange you have to give me half of your business"?), decides that Browder has served his purpose and buries him in a pile of phony charges that force him to pack his bags and leave Russia, taking with him, like the general of a defeated army, his battalion of analysts and asset managers.

But wait.

Not all of them follow him out.

He leaves behind his best tax expert, the young Sergei Magnitski, who is in the process of discovering how the Kremlin's goons, after taking control of Browder's firm, stole a billion dollars from the Russian treasury. Magnitski does not want to leave until he has exposed this defrauding of the state... by the state.

He pays a price for his diligence.

On November 28, 2008, the police raid his apartment and take him away.

And with that begins, for this idealist who believes that the old Soviet Union is on the path to democracy and that a few pure souls like himself will be enough to get it there, a descent into hell, a calvary, the tale of which is no less horrifying than the worst season in hell of the Stalinist period.

Magnitski is shuffled from prison to prison, put in isolation, treated worse than an animal.

Ill and uncared for, humiliated, beaten, sometimes chained to the radiator like the hostages in Syria, sometimes caged like a brutal murderer, he is seen crawling to his food bowl on the floor of the ceiling-less latrine that has become his tiny cell.

Beaten again when he complains, tortured anew when he asks for medicine, a human rag dragged from hearing to hearing, where those present are shocked that he no longer has the strength to respond, un-locatable when a nongovernmental organization inquires after him, a sort of "man in the iron mask" of whom even Browder's lawyers lose track, he finally turns up dead on the night of November 16, 2009, clubbed by a police anti-riot unit that is assigned to finish him off over the course of an hour and eighteen minutes.

That is the most horrifying part of Red Notice.

Browder's book gives us a glimpse of the basements of Department K, the counterespionage service of the FSB; those of the new cancer ward that is Matrosskaya Tichina Hospital; and those of the maximum-security Butyrka prison.

We discover, laid bare by an expert, the inner workings of the staggering extortion scheme that is the heart of Putin's system, and we understand that the act of revealing those workings is the most unforgivable crime in the country of the ugly new lie.

Browder's book is, to my knowledge, the first unveiling of the intrinsically mafia-like nature of Putinism in all its breathtaking scope and horror.

The author carries the death of his friend with acute remorse.

He devotes the end of his book to an account of how he fought, with a handful of U.S. senators, to lend his friend's name to the Magnitsky Act, legislation that enables the American government to apply sanctions to Russian officials involved in human rights abuses of the sort that resulted in the death of Sergei Magnitski.

And Browder makes it clear that the purpose of his book, a translation of which has just been released in France, is to inspire, in Europe and elsewhere, new advocates of new Magnitsky acts that will ensure that the dons of what the author considers to be the criminal organization that runs Russia will nowhere go unpunished.

That purpose has been accomplished. He now has such an advocate in me.

Translated by Steven B. Kennedy

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