Bill Browder and Vladimir Putin: A tangled tale of two nations, two centuries and a lot of history

Behind this week's Helsinki headlines lies a fascinating mystery with deep roots and many unanswered questions

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published July 21, 2018 12:00PM (EDT)

Vladimir Putin; Bill Browder (AP/Getty/Salon)
Vladimir Putin; Bill Browder (AP/Getty/Salon)

Amid the wailing and rending of garments that filled the air after President Trump’s bizarre press conference with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki last Monday, one mysterious name lingered in the air. Who the hell is Bill Browder, and why does Putin want to get his paws on him so badly?

At one point in Putin’s remarks in Helsinki, he appeared to extend a peculiar offer to Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller — while standing next to the man Mueller is investigating, of course. Mueller and his team would be allowed to visit Russia and observe the interrogation of 12 military intelligence officers who were indicted last week for their alleged involvement in the 2016 hacks of the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. In exchange, Russian investigators would get access to various people living overseas “who have something to do with illegal actions on the territory of Russia,” in the inelegant phrasing of Putin’s real-time interpreter.

It turned out later that one of the people Putin was interested in grilling was Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia. (McFaul spoke to Salon's Matthew Rozsa later in the week.) Even by contemporary norm-busting standards that was an extraordinary breach of protocol — although not as astounding as the fact that the White House briefly seemed to entertain the idea. (An “incredible offer,” said our president.) But at the time Putin only mentioned one individual by name: William F. Browder, a 54-year-old investor and financier, originally from Chicago, who reportedly made hundreds of millions of dollars in the Wild West marketplace of post-Soviet Russia.

Anyone who has intermittently tried to follow the shadowplay narrative of Russian history and politics during the Putin era heard alarm bells going off, and perhaps felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand up. This was a plot twist that requires some explication, in a story that quite likely no one will ever fully understand.

Several major publications supplied obligatory “Who is this guy?” articles almost immediately, and Browder himself wrote a piece for Time magazine, offering his own highly truncated version of his history with Putin. None of it was untrue, exactly, but for my money those accounts largely served to obscure the deeper historical currents that flow beneath this implausible tale. Neither man is likely to mention that they were once close allies; Browder was described as among Putin’s “most vocal cheerleaders” in a 2006 Economist article (which has become remarkably difficult to find). Furthermore, Browder becomes slightly more difficult to cast as an American hero once you notice that he renounced his U.S. citizenship 20 years ago, for reasons he has never adequately explained.

I imagine both Browder and Putin would say that their shared connection to the pre-Putin past of Soviet Communism is irrelevant to their present-tense dispute. I’m not so sure: Russia has some of the same mythic qualities as William Faulkner’s Deep South, where the past is not dead and isn’t even past.

Putin was of course a KGB officer during the later years of the Soviet Union, who witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall from his post in East Germany. Bill Browder’s grandfather, Earl Browder, was perhaps the most famous American Communist during the decades before World War II. An all-American boy from a farm family in Kansas, Earl Browder became a socialist as a teenager, spent several years in the Soviet Union after the Russian Revolution and was leader of the Communist Party USA for 15 years, even running for president as the party’s nominee in 1936 and 1940. He was also almost certainly a Soviet spy and recruiter, meaning that he worked for the same organization that would educate and employ the young Vladimir Putin some years later.

I should probably explain my personal connection to this story: My mother was a member of the Communist Party, both under Earl Browder and under William Z. Foster, his comrade, rival and successor. I may be deluding myself here, but I always feel some identification with the psychological mechanisms — evasion, secrecy, storytelling — employed by those whose family histories were shaped by American Communism. I call it the legacy of the Red Seed.

In between grandfather and grandson, by the way, comes Felix Browder, Earl’s son and Bill’s father, who was not a Communist or a Soviet spy. Instead, Felix was a math prodigy who earned his Ph.D. from Princeton at age 20, chaired the mathematics department at the University of Chicago and become a world-renowned scholar in the field of nonlinear functional analysis, which I will not pretend to understand. (Felix’s two brothers were prominent mathematicians too, while Bill’s brother, Tom Browder, entered college at 15 and is now a particle physicist.) That has nothing to do with Vladimir Putin, but I guess it makes clear that we’re talking about an unusual American family.

Bill Browder went to Moscow in 1996, 75 years or so after his grandfather met his Russian Jewish grandmother there at the apex of post-revolutionary fervor. The younger Browder -- indeed, he was only 32 at the time -- had a $25 million stake largely supplied by the New York banker Edmond Safra, which he multiplied many times over, building enormous wealth for himself and his investors. At first, he did so with the apparent friendship or at least toleration of Vladimir Putin, who during that same period was rising rapidly from regional obscurity to unquestioned domination of the entire country.

According to most accounts, Putin moved to Moscow from his home city of St. Petersburg in the same year Browder arrived. (It is admittedly difficult to feel certain about any aspect of the Russian president's biography.) His first job in the Russian capital was as deputy chief of something called the Presidential Property Management Department, which was responsible for transferring the former assets of the Soviet Union and the Communist Party to the newly organized government of the Russian Federation. Browder's firm, Hermitage Capital Management, became a major investor in many of the semi-privatized companies. Did they do business together at the time? I can find no evidence that they did, but it seems inconceivable that they did not meet.

Putin's upward trajectory after that was even more startling: In 1998, the year of a major financial crisis in Russia that wiped out a great deal of foreign investment -- and also the year when Bill Browder renounced his U.S. citizenship -- Putin was appointed to head the FSB, the "intelligence and security organization" that succeeded the Soviet-era KGB. By August of the following year, he was acting prime minister of the Russian Federation, and after President Boris Yeltsin's abrupt resignation on the last day of 1999 -- another detail that's slightly too strange for fiction -- Putin became acting president as well. The rest, you might say, is history.

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I’m not proposing any grand theory on how these circumstances fit together. In fact, I think the more you pull this story apart, the more tangled it becomes. In various respects, both Putin and Browder seem more like fictional characters than real people. In the most authoritative English-language account of Putin’s life and career, Fiona Hill and Clifford G. Gaddy’s “Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin,” the Russian leader is compared to Oleg Komarov, a “pseudo-colorful” Russian émigré in Vladimir Nabokov’s 1957 novel “Pnin” who holds an incoherent blend of reactionary, religious, ultra-nationalist and pro-Communist views.

At the risk of derailing a story that is already full of weird tangents even further, here’s another one: Fiona Hill, co-author of that book, is now one of Trump’s principal advisers on relations with Russia. In an extensive interview with the Atlantic during the presidential transition (but before she joined the new administration), Hill predicted that the Trump-Putin bromance wouldn’t last long, adding that since the incoming president wasn’t “exactly the most diplomatic of people,” he was likely to “fall out with his new friend Vladimir pretty quickly.” She also predicted that Trump might pull out of the conflict in Syria, recognize the Russian annexation of Crimea and pretty much allow Putin to do as he pleased. Are those things now happening (sort of) because she said that? I told you we were in a work of fiction.

Anyway, Bill Browder comes from another kind of novel altogether. Considering everything we know and don’t know about him, he’s like a character in a John le Carré spy thriller, who seems to be one thing and then turns out to be something entirely different — and then, at the end of the story, turns out to have been driven by personal considerations no one had even noticed.

There are almost too many reasons for Putin and Browder to hate each other’s guts: They have been embroiled in a bitter public feud ever since Hermitage Capital Management, Browder's investment firm, became the target of systematic Russian government harassment beginning around 2005. Browder himself was abruptly barred from entering Russia, forcing him to move to London full-time. His employees and associates in Moscow were subjected to a series of violent assaults and quasi-legal police raids. One of them was a lawyer and accountant named Sergei Magnitsky, who died in prison in November 2009. He had been arrested after investigating an alleged tax-fraud scheme in which corrupt Russian officials siphoned off $230 million from either Hermitage or the Russian state or both. (Good luck figuring that one out.)

After that, Browder became the principal impetus for the financial sanctions imposed by the United States under the Magnitsky Act, which were meant to punish the Russian oligarchy for its involvement in Magnitsky’s death and similar human rights abuses. Vladimir Putin really, really does not like the Magnitsky Act. Those sanctions were specifically what Natalia Veselnitskaya wanted to talk to Donald Trump Jr. about, in their now-legendary Trump Tower meeting of June 2016. They are not the same sanctions that incoming national security adviser Michael Flynn apparently discussed with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the presidential transition (in a conversation that Flynn then lied to the FBI about), but those later sanctions could be described as successors to or amplifications of the Magnitsky sanctions.

Browder told the Senate Judiciary Committee in his testimony last July that he believes Putin has amassed an illicit personal fortune of perhaps $200 billion during his years in power — several times more than even a high-end estimate of Donald Trump’s wealth — but that most of it is invested in the West. That means Putin is “potentially exposed to asset freezes and confiscation,” Browder said, and “has a significant and very personal interest in finding a way to get rid of the Magnitsky sanctions.”

"Putin is apoplectic about my success getting Magnitsky Acts passed in seven countries around the world," Browder told Salon's Matthew Rozsa this week. "This puts his entire offshore fortune, which is gigantic, at risk."

That’s all highly plausible, although we are not likely to find the receipts. Until recently, Putin’s counter-charges against Browder have pretty much been complaints about the change under the sofa (at least by comparison). Browder has twice been convicted in absentia on tax-evasion charges by Russian courts, and was sentenced to nine years in prison both times. (In one of those cases, his co-defendant was Sergei Magnitsky, who had been dead for several years. Even for Russian jurisprudence, that was breaking new ground.) Russian authorities have repeatedly tried to get other countries to arrest and extradite Browder. Spanish police briefly detained Browder when he visited Madrid in May, but were told by Interpol to disregard the Russian arrest warrant.

This week Putin upped the ante considerably, claiming at the Helsinki press conference that Browder’s “business associates” had somehow spirited $1.5 billion out of Russia without paying taxes and then “sent huge amounts of money, $400 million, as a contribution to the campaign of Hillary Clinton.” Maybe this was meant to refer to Michael McFaul, who says he knows Browder but has never done business with him. At any rate, it's such a Trumpian allegation — a wild falsehood, supposedly supported by specific but completely invented statistics — that one wonders if it’s something Trump told him to say, or a laddish troll-move they cooked up together.

So we have established that Bill Browder and Vladimir Putin are not pals, and that healing and hugs seem deeply unlikely. From the Western media’s perspective, the story looks clear enough: One of them is a crusader against corruption and abuse, the other is a foreign despot with a trail of bodies. OK, fine: Except that the story was quite a bit different once upon a time. As with Putin and Donald Trump — as with almost everything about Putin, in fact — the past is full of unanswered questions.

In 2006, that Economist article I mentioned earlier (which I could only track down, in incomplete form, through the Internet Archive), sneeringly referred to Browder as a “loyal Putinista” and suggested that he had defended the Russian leader’s human rights record against foreign critics. Whatever had recently happened to turn Putin against Browder, the article suggested, had taken the Hermitage Capital head by surprise. As a major stakeholder in numerous Russian companies close to the Putin government, he had believed he was a trusted friend to the Kremlin.

Documentary evidence about Browder’s years in Moscow before 2005, and his early relationship with the Putin government, is remarkably sparse. A lengthy but notably lightweight New York Times profile from 2008 reports that after Browder arrived in Russia in 1996 he rapidly positioned Hermitage Capital as a way for Western investors to get “a piece of the action” in the wide-open Russian economy. He became a “colorful figure” in Moscow, with a reputation for being “abrasive and headstrong.” Despite his family background, he admitted, he had relatively little contact with everyday Russians and didn’t speak the language.

Browder’s support for Putin is dispensed with in a single paragraph:

After Mr. Putin became president in 2000, Mr. Browder became a vocal supporter of the Kremlin, saying that Russia needed an authoritarian leader to establish order and calling Mr. Putin his “biggest ally” in Hermitage’s effort to reform big business. Mr. Browder thrived, and the funds managed by Hermitage grew to more than $4 billion.

Browder told Times reporter Clifford J. Levy that he didn’t know why he fell afoul of Putin in 2005. I don’t believe that for a second, but in fairness, there are a lot of things about this saga we don’t know. As mentioned above, we don't know whether Putin and Browder knew each other personally during that period, although it seems unlikely that they never met. (Until this week Putin had avoided saying Browder’s name in public, and frequently denied knowing the details of his case. Not exactly an authoritative source.) We don't know whether Browder's rise and Putin's rise were simply contemporaneous factors in the chaotic equation of late-'90s Russia, or whether there was a connection between them we now cannot see.

Browder’s firm survived the Russian financial collapse of 1998 that drove many foreign investors out of the country with empty pockets, and then rebounded stronger than ever. That was the same year Browder renounced his United States citizenship, a decision he has explained in various different ways. The Times article from 2008 mentions that fact only genially, and in passing: Browder “became a British citizen, not out of antipathy toward the United States, he said, but because he felt comfortable there.”

Browder’s Wikipedia page says he gave up his citizenship “to avoid paying taxes related to foreign investment,” but the only source for that is a 2012 CBS News item that includes at least two unrelated factual errors (about his birthplace and the founding of his company). In an interview with Newsweek last October, Browder framed it quite differently, suggesting that he felt a grievance because his family had been “viciously persecuted” during the McCarthy era. When his Russian-born grandmother — whom Earl Browder originally met in the Soviet Union — was dying of cancer, Browder said, the U.S. government “wanted to deport her back to Russia. It just left a legacy of bad feeling about the rule of law.”

There’s a tremendous richness and irony to that, am I right? The same government that wanted to ship Browder's grandmother back to Russia has recently, perhaps, contemplated doing the same to him. We have a president who wants to deport people for all kinds of bad reasons and has no respect for the rule of law, but he can’t sell out Bill Browder to the Russians even if he wanted to because Browder is not a U.S. citizen. Is the McCarthyite hangover a convincing explanation for Browder's 1998 decision? Not really — it strikes me as a fiction cooked up two decades later to fit changing circumstances. That’s a Red Seed move if I’ve ever seen one.

I have no overarching conspiracy theory to offer here, except the one about history being full of echoes and coincidences. Is it a coincidence that Bill Browder’s grandfather and Vladimir Putin were both Communist Party members who worked for the KGB, albeit in different eras? Yeah, sure, although it might have made for some interesting conversation. Is it a coincidence that Browder and Putin rose to prominence, wealth and influence in Russia at exactly the same time, with remarkable speed and under mysterious circumstances, first as allies and then as bitter enemies? I dunno, guys — I would put the answer to that one somewhere between “depends what you mean by coincidence” and “definitely not.”

I’m not trying to turn Bill Browder into the villain of this story, and still less Vladimir Putin — a blend of the most depressing ingredients of Soviet conformity and Russian nationalism — into its hero. My sympathies will always be with the guy who can sell a sentimental tale about his dying Commie grandma being hounded by Joe McCarthy, whether or not it’s true. I’m kind of hoping Browder will call me up to explain everything I’ve gotten wrong. We’d have a lot to talk about.

Maybe the larger point is that human beings want to create and consume simplistic narratives about heroes and villains that often tend to conceal the more interesting and tangled stories behind them — the stories that are actually true and might have something to teach us. Every article ever written about Bill Browder, as far as I can tell, deliberately avoids the most ambiguous aspects of his story, which are almost certainly the parts most worth noticing.

Browder’s story connects two centuries, two great nations, two especially odious world leaders and an entire epoch of history, from the Russian Revolution to the Cold War to the global triumph of capitalism to the rise of a new authoritarianism. It’s a story full of secrets we will never know. It’s our story too, told in the present tense, which is always frustrating. We don’t know how much of it is true, or whether it has a moral, or how it’s going to end.

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By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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