I do enjoy reading non-fiction; in some ways I regard it as a balance to the fantasy and science fiction that I prefer to read. In fact the next three books that I plan to review are non-fiction. The first book is Red Notice which I read with one of the book groups to which I belong. Then I return to fiction with a relief and a light heart.
For the first half of Red Notice I was without sympathy for Bill Browder, in fact, I was often angry. I found his motivation to become a capitalist, ‘the biggest capitalist in Eastern Europe’ because ‘nothing would piss off his family more’ only ensured that he was stuck in juevenile mode; a competitive and self-regarding man lacking in empathy. The rather clunky prose, especially when describing personal moments; ‘it took every ounce of effort for me to keep my cool’ tended to support this impression.
There is no doubting that Browder is a hard worker and a very persistent man. He ploughs on despite difficulties and losses. His research is thorough and pain staking. However, his business is to look for chinks, weaknesses and opportunities in places that are struggling to adapt to a rapidly changing economic situation. When Poland begins to privatise its ‘state-owned companies ‘selling this company for one half of the previous year’s earnings’ with no limitation on overseas investment he just sees it as an opportunity to make himself wealthy. He doesn’t share this information with Polish colleague ‘Leschek’ except to use him like a bookie’s runner. He is fully aware, due to his involvement with the Polish bus company Autosan, how desperately the country requires investment and expertise, but he begins a career in exploitation. He is a remora shark taking advantage of a nation’s vulnerabilities and ignorance.
Reading page p.83 about the ‘pickings’ available in Russia for the voracious investment banker makes me feel sick. It is equivalent to an antiques dealer ripping off a poor widow lady because she didn’t know the value of what she owns. There is no honesty or honour in what he does and the way that he writes this chapter indicates that he is still proud of his ‘find.’
Then the book is all about finding like-minded investors. I am very dubious about the term investor as pertains to this sort of financial activity as the purpose seems to be to find a company that has under-valued resources, suck up as many shares as it legally can, wait for the hard work and development to occur on the ground and then siphon off the wealth out of Russia. This, to me, is not the same as BP’s arrangement with Sidanco which involves the provision of knowledge, equipment and long-term financial commitment in return for shares.
Then it goes sour for him. The Russians do not like the way ‘foreign investors’ are gathered on the ‘bear’ like a bunch of ticks. Browder says that it is his Russian, corrupt, exploitive competitors who dislike him and seek to dislodge him from his position in the economy. Browder strives to stay in Russia and protect his investments by exploiting every political, media and legal loophole that he can.
What begins as ‘clearly having an axe to grind’ (Reuters in 2013) does metamorphose into an anti-corruption campaign. He directs this campaign against officials and oligarchs seeking to illegally deprive him of his wealth. He refers to several blatant examples of corruption on page 203 of Red Notice. He exposes the purchase of Russian companies by oligarchs and insiders for up to ’99.5 per cent discount of its’ fair value’. I am puzzled why he feels his own purchase of shares which Browder knew were grossly undervalued is that different from what the Russians were doing.
Yes, he does contribute to the exposure of the violence and corruption that infests the Russia. He enlists the help of a number of Russians to do so and this is where the book is desperately sad. Sergei Magnitsky was a lawyer of high principles exposes the tax fraud that is being used illegally against Browder and others. His reward for such whistleblowing is imprisonment, torture and death. I agree with Browder that Sergei Magnitsky was an incredible and an honourable man. I applaud his efforts to gain justice for him. I was horrified at the institutionalised violence that is prevalent in the Russian society and how it is used on individuals and their families and associates to cooperate with corruption, to prevent them from seeking justice and to undermine efforts to create a more equitable society. I am glad I kept reading because in the latter part of Red Notice Browder does make some redress for his earlier greed. His undoubted skills are now applied to altruistic purposes.
The book did lead me to read more articles about the murder of Sergei Magnitsky. There is a lot of evidence that governments of other nations are not sufficiently fussy about the source of the money that known corrupt persons are bringing into their economy. The news that Nicolai Gorokhov, the Magnitsky family lawyer, was severely injured in March 2017 from being thrown out of a fourth story window is devastating.
I read with sadness and apprehension that Julio Borges, the leader of the Venezuela opposition dominated National Assembly, has accused Goldman Sach of ‘aiding and abetting the country’s dictatorial regime’ through its acquisition of $2.4bn in bonds (at around 30 cents in the dollar) in the country’s state oil firm and making a ‘quick buck’ out of suffering. The same story! Money used like this is a dirty business.