Author: Bill Browder
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Summary: This was a gripping true crime story, but even the more finance-focused sections were engaging and easy to follow.
This book starts as a business memoir about Bill Browder’s career as a hedge fund manager in Russia. Later, when he takes on corrupt Russian officials, this reads more like a gripping true crime story. Browder is eventually forced to flee Russia and tries to persuade the people he worked with to do the same. Tragically, his young and idealistic lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, chose to stay and fight for justice. This gave Russian officials time to arrest him and they later had him killed in prison. Browder then spends the next half decade fighting to impose some consequences on Sergei’s killers.
Because it’s clear from the beginning of the story that the author could be killed or imprisoned, this felt suspenseful all the way through. The author does a great job making the complex financial crimes of corrupt Russian officials easy to understand. He even makes the earlier stories about his hedge fund’s up and downs exciting by showing you his emotional investment in his business. It is clear by the end that the author is quite wealthy. He goes to exclusive restaurants; hires his own bodyguards; and knows people who can get him an audience with US senators. However, this wealth made for an almost irrelevant backdrop against the risk the author was taking. Even as someone wealthy and connected, he was clearly the underdog when pitted against a corrupt government.
Looking to learn more about the author, I’ve noticed that he’s been on many podcasts recently to talk about Russia. I’ll be interested to see what he says to say, because I’m not sure this book taught me anything too surprising or insightful about Russia. The book did read like a thriller, more focused on action than analysis. The main impact it had on my perception of the world is to make Russian assassinations and human rights violations feel more real. It’s easy for those things to feel like something out of a novel and it makes a difference to see someone “normal” (ie not a spy) caught up in them.
Something else that jumped out at me as I explored this book more was the number of critics who found the author self-congratulatory. I don’t think they’re completely wrong, but I read this with a kinder eye than the NYT critic, for example. I felt that Browder was was more excited than braggy about his investment success. I thought his description of emotional reactions to Sergei’s story showed Sergei’s impact as much as the author’s. I also found it inspiring to see the way Browder worked to push through US sanctions against the perpetrators. As someone getting involved in local politics, it was nice to see lawmakers moved to action by a personal story.
So, your mileage may vary with this one depending on how you feel about the author’s tone, but it’s one I’d definitely recommend. I think any fan of political, business or true crime nonfiction could find something to enjoy here. I’d even suggest that fans of thrillers give this a go.
Anything Russia-oriented will get attention these days, but this sounds like an interesting combination of thriller, nonfiction business, and personal memoir.
It’s true! Although this had been on my to-read list for some time, I definitely picked it up just now because it felt so relevant.