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Putin’s nemesis: Bill Browder returns with a gripping non-fiction thriller

Composite image: The Reading List

Following his explosive New York Times bestseller 'Red Notice', Bill Browder returns with ‘Freezing Order: A True Story of Russian Money Laundering, State-Sponsored Murder, and Surviving Vladimir Putin’s Wrath’ – another fascinating non-fiction thriller chronicling how he exposed Vladimir Putin’s campaign to steal and launder hundreds of billions of dollars and kill anyone who stood in his way.

A graduate of Stanford Business School, Bill Browder worked as a financier in Russia from the late 1990s, at a time when oligarchs were profiting massively from the privatisation that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. He was initially pro-Putin, as the newly elected Russian leader promised to stamp out corruption. Before long, however, it became clear Putin’s true intentions were the opposite.

Browder’s interference in corrupt corporate practices led to him being expelled from Russia by Putin in 2005, as a “threat to national security”. While investigating a $230 million tax fraud perpetrated against his company, Browder’s lawyer Sergei Magnitsky was arrested, and subsequently tortured and killed by Russian authorities after 11 months in police custody.

In response, Browder campaigned for the creation of the Magnitsky Act, legislation to freeze the assets of those involved in human rights violations around the globe. He also continued to call for investigation into Russian corruption, making himself some very powerful enemies.

In February 2022, Daily Maverick editor-at-large Richard Poplak and Browder discussed the character of Putin, his recent invasion of Ukraine and the effect this will have on South Africa and the rest of the world in a Daily Maverick webinar.

Read the excerpt of his book below:

***

The Aspen Stakeout

SUMMER 2014

A few weeks later, after a business lunch near Parliament, I strolled along Birdcage Walk by St. James’s Park, reflexively checking my BlackBerry. Among a backlog of messages was one from Paul Monteleoni. I’d barely heard from him since the US government filed their case against Prevezon. He was blunt: “Call me. Urgent.”

I’d never received this kind of message from Paul before.

I ducked into a doorway and punched in his number. He picked up almost before it had a chance to ring. “Hi, Paul. It’s Bill. What’s going on?”

“Oh, hi.” He took a moment before continuing, as if he had to step out of a meeting. “I, uh, I don’t want to alarm you, and I can’t be a hundred percent sure about this, but we’ve received intelligence that some individuals are soliciting funds to hire a team to locate you and bring you back to Russia.”

Bring me? “Which people?” I asked.

“It involves Russians.”

“Which Russians?”

“That’s all I can share with you. We’re notifying the British authorities, but I wanted to let you know so you can take whatever precautions you think are necessary.”

I hung up and stood in the doorway, looking out at the lush green of St. James’s Park. Buckingham Palace was in the near distance to the west, and, though it was blocked from view, Parliament was only a few blocks to the east. In spite of being in the middle of London, in an area with more security cameras per square foot than anywhere in the United Kingdom, I suddenly felt vulnerable.

I stepped onto the sidewalk, hypersensitive to my surroundings, and walked briskly through the park. Being told by the US government that there was a rendition plot against me crystallized all of my fears. If this intelligence was reliable, and I had to assume it was, then I was no longer safe in London. It didn’t matter how many CCTV cameras there were—they had never deterred the Russians before.

On top of that, there were more than 300,000 Russians living, working, or traveling through London at any given time. They’re like lampposts or red double-decker buses—totally ubiquitous and taken for granted.

Except I never took them for granted. Aside from my Russian wife and mostly Russian staff, I avoided them altogether. If I heard any-one speaking Russian when I walked down the street, I instinctively moved away. When I was invited out for drinks or dinner, I made a point of avoiding the fashionable bars and restaurants that Russians frequented.

The British government, however, did take Russians for granted. I was almost certain that after Britain received the US government’s warning they would do nothing. And worse, if I was actually kidnapped by the Russians, there would be no real consequences.

This had been the case after Alexander Litvinenko, an FSB defector, was assassinated in central London by two Russian agents using radio-active polonium in 2006. In spite of it being established that Litvinenko’s murder was an act of Kremlin-sponsored terrorism, the only things the British government did was expel a handful of Russian diplomats and issue some meaningless arrest warrants for Litvinenko’s assassins that Russia would never honor. This lax attitude had given Putin the impression that he could operate with impunity in the UK.

Now, with the very real possibility that I could be snatched at any moment, I ratcheted up my security. I hired a team of bodyguards who’d worked for clients in countries like Mexico and Afghanistan, where kidnappings are rife. However, despite their expertise and intimidating presence, they didn’t make me feel much calmer. At the end of the day, the biggest market for bodyguards in London is Russians (who are afraid of other Russians). With all that money sloshing around, I realized I couldn’t fully trust any of these people.

To be as safe as possible, I therefore had to rely on myself. I started by asking—if I were trying to kidnap me, what would I do?

Planning such an operation would involve surveillance, monitoring my habits, and looking for any exploitable pattern. This meant I could no longer have habits, and my life could follow no discernible pattern.

I began varying my routine, starting my day at different hours, sometimes very early, other times closer to lunch. I varied my routes to work, often going out of my way. I took a taxi one day, a bus the next, the Tube the day after. Sometimes I walked, or took the Tube only one stop, or dipped into a café before continuing. Sometimes my bodyguards would walk with me; other times they would hold back to see if I was being tailed or watched.

Most importantly, I migrated my entire calendar to a hard copy and went offline as far as any forward planning was concerned.

It was exhausting to do all of this, and even more stressful to be in a constant state of alert. There was no way I could have kept up either indefinitely. Thankfully, I didn’t have to. In mid-July, Elena, the kids, and I were going to Aspen, Colorado, for a long vacation, where I would be able to resume a more normal life.

We landed there on July 14. The moment I got off the plane, it felt like a different world. Aspen has a small airport, and you disembark the way people did in the 1950s: you walk outside and descend a set of movable stairs to the tarmac. The air was clean and dry. I could already smell the dark pines that reached up the mountainsides, mixing with aspens and cottonwoods.

I love Colorado. I grew up in Chicago, but I’d spent the first year of high school at a boarding school in Steamboat Springs, where I skied practically every winter day. During those formative years, I fell hard for the Rocky Mountains. After high school, I went to the University of Colorado in Boulder for two years, and since then I’ve returned to the Rockies every chance I get. By 2014, it wasn’t just me who loved being there—my whole family loved it.

It took a few days for my nerves to settle, but they did. I fell into a comfortable routine: biking with my kids, going to outdoor concerts, and visiting friends for dinner. It felt great to be free and not constantly looking over my shoulder.

The vacation was centered on my family, particularly Elena, who bore the brunt of the whole situation. Not only did she have to deal with the stress of her husband possibly disappearing at any moment, but she had to put on a brave face for our children. Somehow, she was able to convince them that all fathers fought with Vladimir Putin, and that our lives were completely normal.

Still, I had some work to do. In late July, I was invited to the Aspen Institute to give a talk about the Magnitsky Act. The Institute is an international think tank and conference center that regularly brings to-gether activists, entrepreneurs, politicians, and journalists to discuss issues of all kinds. Its campus along the Roaring Fork River is one of the most idyllic places you’ll ever see. For this particular gathering, I brought along my 17-year-old son, David, hoping he would be inspired.

There was a cocktail reception at the end of the first day at the Doerr-Hosier Center, the main reception hall of the Aspen Institute. David, who was about to start at Stanford, was excited to rub shoulders with a handful of famous Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, and I was excited just to spend time with David.

As the party wound down, the skies began clouding over. A big Rocky Mountain afternoon storm was brewing, and the Aspen Valley would soon be engulfed. I nudged my son, who was chatting with a young venture capitalist. “Sorry, David, but we have to go.”

By the time we reached the front door, the rain had started.

I called my friend Pierre, who was visiting from Belgium. He’d dropped us off earlier and then gone to town to do some shopping. “Pierre, are you anywhere near the Institute? With all this weather, we could use a ride.”

“You’re in luck! I’m a few blocks away. I’ll be there in five.”

The Doerr-Hosier Center is tucked down a footpath away from the road, so Pierre couldn’t pull right up. He texted a few minutes later when he was in the cul-de-sac. We made our way out. We hadn’t brought umbrellas, so David and I broke into a jog, our arms shielding our heads from the fat raindrops.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, a woman rushed toward me, shouting, “Mr. Browder! Mr. Browder!”

Her tone was harsh. David and I stopped momentarily in our tracks. I squinted through the rain. I didn’t recognize her and noticed that she didn’t have an Aspen Institute badge hanging around her neck like everyone else at the conference.

I was suddenly hit with a shot of adrenaline. My fight-or-flight instincts kicked in, and all the bad feelings from a month earlier in London flooded back. Whoever she was, I could tell she didn’t wish me well.

I grabbed David and dragged him into a run. DM/ ML

Browder will be appearing virtually at the Franschhoek Literary Festival on Saturday, 14 May, in conversation with Tony Leon.

Freezing Order: A True Story of Russian Money Laundering, State-Sponsored Murder, and Surviving Vladimir Putin’s Wrath is published by Jonathan Ball Publishers (R330). Visit The Reading List for South African book news, daily – including excerpts!

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