Bill Browder on murder, guilt and living with fear
December 10, 2021. Series 5. Episode 34
Bill Browder describes himself, with justification, as Vladimir Putin’s number one enemy. His best-selling book Red Notice – an autobiography that reads like a thriller – tells the story of how the grandson of one of America’s best-known communists became one of Russia’s most successful capitalists.
Bill is founder of The Hermitage Fund which at its peak became not only the largest foreign portfolio investor in Russia but the best performing fund in the world. But when Bill fell foul of Putin’s personal agenda, he was suddenly and dramatically kicked out of Russia. Bill reacted by setting out to expose a shocking case of state-sponsored corruption. His lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky was later arrested, tortured and in Nov 2009, whilst in custody, brutally murdered.
Bill has since devoted his life to creating a legacy for Sergei and his family. Something he achieved against the odds with the implementation of The Magnitsky Act – a law to punish Russian human rights violators – since adopted in a number of other countries.
To say that this one-man crusade has irritated the Russian President would be an understatement. Putin has repeatedly abused Interpol’s Red Notice system in a number of failed attempts to have Bill arrested and brought to Russia.
Bill continues to live in fear that the shifting sands of global politics will somehow allow Putin to one day get his revenge. Bill is certainly no friend of President Trump and fears that were he to return to the White House that this could lead to him being a pawn in a Russian/US deal.
Though a staggering story of crisis for Bill, he maintains that it is a much more important one for Sergei and the family that he left behind. The way in which Bill describes his burden of guilt over the death of his friend, who demonstrated astonishing bravery in the weeks before his death, is deeply moving.
But it is the way in which he has come to terms with a life of constant crisis and threat, at least for as long as Putin is in power, which is for me the most fascinating and chilling aspect of this conversation.
Bill’s Crisis Cures:
1. I have a Peloton in my basement and the worse things get, the harder I work out – so I’m in the best shape when times are really bad.
2. I focus on my family. It’s kind of weird to be fighting murderers on the one hand and then being at the school gates. The normalcy of bringing up a family is incredibly helpful in these situations.
3. I listen to country music. There’s a song called ‘Beer For My Horses”. It’s about a bunch of Texas lawmen who after they’ve rounded up a bunch of bad guys and hanged them, serve beer for their horses and Whiskey for their men. I love it.
Freezing Order – https://amzn.to/3eDnLhg
Red Notice – https://amzn.to/3RJ7AxI
Stream/Buy ‘Allies’ by Some Velvet Morning: https://ampl.ink/qp6bm
Some Velvet Morning Website: www.somevelvetmorning.co.uk
Host – Andy Coulson
Producer – Louise Difford
00:00:19.04 Andy Coulson:
Hello and welcome to Series Five of Crisis What Crisis? I’m Andy Coulson, a former newspaper editor, Downing Street Director of Communications and one time inmate of HMP Belmarsh. Over the last seven years I’ve put all of my experience, the good and the bad, to use as a strategic advisor to business leaders and I can tell you that the bad has been just as useful as the good. And that got me thinking that there are plenty of great podcasts out there where you can hear stories of success but there are far, far fewer where you can benefit from the experiences of those whose lives have properly unravelled.
00:00:53.09 Andy Coulson:
So, on this podcast you’ll hear from the embattled and stoic, the shamed, courageous, ruined, damaged, unlucky and lucky survivors of crisis. But you’ll also hear from renowned crisis managers, mental health experts and other advisers who were in the room when major crises have hit. All of them offering useful, practical coping techniques and tips and all with the straightforward aim of guiding you towards a more resilient approach to life and whatever it might throw at you. Crisis What Crisis? is generously supported by Myndstream, a brilliant company who harness the power of music for personal wellbeing and improving human performance. Just search for Myndstream, that’s mind with a Y, on Spotify and you’ll find some great playlists. And if you enjoy what you hear on this podcast please subscribe and give us a rating and review. You can also follow us on Instagram and Facebook, our handle is @crisiswhatcrisispodcast.
00:01:50.17 Andy Coulson:
My guest today is a man who describes himself as Vladimir Putin’s number one enemy and that’s not hyperbole. Bill Browder is the author or Red Notice, the best-selling autobiography that reads like a thriller. And for those of you that haven’t already read it, it tells the story of how the grandson of one of America’s best known communists became one of Russia’s most successful capitalists. The founder of the Hermitage Fund which became at its peak, the largest foreign portfolio investor in Russia and the best performing fund in the world with more than four and a half billion under management. But when Bill fell foul of Putin’s personal agenda he was suddenly and dramatically kicked out of Russia. His lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky was later arrested, tortured and in November 2009, eventually murdered whist in custody.
00:02:42.12 Andy Coulson
Bill has since devoted his life to creating a legacy for Sergei and his family. Something that he achieved against the odds with the implementation of the Magnitsky Act, a law to punish Russian human rights violators and has now been adopted in America, Canada and a number of other countries. His one man crusade has irritated, to put it mildly, Putin, who has repeatedly tried to get Bill arrested by abusing Interpol’s Red Notice system. So far, he has failed. My guest today continues to live in fear that Putin will get his revenge one way or the other and that he could yet be helped by the shifting sands of global, especially American politics. Bill is no friend of former president Trump and fears that should he make his way back into the Whitehouse as many commentators suggest he might, then Bill could, once again, find himself in danger.
00:03:41.13 Andy Coulson:
This is a staggering story of crisis for Bill but he would say, indeed he does say, it is much more importantly one for Sergei and the family that he left behind. The way in which Bill describes the burden of guilt he feels for a friend who died, as he puts it, effectively as a surrogate for him, is startling and his description of Sergei’s bravery during the days and weeks before his appalling death even more so. Crisis is now the norm for Bill, it’s with him every day. How he copes, how he has come to terms with a life of constant threat, for at least as long as Putin remains in power, is a fascinating, chilling really, aspect of our conversation. So my sincere thanks to Bill for his time, it was an absolute privilege to talk to him and I hope you enjoy this episode. Bill, welcome to Crisis What Crisis? Thanks so much for joining us.
00:04:37.07 Bill Browder:
Great to be here.
00:04:39.12 Andy Coulson:
There’s a theme, Bill, that runs through your astonishing story and that theme is courage. But courage in a number of different forms. The courage of your colleague and friend, Sergei Magnitsky, obviously first and foremost but also the courage that you have displayed in making sure his death was not entirely in vain. But also in other stages in your life and I’m really keen, if I may, to explore that today. But I’d like to start with a question that we ask quite frequently on this podcast, where did that courage come from? Where did it develop?
00:05:23.00 Bill Browder:
I am flattered that you call it courage and it may appear that way on the outside but what you have witnessed in my actions over the last, more than a decade is not courage but absolute indignation about a horrible injustice. So I’m driven and I have been driven by the terrible, unfair murder of my thirty-seven year old lawyer Sergei Magnitsky. He died because he worked for me. If he hadn’t worked for me he’d still be alive, he’d still have another fifty years of life ahead, his son would have a father, his wife would have a husband. And for me, when I learned about his death that the burden of that weighed so heavily on me that I had to do something to try to basically relieve the guilt.
00:06:26.08 Bill Browder:
And so for me what I’ve been doing is not about courage but it’s about how do you live with yourself when you’re responsible for something so terrible and so unjust? And so my actions have been driven by this basic, I would say, poison that’s you know, from this terrible situation and the only thing that makes me feel a little better is when I take action that goes after the people who have killed him to make sure that they face justice. And it doesn’t bring me relief but it makes me feel a little bit better. And so if I didn’t do anything I would be poisoned from the inside but by acting on a daily basis to try to right this wrong it does make me feel a little bit better. And that’s what drives me and that’s what has been driving me for the last twelve years in spite of the terrible risks and threats and other things that have come my way from Russia.
00:07:30.14 Andy Coulson:
As we talk more about your story I am sure what you’ve just said will resonate completely with people listening. But I’m going to challenge you a little bit that this idea that your actions do not come as a result of at least a degree of courage but let’s get there in good time. Let’s for now then, rather than use the word courage, why don’t we, just for the time being, use the word stubbornness, or perhaps determination.
00:08:05.16 Bill Browder:
00:08:06.19 Andy Coulson:
And your grandfather, who you’ve talked about a lot, an amazing man, ideologically opposed, that’s certainly clear. He was a well-known, very high profile communist and you were, are of course a very enthusiastic capitalist. And your dad also, a brilliant mathematician, a very gifted man. Those two men clearly fed into your sense of right and wrong, also your determination? Also this stubbornness?
00:08:44.05 Bill Browder:
Yeah, well for sure, for sure. And you know, my grandfather was the leader of the Communist Party of America between 1932 and 1945 which wasn’t a great time, I don’t think there’s ever been a great time to be a communist in America but that certainly wasn’t a good time. And actually he ran for president against Roosevelt in 1936, and ’40. He was imprisoned in ’41 and fought the McCarthy era in the 1950s. And so you know, he was a man of his principles and for better or for worse he believed in it. And I think that there is something kind of genetic about that. I mean, you don’t… that’s not the easy road to take to be the leader of the Communist Party of America.
00:09:34.10 Bill Browder:
And you always wonder with your own children about nature versus nurture and how much of that is nature and how much of that was just sort of fed to me at the dinner table, I don’t know. But I can say for sure that it’s in my family going up abasing the system, however big that system is, is not an unusual thing. And the other thing is, so that’s my grandfather, my father, who was a genius mathematician who started university at the age of fourteen at MIT which is the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, one of the best, probably the best, place for this type of thing and then had his PhD from Princeton by the time he was twenty-one. So he was a very focused young man and that focus stayed with him throughout his entire academic career to the point where he won the national medal of science.
00:10:33.10 Bill Browder:
And again, and this is a different thing going up against the system but to achieve that type of success in any field requires some level of tenacity which is again, beyond what a normal person would invest in any venture in their life. And again, that’s sort of my, the example that I was brought up with. And so you know, I guess those two examples, one you know, going up against the system, however big that system is and the other which is just tenaciously going after whatever it is that you decide is your mission, that’s how I was brought up.
00:11:11.17 Andy Coulson:
So the sort of first manifestation then of your version of this determination, I’m not going to use the word courage, is the decision to go into finance which obviously is counter to those conversations around the dinner table that you’ve had as a child and as a young man. But you decide, for you, your path is going to go in the opposite direction. Did it feel risky at the time? Did it feel like you were running against the grain? That you were setting very clearly your own path?
00:11:53.17 Bill Browder:
So it’s all very good psychologist could probably unpack this in two minutes. But what happened was that I had a brother, an older brother whose name is Tom. He is eighteen months older than me and he sort of followed my father’s footsteps. He was a physicist but he never went to high school, he went to the university of Chicago at the age of fourteen, graduated by the time he was seventeen, Phi Beta Kappa, which is the top honours in physics. He had his PhD by the time he was twenty-one. And so I needed to find some way of distinguishing myself outside of this world. And so I decided that the best way of doing that was to go in the opposite direction, to totally rebel from this family of communists and academics.
00:12:43.19 Bill Browder:
And I tried several things, I grew my hair long and people won’t be able to see it on this podcast but I don’t have any hair now. But at the time it grew into an afro and I thought that that somehow would upset my family and they weren’t particularly upset. I followed the Grateful Dead, a rock band, around America for several months and that didn’t upset my family. But then I finally figured out the best way of upsetting the family which was to put on a suit and tie and become a capitalist. And that really did upset everybody, not just in my immediate family but my extended family.
00:13:17.23 Andy Coulson:
How did that manifest itself, when you say they were upset, I mean, was this an ideological upset for them? Or did it really kind of manifest itself as a separation from the family at any point?
00:13:33.01 Bill Browder:
Oh, I mean I was never alienated from the family but you could always feel the snide undertone of different members of the family in different occasions. You know, it’s just not what you did in the Browder family. And if I look around at all my cousins they’re all professors and sort of followed in the same footsteps and so on. I mean, I maybe have one cousin who is more ideologically connected to what I’m doing. But for the most part it’s a family that sort of did what they were brought up to do and I didn’t. And that was in a certain way very liberating because once you step out of what you’re supposed to do you can kind of do anything. And so I continued to follow my path which led to all this crazy stuff that we will be talking about.
00:14:32.09 Andy Coulson:
Yeah, this is the… fast forward a fair bit here I know, but the next, if you like, I’m going to say door of courage that you stepped through, you’ll say stubbornness, is the decision to go to Russia. I mean, you’re in finance now, you’re clearly, clearly it suits you. You’re making some smart decisions even as a very young financier but then, I mean, you’re still in your late twenties as I understand it, early thirties perhaps, that you decide to go to, of all places, Russia. Now, not a lot of young men, however bright, would have A spotted the opportunity that you spotted that was emerging there, but they certainly wouldn’t have the guts to chase it. So what’s that all about?
00:15:22.23 Bill Browder:
Well, yeah, it comes down to… it’s all you know, If I was laying on the couch in a therapist’s office it would all be easily unpacked. So I decided to rebel against the family, become a capitalist. I went to business school at Stanford which was a really great business school, I think the best in the world. And when we were in business school all the recruiters were coming around trying, everyone wanted to get these people from Stanford Business School to work for them. And I’d go to these on-campus recruiting events and my eyes would glaze over at how I didn’t want to do that stuff. I remember Procter & Gamble came in to ask, to try to recruit people to work in their detergent business. And I couldn’t think of anything worse than spending my life marketing detergent. I’m sure there’s like some of my classmates, I hope I don’t offend anybody, I mean, I can’t think of anything worse than spending your life marketing detergent. And then there was like a real estate developer who was building buildings. And again I mean, all due respect to people building buildings it just…
00:16:28.07 Andy Coulson:
It wasn’t for you, yeah.
00:16:29.08 Bill Browder:
It wasn’t for me. but then I had this epiphany. So in 1989 the Berlin Wall came down and it was really momentous moment for the world but it was a pretty momentous moment for me because I thought to myself, wow. My grandfather was the biggest communist in America and the Berlin Wall has just come down, I’m going to try to become the biggest capitalist in Eastern Europe.
00:17:01.07 Andy Coulson:
That’s a lovely, lovely description Bill, but is that really what you thought? Is that the kind of… it was that kind of right, okay, here’s an opportunity to do something truly distinctive and to achieve that sort of independence.
00:17:18.06 Bill Browder:
And to come back to your question, so nobody in their right mind would have gone to Russia. Nobody did, they didn’t. I mean, you couldn’t… I mean, I went to Russia and nobody else did. Why did I go to Russia because of this weird sort of family rebellion epiphany? And so Russia didn’t have people like me because if you had like a great Stanford MBA working at a big investment bank, you want to like, you know, go work in the system. But I had this weird thing, I was driven by this whole crazy, you know, sort of rebellion and family background.
00:17:58.10 Bill Browder:
And so because of my family background and because of this rebellion and because of this idea I went to Russia when no one else was going there and there is this expression ‘In the land of the blind the one eyed man is king’. And so I showed up in Russia with the skillset that nobody else had. You know, there was just nobody else out there with my skillset. And at the time Russia was going through this massive privatisation programme. They decided that to go from communism to capitalism the best way to do that was to just give everything away for free. All state property made free to the people.
00:18:32.20 Bill Browder:
And it didn’t work out so that the people ended up with anything but mostly the oligarchs ended up with stuff. Most of the country but there were little crumbs falling off the table and I said, this is an opportunity to… I could pick up some of these crumbs which were companies trading at a 99.9% discount to the same types of companies here in the West and because I was there and nobody else was this was my big, you know, sort of huge opportunity.
00:19:01.20 Andy Coulson:
A spectacular success. But it’s not just that you spotted the opportunity it seems to me that you don’t see the obstacles. Or if you do see them they just don’t trouble you. You know the stuff that would stop most people from thinking, oh I can’t go to Russia, that’s bonkers…’
00:19:21.20 Bill Browder:
Yeah, you’re right. You’re right. And you can imagine, we’re all human beings, we’re kind of like bugs and we don’t physically have them but symbolically we have these risk sensors on our forehead, and….
00:19:38.14 Andy Coulson:
00:19:39.19 Bill Browder:
And well maybe I do but I had to sand it off or twist it around or whatever so that I wasn’t… Because you know there’s a million things that could have gone wrong when I went to Russia. I mean, they were killing people in the streets. It was just total absolute chaos when I went there.
00:19:53.00 Andy Coulson:
You didn’t have to go there to discover this, Bill.
00:19:55.01 Bill Browder:
No, everybody knew it.
00:19:56.13 Andy Coulson:
Everyone knew it. But you were, ‘No, no that’s where I need to be.’
00:20:01.10 Bill Browder:
But having said that, in every situation people always generalise worse than the reality. And so when I got there, yes, they were killing people in the streets but you k now, you just like, don’t hang around on the streets with gold chains and Rolexes and probably no one’s going to kill you kind of thing. I mean, the people who… if you had a big jewellery store or something like that maybe the mafia would come but if you’re sitting in some anonymous office trading securities that nobody knows about then, at least at the time, I thought I was safe. And you get there and you figure it out. I mean, it’s not like I was completely blasé about it. I hired a driver who was a former traffic policeman who was armed. And so any time we went anywhere he knew what to do if there was trouble.
00:20:51.07 Andy Coulson:
We had a guest on the podcast, in actual fact he was our first guest, a guy called Jeremy Bowen who is a very senior correspondent on the BBC. And Jeremy spent a lot of his life in war zones, he’s drawn to them. I suspect that you and he, somewhere in your genetic makeup, have some kind of overlap. Although he was driven by the story and you were being driven by other things here, there’s a… was that part of it for you? Are you drawn to risk?
00:21:24.10 Bill Browder:
I’m not sure if I’m drawn to risk. So if you were to ask me if I could re-do it all over again and have a different career, what career would that be? I would choose to be an Emergency Room doctor and sort of, I’m like really good when everything is terrible. I’m like, when things are really calm I’m not a really great person. But when things are terrible I really know what to do. And so throw me into a terrible situation and I can really shine.
00:21:53.14 Andy Coulson:
You’re a great crisis manager.
00:21:55.16 Bill Browder:
I am a great crisis manager. And without a crisis I’m really pretty terrible actually.
00:21:59.24 Andy Coulson:
Yeah, so what have you concluded about yourself with that?
00:22:03.22 Bill Browder:
Well, obviously if we look at my story I sought out contentious, difficult situations and that was my capitalism, if you will.
00:22:19.02 Andy Coulson:
Tell us briefly, just how successful you were, Bill, before things took several different turns. Aged thirty-one, your fund now one of the most successful in the world. You’re being lauded as a genius in the FT and in the American press and elsewhere. Give me a snapshot that best describes Bill Browder at that moment.
00:22:44.03 Bill Browder:
Well, I’d set out to become the largest foreign investor in Russia. Or I should say, my grandfather’s the biggest communist, I set out to become the biggest capitalist and my fund grew to four and a half billion dollars. I ended up with four and a half billion dollars of money under management which I mean, at the time in Russia was just, you can’t imagine how much money that was. It was a lot of money anywhere but I mean these days people are throwing around billions and trillions and no body bats an eye but back then… and I was in my early thirties, four and a half billion dollars. And everybody who wanted to invest in Russia came to me. And so the most important people in the world, George Soros and Sir John Templeton, these are all names that maybe mean something, maybe don’t to your listeners but all the royalty of Wall Street was coming to me because I was the guy who knew what to do and how to do it and how to make money in Russia and how to protect their assets and…
00:23:43.00 Andy Coulson:
You’re thirty-one years old Bill. How with these, sort of, titans of the financial world hanging on your every word…
00:23:52.09 Bill Browder:
Well I mean, there was nobody else.
00:23:53.21 Andy Coulson:
What were you saying to yourself at that stage?
00:23:56.15 Bill Browder:
Well when you’re in situations…
00:23:56.17 Andy Coulson:
And you’re in those rooms, having those conversations?
00:24:00.08 Bill Browder:
Well it was interesting because it was like, I mean, the analogy I would use is like riding a dirt bike, a motorbike. You know, and you just have to hold on really tight with both hands because there’s a pothole and a rock and thing at every different turn. I was just holding on for dear life and not spending a lot of time reflecting. You know I was acting not reflecting just doing what I had to do to kind of keep everything on track. And it wasn’t easy. There were just so many different challenges that came up.
00:24:32.12 Andy Coulson:
Any sense of what we now kind of refer to as imposter syndrome, which is widely bandied around now? When you look back were there moments where you were saying to yourself, ‘ow am I getting away with this?’
00:24:46.08 Bill Browder:
Well of course at every step I thought this is ridiculous. I thought I should not be in this situation. I mean, I sought it out to be like in a place where nobody had any more experience than me but there I was sitting on top of the world feeling overwhelmed at every step. But in a certain way that being overwhelmed was, I mean, that is sort of what creates human growth is being overwhelmed and having a challenge that seems greater than yourself and then you know overcoming the challenge, mastering the difficulty and learning how to talk to the titans of finance and keeping things on track and keeping things proper and not making mistakes.
00:25:30.17 Andy Coulson:
You then lose almost all you have gained in the most spectacular kind of reverse, when the financial landscape in Russia suddenly changes very dramatically in 1998. Now, again, I would argue the word courage applies here because where most people, I think, would have folded their cards, thought, you know what, that was exciting, but maybe it’s time to go and do something else now, maybe it’s time to get out of dodge and I’m a young man… I’m sure that there were still other options that were open to you, despite the reverse. You decide to double down. So what’s emerging there? Is that the first demonstration, because that obviously is a crisis, right, that must have felt like a very visceral crisis to you, is that the first time that we see Bill Browder, crisis manager kind of emerge?
00:26:34.05 Bill Browder:
Well that was the biggest crisis. I mean, before that there was other crises but that was the big one. So I went there to make money, to make money for my clients, to like prove myself and between October of 1997 and August of 1998 my fund, which had gone up 800% before then, lost 90% of its value. And it wasn’t just my fund, the whole market was just completely decimated. Owning Russian anything was like owning nuclear waste. I had a Thursday night poker game that I played with a bunch of other characters in Moscow and the entire poker group, by the time we were done, had all left the country. It was like being at the baggage carousel at the airport, everyone’s got there…
00:27:30.22 Andy Coulson:
You’re literally the last one left holding his cards.
00:27:33.15 Bill Browder:
Indeed. And so why did I stay? Well, again it comes down to… this one comes down to responsibility. So I’d gone around the world trying to convince everybody to come to invest with me in Russia. And for every twenty meetings I had nineteen of them said, you’re absolutely out of your mind, I’m not going to do that. But one of those twenty meetings someone said, yeah, okay, that sounds a little crazy but you know, I’ll take a flyer on it’. And so all those one out of twenty meetings had given me capital, I took their capital after convincing them to take a risk and I’d lost them 90% of their money. And for me that was, I felt really ashamed that I had bought them into this situation and created all this trouble for them and the last thing I was going to do was leave them in lurch hanging out to dry. And so I said to myself I’m going to bring them back to par. I’m going to get them…
00:28:31.17 Andy Coulson:
So was there a sudden moment of realisation or was it a very slow moving car crash?
00:28:36.24 Bill Browder:
No, this happened pretty quickly, this was over three weeks we lost all this money.
00:28:41.07 Andy Coulson:
Do you remember the moment? Is there, when you look back at that particular time, do you remember the moment when you realised actually now you’re now staring over the cliff edge?
00:28:49.22 Bill Browder:
I do, I remember exactly the moment. It was in August of 1998, I was at Lake Como at the Villa d’Este Hotel which was just a beautiful, beautiful place. I was with my wife and son, baby son. And it was just such a glorious… the sun was shining and it was all just so wonderful and the sparkling on the lake and the waiters bringing… you know in white pressed outfits bringing cold drinks. And this was before the smartphone or whatever and I was getting these calls from Moscow saying ‘the government has just announced they’ve defaulted on their bonds’. And the next call ‘the currency has just devalued by 75% and the next call was, ‘you know, limit down the fund is down 15% today’, kind of thing. And I just remember thinking god, this is just like so disjointed. Here I am looking at this peaceful beautiful scene and my life is just blowing up as we speak. I remember that vividly and having to tell my wife that I’ve got to leave and get back to Moscow I can’t be sitting here.
00:30:01.00 Andy Coulson:
So other than action, you get back on a plane, you go back to Russia, what’s going on in your head, Bill? I’m interested in how you are motivating yourself, how you are rationalising this extreme situation and finding your way through. Is it a sort of campaign attitude that you adopt? Or are you kind of one problem at a time crisis manager? Or are you kind of more long term strategic? How do you start to get your head around it from a crisis perspective?
00:30:38.01 Bill Browder:
On this particular case you know we were down at ten cents on the dollar after losing 90% of the clients’ money. So the campaign, if you will, was how do we get back to par. And then it becomes just a series of steps which is ‘okay, let’s… do we sell? Do we buy? What do we do?’ And by the way at the same time as everybody has lost their money a lot of people wanted to like sell their positions you know, take their money out of the fund. And so the first thing I did was I found somebody… and if everybody just runs on the fund at the same time as you’re down 90% you’ll be down 99%. So first thing I did was I found somebody who would, who wanted to… who was a contrarian who said, ‘I’ll invest while everyone else is selling’ and so that wasn’t an easy person to find but I found this guy who made just fortune upon fortune by stepping in at that moment.
00:31:34.03 Andy Coulson:
Can you tell me who that person was?
00:31:36.09 Bill Browder:
I can’t tell you who he is. But he’s a very rich man. He’s a very rich man before that but he became a lot richer.
00:31:44.07 Andy Coulson:
How fascinating that he would… that’s another really interesting story isn’t there?
00:31:49.00 Bill Browder:
Yeah, that’s not in the book but in any event that was the first thing. But then the second thing and this was really what changed everything for me was that when once… so the people that owned the companies that I invested in, I own a bunch of oil companies and gas companies and metals companies, and I owned say, 1% or half a percent you know little small sliver. But the people who owned the majority of these companies were these people known as the Russian oligarchs. And the Russian oligarchs are not good people. You know they’re just, in order to get to be an oligarch you have to do a lot of really nasty stuff.
00:32:21.16 Bill Browder:
And these oligarchs had, you know, they stole from the state, they bribed and they threatened and they killed, I mean, all sorts of terrible things. And so the risk going into these things before the crash was that the oligarchs would steal from the minority shareholders, they were the majority, I was the minority. And the only reason they hadn’t up until the crash was that they were being approached by all these fancy investment bankers from New York with Hermes ties and Brioni suits who would say, ‘You know, hey so and so, you’ve got a really great company, we could get you some free money on Wall Street.’ And the oligarch starts slobbering like dogs, ‘We love free money, we love free money’ and then the banker would say, ‘There’s just one condition which is you can’t scandalise and steal from your minority shareholders.’
00:33:17.00 Andy Coulson:
You’ve got to behave yourself.
00:33:18.17 Bill Browder:
And the oligarchs were like, ‘Ooh that’s a tough one.’ But then they thought, okay you know, why don’t we just like get the free money then we’ll scandalise them later or something. You know, let’s do one thing at a time. So the oligarchs behaved themselves up until 1998. But then the crash came, Russia went down 90% and everything Russian was just like tainted. And so these oligarchs were now on the phone with their bankers with their Hermes ties saying, ‘Where’s that free money?’ And the bankers would like say, ‘I’m sorry, Vladimir who?’ And put the phone down. They don’t want to… those who hadn’t been fired didn’t want to have anything to do with Russia.
00:33:55.05 Bill Browder:
So these oligarchs were saying, ‘Wait a second, if we can’t get any of that free money from Wall Street anymore why would we behave ourselves?’ And so these oligarchs embarked on an orgy of stealing which has been unprecedented in the history of business. They were doing asset stripping, embezzlement, dilutions, transfer pricing, every possible way that one can steal from a company, they were doing it. And so there I was sitting with my last ten cents on the dollar and they were going to try and steal every last ten cents. And so, not as a matter of inspiration of good investment strategy, but as a matter of survival I decided I was going to have to stop this stealing, at least in the companies I was investing in.
00:34:36.09 Andy Coulson:
Was folding the cards, leaving, do something else, was that ever an option for you? Or did you feel because of that sense of responsibility, of course, but really was that the only way through for you at that moment in time?
00:34:51.07 Bill Browder:
I never thought of…
00:34:52.11 Andy Coulson:
I’ve got to turn this around.
00:34:53.07 Bill Browder:
I never thought about quitting, I’ve never quit anything. I stuck it out and it turned out to be a remarkably, unbelievably great thing to do from a business standpoint, from a financial standpoint. I stuck it out. So how did we fight these guys? We started doing what I call a stealing analysis. To learn how they went about their stealing which nobody had ever taught me in my life before. So we did a stealing analysis and we figured out who was doing the stealing, how they were doing the stealing, where the money was going. And then I would take the stealing analysis and I would share it with the international media, with the Financial Times, with the Wall Street Journal, with the New York Times. And they loved me the journalists because I saved them a lot of work by doing my…
00:35:42.08 Andy Coulson:
You were a one man story machine. I mean, you were serving it up.
00:35:45.21 Bill Browder:
And I was, I was… Most people hated me actually because like if I gave it to the New York Times then the FT guy would be mad. And if I gave it to the Washington Post… they were like, I was in a very powerful position. We’d do this analysis, we’d put it out there, they’d write the stories and the most interesting thing happened, which was that Vladimir Putin had just come to power and there’s this expression ‘your enemy’s enemy is your friend’ and Vladimir Putin was fighting the same guys I was fighting with. They were stealing power from him at the same time as they were stealing money from me.
00:36:18.01 Bill Browder:
And so we had this… and I’d never met Vladimir Putin in my life, I’ve never spoken to him to this day. But we had this crazy alignment of interests where every time I would put one of these exposes out there he would act on it in whatever limited power that he had because he wasn’t all powerful at that moment in time because the oligarchs were the powerful ones. But his actions had enormously positive implications for everything that I was doing. And so I would put out a scandal, he would then, you know, come down as like a ton of bricks on these oligarchs and the share price would go up.
00:36:55.01 Andy Coulson:
This is one of the kind of almost Shakespearean aspects of your story that for a period of time here your interests were fully aligned with Vladimir Putin.
00:37:05.02 Bill Browder:
It was crazy and I thought he was a pretty good guy because you know I mean, you kind of look at life through your own tunnel vision and every time I would attack some dirty, disgusting, crooked oligarch he would come in and save the day. And while he was doing that my clients were getting rich, the value of our portfolio was rising and it felt like a pretty great thing. And it was, it was a great thing. I was doing something that almost is impossible to do in life which is to,.. it’s very rare where you have a job where you can make money and do good in the same job. And I was doing a lot of good and I was making a lot money and it was all feeling pretty great. But I guess, you know, it was kind of too good to be true.
00:37:53.00 Andy Coulson:
Did you feel, ironically I suppose, that this alignment with Putin was giving you some form of protection? Because the people that you’re exposing, the stories that you’re taking to the media involve very dangerous individuals at that stage. You know, as you say, unpleasant people. Did you feel protected or were you kind of just thinking, on balance I think I’ll be fine?
00:38:19.11 Bill Browder:
No, no it was very, absolutely, you’re correct, very good insight. So Russia is a total land of conspiracy theories. Nothing is ever as it seems; everything is a conspiracy. Most things really are a conspiracies there. And so these oligarchs were saying to themselves, ‘There’s no way that some guy from the south side of Chicago, who barely speaks Russian, would be taking on these oligarchs, taking on us, on his own volition. There must be someone behind it, it just doesn’t make any sense.’ And then they said, ‘…whose behind him?’ And then they said, ‘Well, every time he says something Vladimir Putin does something’ and then they’re probably thinking god, he’s a clever bastard that Putin for coming up with this guy from Chicago to do this.
00:39:06.15 Andy Coulson:
This is all a well-organised, you’re a well-organised kind of frontman for…
00:39:12.01 Bill Browder:
Right, and I wasn’t going to disabuse them of that notion because they weren’t going to come in and you know kill Vladimir Putin’s guy. And I just let that hang out there in the ether. And it did protect me, there’s no question that people thought there must be something more to this story and it’s probably Putin, we better just fight him on the issues but not like go after his front man.
00:39:35.04 Andy Coulson:
Did you feel at any stage at this part of the story, Bill, that this is just like a… this is like some sort of crime espionage novel that I’m living here? Obviously things take a much, much darker turn and we’ll get onto that in a second. But at this stage are you enjoying it?
00:39:58.11 Bill Browder:
Well I was enjoying it when it was going well. I was enjoying the… I mean, we went from $100 million of assets in the bottom of the market to $4.5 billion of assets at the top of the market. So we made forty-five times our money and that’s very enjoyable. and at the same time as we were doing that I was going out and slaying dragons. And there, I mean, the esprit de corps in my office you know, everybody made a lot of money but people would have come and worked for free it was just such a glorious place, what we were doing. And we were doing it, you know we were significant and important and we were doing what was right and I mean, there was nothing better. It was all glorious. There was nothing about it that wasn’t enjoyable.
00:40:47.07 Andy Coulson:
Let’s go then to November 2005 and Moscow airport. You are, almost out of a blue sky, if I can put it that way, detained and held. Tell us what happened please and how did you cope? Let’s treat this as the next crisis moment, how did you cope?
00:41:05.02 Bill Browder:
Well, I was living in Russia, I’d been living in Russia for a decade and but I kept a home in London and I was divorced and I had a young son that I’d go to see every other weekend. And so I went religiously, it was my big commitment that I wasn’t going to let the divorce affect his life. And so every other weekend I flew back to London. And it was one of these weekends, I flew back to London, I’d just dropped him off with his mother, gotten on the plane back to Moscow, arrived at Moscow. And I had a pretty well-worn sort of methodology for this travel having to do it so often that I’d pay an extra fee to go through what they call VIP at Sheremetyevo airport.
00:41:56.16 Bill Browder:
And VIP means you just don’t have to stand in the long line fighting with everybody, you sit in a lounge and you drink a cup of tea while they process your passport. And they generally do it pretty quickly because there’s only five or six people there. And so I go to VIP, I sit in, this is November 30th 2005, it’s a Sunday evening, about 7.00pm, 7.30pm. I’m sitting there and normally it takes five minutes, you know, just enough time to have a cup of tea and it’s like an hour later, I’m still sitting there like two other flights that had already processed through and I’m wondering what’s going on. And my driver, whose also sitting in the room, goes to ask, I ask him to go and try to figure out what’s going on.
00:42:38.08 Bill Browder:
And just as he’s going up and talking to the guys at the immigration booth or whatever, four heavily armed immigration police come into the VIP lounge, grab me and then frog-march me down to the basement detention centre of the airport. And that was pretty big shock. And you know, I’m protesting I’m saying, ‘What are you doing, why are you doing this?’ They’re not even responding. They throw me in the detention area and I’m sitting there wondering what this means. Am I going to Siberia or am I going to be deported? And this was about a year after the famous Russian oligarch, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who was the richest oligarch in Russia had been arrested and he had been sentenced to ten years in jail. And so I was sitting in this detention centre thinking that I’m about to go the same was as Khodorkovsky. And that was a really terrible night because I couldn’t have imagined anything worse than going to Russian prison.
00:44:00.19 Andy Coulson:
And what had happened, in simple terms, is that alignment of interest that you shared with Vladimir Putin had come to an end, that Putin had essentially done his deal with the oligarchs.
00:44:13.09 Bill Browder:
What happened was that he had arrested this guy Khodorkovsky a year earlier, the richest man in Russia and all the oligarchs said, ‘Wow, he’s far richer, far smarter, far more powerful than me and I don’t want to end up in the same boat as him.’ And so they all went to Putin and said, ‘Vladimir, what do we have to do to make sure we all don’t go to jail?’ And he said, ‘Fifty percent’. And that was when Putin became the richest man in the world. And that’s when my interests were no longer, I wasn’t going after his enemies, I was going after his 50% economic interest and that’s when… and he basically had three choices: he could either kill me; put me in jail or expel me.
00:44:54.01 Bill Browder:
And so I sat in that cell for that night, waiting for the next morning to see whether I was going to be on the flight back to London. And the flight was at 11.00am and if you’re being deported they put you back on the same flight, they put you back to the same country you came in on. You can’t just like go to a different country. And so I was waiting to see whether they were going to come. They were… and I thought that they’d probably come at an hour and a half early because you know the processing takes a while. 9.30, nobody’s coming, I’m banging on the cell. Ten o’clock there’s nobody coming and I’m starting to get really nervous that this is going to be a… that I’m going to jail, not deported.
00:45:33.17 Bill Browder:
Ten, you know by ten twenty or so I’m really starting to panic, you know, adrenaline’s just popping through my veins, I’m questioning every decision I’ve made in my life. Ten thirty they still haven’t come. By ten forty-five I assume that if they were going to come they would have come and I’m going to jail. And then like ten forty-seven they come and grab me, frog-march me back up to the aeroplane, they put me on an Aeroflot flight, throw me in the middle seat. No passport and when we took off I was the most relieved person you could ever imagine that I was not going to Russian jail, I was going to be going back to London.
00:46:13.18 Andy Coulson:
So that moment of relief you get back, you get your team out, remarkably you get your money out. Another sliding door moment where you could have decided, you could have held onto that sense of relief that you had on the plane and thought, you know what? That’s enough now, that’s enough. But again, Bill, that’s not what happened. And let’s talk about your relationship with Sergei now. Because what happens of course, is that you work with Sergei who is your tax lawyer, and you uncover a sort of breath taking level of corruption. Explain in short order if you don’t mind what it is that you found and then I want to understand why didn’t you just leave it there as I think most people would have done.
00:47:12.16 Bill Browder:
Well after I was expelled as you said, I took things, I was exposed in two ways. I had my people there and our assets there. And so I evacuated my people and we quickly and quietly sold every last security that we had in Russia and got everybody else out. And thought that was the end of the story and I had one lone secretary that I kept in Moscow in case the storm ever blew over. And about eighteen months after I was expelled I get a frantic phone call from her that twenty-five police officers are raiding our office. I get another phone call from our lawyer in Moscow saying twenty-five police officers are raiding his office. They were specifically looking for the stamps, seals and certificates for our investment holding companies through which we had invested all of our money in Russia. Which were empty at this point because we got all our money out.
00:47:59.02 Andy Coulson:
Yeah, believing as I say, that they carried some value?
00:48:02.02 Bill Browder:
They thought they had some value; I knew that they didn’t. But in order to conduct these raids they opened up a criminal case against one of my employees who had actually safely gotten out. And so I didn’t care about any… there was no economic risk to me at any point but the fact that they opened a criminal case against one of my employees meant that eventually he could be extradited back to Russia or arrested or on an Interpol warrant. And so we couldn’t leave it at that. And so I went out and hired this young lawyer named Sergei Magnitsky who was the smartest lawyer I knew in Russia to try to figure out what this was all about. Why did they raid the office? What were they planning to do? you know, how do we get this criminal case, this fake criminal case against my colleague closed so that everybody, we can just you know, be done with this whole thing.
00:48:52.10 Bill Browder:
And so Sergei investigated and the more he investigated the more disgusting, unbelievable, shocking things he discovered. And what he figured out was that the police, when they raided the offices, used the documents from the raid to steal our investment holding companies, basically identity theft. And they registered them in the name of a man who had been convicted of manslaughter and let out of jail early to sign his name to these companies. And then we thought, well, good luck to them what are they going to do with these empty companies.
00:49:23.05 Bill Browder:
But then we discovered, and this was the most remarkable thing, was that they took the companies, and this is what Sergei discovered, back to the tax authorities in the year that we sold everything we had a huge profit. We had a billion dollars of profit, we paid $230 million capital gains tax to the Russian government. And what Sergei figured out was they went to the tax authorities and they applied for an illegal $230 million tax refund and it was approved. They applied for it on the 23rd December 2007 and it was approved and paid out the next day. It was the largest tax refund in Russian history. And a lot of people said, ‘well it’s not your money, why do you care?’ And the reason we cared because they continued to have a criminal case against Ivan, they opened the criminal against me, put me on the fugitives list in Russia and we were sure that they were going to try and frame us for the $230 million.
00:50:19.18 Andy Coulson:
00:50:20.12 Bill Browder:
And so we exposed it. Sergei exposed it. He testified against the officials involved, we wrote criminal complaints everywhere. And after he did that I begged him to leave the country. And he refused he said, this is not 1937, this is not Stalin.
00:50:40.07 Andy Coulson:
There was that moment where you, the two of you had that conversation where…
00:50:45.16 Bill Browder:
We had that conversation and he refused to leave. He said, ‘I’ve not done anything wrong; I’m not going to leave.’ And five weeks after he testified against the officials who were involved in the raid, who seized the documents we used in the fraud, those same officials he testified against came to his home on November 24th 2008 and arrested him and put him in pre-trial detention where the torture began.
00:51:17.15 Andy Coulson:
Immediately, as I understand it.
00:51:19.18 Bill Browder:
Immediately, they put him in cells with fourteen inmates and eight beds and left the lights on twenty-four hours a day to impose sleep deprivation. They started putting him in cells with no heat and no window panes in December in Moscow, so you know they froze to death. You know, they put him in cells with no toilet just a hole in the floor where the sewage would bubble up. And they wanted to get him to drop his testimony against these corrupt police officers and they wanted to get him to sign a false confession to say that he stole the $230 million and he did so under my instruction. And Sergei refused to do that. And they figured here’s this guy, he wears a blue suit and wears a red tie and works in a fancy American law firm, he’ll buckle in a week. And they didn’t know this guy, they didn’t know Sergei. Sergei was a man of just unbelievable principle. For him the idea of perjuring himself and bearing false witness was something that he was absolutely not going to do.
00:52:19.02 Andy Coulson:
We talked about the sort of genesis of your courage, my word, what was the genesis of Sergei’s? Can you trace that to his family? To his background? What were his experiences that kind of fuelled that unbelievable courage and determination?
00:52:42.01 Bill Browder:
Well, he’s what I would call a stubborn idealist. So he wanted Russia to be something and he believed it to be what he wanted it to be. In other words it wasn’t. So 99 out of 100 people would have buckled and done what they asked him to do, asked Sergei to do. But he was a very unique character and for him the idea, he just couldn’t… for him it just wasn’t in his DNA. He was just, I mean, he was really, really a great lawyer and he was what I would call the face of the new Russia, or could have been the face of the new Russia. Which is a young, honest, idealistic, aspirational person who wanted Russia to be a better place than it was.
00:53:29.17 Andy Coulson:
00:53:31.09 Bill Browder:
He was a patriot of the best kind. And he just wanted to believe that and he wanted to believe that the law was the law and the law would protect him. And one could say that he was a little naïve that his idealism sort of bordered on naïve but he really wanted it to be… they’ll eventually make monuments to Sergei Magnitsky but you know for what he tried to do.
00:54:01.13 Andy Coulson:
Tell us about your last conversation with him, Bill, if you can.
00:54:05.15 Bill Browder:
Well we never had a conversation because they were accusing me and him of colluding to commit this tax fraud. And so the last thing I wanted to do was put him in even more jeopardy by conversing with him. And so the conversations all took place through intermediaries but he always kept a brave face for everybody on everything. And by the way they didn’t allow him to speak to his family, they didn’t allow him to speak to anyone other than his lawyer. But he put on a brave face to everybody and he tried to portray some stoicism in this terrible situation but it just kept on getting worse and worse. His health started breaking down.
00:54:48.01 Bill Browder:
He ended up being diagnosed with pancreatitis and gallstones and losing forty pounds and needing an operation. And they refused him all medical treatment. And they kept on coming to him wanting to get him to sign this false confession and he just kept on refusing. And by the way, if I could have spoken to him I would have said, I would have said, ‘Sergei, you can say anything you want to save yourself, I don’t care. You can… don’t do this for me, I’ll find a way to protect myself, you protect yourself.’ But I didn’t have that opportunity and if I had I don’t know if he would have done anything else differently.
00:55:24.22 Andy Coulson:
Yeah. And you’ve obviously come to know his family well?
00:55:29.11 Bill Browder:
00:55:30.04 Andy Coulson:
And you’ve had that conversation with them I assume. What you wanted to have said, really. Incredibly difficult.
00:55:42.12 Bill Browder:
It was and coming back to your original question about courage versus, you know, for me it was just so unjust what happened to him. And what makes it worse is the fact that he believed that he was doing the right thing. And I mean, he was truly a hero standing up to these people. He shouldn’t have been a hero; he should have done what everyone else would have done and then it would have been a lot better for him. But he didn’t and you know so he’s made the ultimate sacrifice, the least I can do is make a much less sacrifice by standing up to these people and demanding justice.
00:56:25.17 Andy Coulson:
Let’s just explain, Bill, what happened to Sergei in the end. He died on November 16th 2009. Just tell us about those last days.
00:56:37.15 Bill Browder:
Well he was getting in worse and worse shape. So they refused him all medical treatment. He and his lawyers wrote twenty different desperate requests to every different branch of the criminal justice system for medical attention. And every different branch of the criminal justice system either ignored or denied those requests in writing. His jailers at the prison where they didn’t have a medical wing, didn’t want to have responsibility for him anymore and so they put him in an ambulance and sent him to a different prison. But instead of putting him in the emergency room they put him in an isolation cell, they chained him to a bed and eight riot guards with rubber batons beat Sergei until he died. That was November 16th 2009.
00:57:18.08 Andy Coulson:
And you were told what had happened the following day?
00:57:22.06 Bill Browder:
At 7.30am the following morning I got the call. And it was the most traumatic, life changing-call I could have ever gotten. It broke my heart to get that call. And it was so far beyond my worst case scenario I couldn’t even imagine.
00:57:39.13 Andy Coulson:
How, what did you know at that stage? Obviously you knew he was still in custody, how unwell, in terms of his treatment and the conditions that he was enduring, how much of that was known to you at the time?
00:57:56.11 Bill Browder:
So we knew a lot, not everything, but enough to be completely on the edge all the way going into this whole thing. He was not well, we knew that. We knew that he was being denied medical attention. But I thought it was all fixable. I thought that if he were to be, you know, get the medical attention he needed he’d be okay. I couldn’t have imagined that they would kill him.
00:58:26.11 Andy Coulson:
You talked about it right at the start of our conversation, Bill, the guilt that that caused for you. That presumably was a pretty immediate feeling for you. How quickly then did you manage to direct that guilt towards something, ultimately that was, positive is not the word to use but direct it towards Sergei’s legacy? You recognised, it seemed to me, almost immediately in the midst of that moment, that frankly appalling crisis, what you needed to do. Is that right?
00:59:10.01 Bill Browder:
It was obvious what I needed to do. I mean, there was a fog of hysteria when… you know I was pacing like an animal and howling and crying when I first got the news. But then after about an hour you know, I calmed down and I realised we needed to get to work and we needed to go after these people who did this and it was obvious from that moment on and that became… and I basically made a vow to his memory, to myself and to his family that I was going to put aside everything else I was doing and devote all of my time, all of my resources and all of my energy to going after the people that killed him and make sure they faced justice. I felt it was totally compelling what I needed to do and I did it. And for the last twelve years that’s what I’ve devoted may life to.
00:59:55.09 Andy Coulson:
Just summarise for us, please Bill, the achievements that you’ve secured in Sergei’s name, the Magnitsky Act first and foremost. How many countries now? Just tell us about that, tell us about that work?
01:00:09.08 Bill Browder:
So when it became clear to me that there was going to be no justice in Russia and Vladimir Putin personally got involved in the cover up of Sergei’s murder, he exonerated everybody involve, I said we need to get justice somewhere. We can’t get justice inside of Russia we need to get justice outside of Russia. And when I looked at the tools available in the world to get justice I discovered that there are no tools to get justice. That if a terrible crime like this is committed in a corrupt regime there is no possibility of justice. And so I said if there are no tools for justice then we need to invent one.
01:00:44.05 Bill Browder:
And I looked at the crime that Sergei had exposed and it was a crime of money, it was a crime of $230 million. And the people who committed that crime don’t keep that money in Russia they keep it abroad in British banks and Côte d’Azur real estate and Swiss boarding schools that they send their kids to and so on and so forth. And so I came up with this idea of freezing their assets and banning their visas. And I took it to Washington and I presented it to a democratic senator from Maryland named Benjamin Cardin, Republican senator from Arizona, John McCain and I said, can we freeze the assets and ban the visas of the people who killed Sergei Magnitsky? And they said yes. And that became known as the Magnitsky Act.
01:01:25.19 Bill Browder:
And the Magnitsky Act originally just applied to Russia, it passed in 2012 and Vladimir Putin, by the way, went out of his mind when it passed. And they said if Vladimir Putin is so upset then maybe we should be applying this to dictators in other countries. And the global Magnitsky Act passed in 2016 which applies to China, to Venezuela, to Iran and all sorts of places. And then we got the Magnitsky Act in Canada, in the UK, in the EU, there are now thirty-three countries with Magnitsky Acts around the world. Australia is on deck, Japan is coming up, New Zealand. And it’s turned into a worldwide justice movement not just for my case or for Russia but for the Uyghurs who are being rounded up in concentration camps and China and for the Rohingya who’ve been subject to a genocide in Myanmar and all sorts of other people. And it’s turned into an unbelievable tool in the name of Sergei Magnitsky.
01:02:29.04 Bill Browder:
And now, it’s a wonderful tool but what we’re discovering is that it really needs to be applied widely and liberally and so I’m always frustrated with governments for not applying it and the British government has only applied it to 25% of the people sanctioned by the United States and so there’s a long way for this country to go. And what we’re learning now from these Pandora Papers is that there’s a lot of dirty money sloshing around here that prevents this from really becoming fighting the bad guys.
01:03:10.13 Andy Coulson:
So this campaign in Sergei’s name, a tremendous success by any measure, but also still not without risk for you? I mean, obviously Putin has tried hard through Interpol and other means and devices to get his hands on you, in short order failed, thankfully. But the risk of being a Putin critic is with you every day.
01:03:42.05 Bill Browder:
01:03:43.07 Andy Coulson:
How do you manage that, frankly, ever present cloud of crisis that must hang over your life?
01:03:51.16 Bill Browder:
Well, the first thing I do is I don’t spend time being afraid of it. I take precautions wherever I can. But if you live in fear then they’ve already accomplished 90% of what they’re attempting to do, which is to get you to modify your behaviour and become not be critical or not take the actions that are necessary. And so I don’t live in fear. I take precautions and they’ve done a lot of nasty stuff. They’ve threatened me with death, they’ve tried to organise an illegal kidnapping squad to come and grab me. They’ve got Interpol, eight times, to have me arrested. They’ve approached the British government on numerous occasions to have me extradited, they’re suing me. They’re making movies about me. There’s troll factory in St Petersburg defaming me. But whatever I, whenever I’m starting to feel upset about this I just think about Sergei and what he went through and for me this is nothing compared with what he went through and I owe it to him not to be afraid and not to in any way be intimidated by this. And I haven’t been and I won’t be because you know, he’s already paid the ultimate price and it’s my duty to him to carry on in his name fighting these people.
01:05:12.16 Andy Coulson:
Astonishing. I mean, right now, Bill, global politics really is with you. You know, it’s all heading, perhaps not quickly enough, but seems to be heading, in broad terms in the right direction. Do you worry that that will change? Do you worry that the situation that… we’ve touched on the ups and downs of how lives and how politics can change during the course of your life already? Do you worry that there might be another change in the political relationships that could cause you a proper problem?
01:05:53.03 Bill Browder:
Yeah, all the time. So when Donald Trump was president he was asked by Putin to hand me over at the Helsinki Summit and he said I think that’s a great idea. And it took him four days to back off and to say that the wasn’t going to do it. And then it required a vote in the senate 98 to 0 not to hand me over before they shut that one down. But if Trump had, and this was in the middle of Trump’s being investigated by Robert Mueller if he hadn’t been under that cloud, god knows what he would have done. And if he had been re-elected and there had been no downside, he probably would have.
01:06:30.20 Andy Coulson:
You believe that, if Trump had been re-elected that that would have… I mean, how would that have got through? Whatever he wanted to do…
01:06:40.15 Bill Browder:
He’s the President of the United States, the Commander in Chief.
01:06:43.01 Andy Coulson:
You believe he absolutely would have thrown you under the bus?
01:06:47.03 Bill Browder:
There’s no question, I’ve heard from people in the room that he was saying, ‘we should, of course, do that’. I mean, there were arguments. People were saying ‘this is not a good idea Mr president’.
01:06:57.12 Andy Coulson:
So when your life is going to potentially could be, the years ahead of you could be dictated by mad politics or mad politicians, how do you cope with that, Bill? How do you begin to get your head around it?
01:07:17.07 Bill Browder:
You duck and dive and dodge and weave and try to make sure that you don’t find yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time. I mean, I was pretty worried about Jeremy Corbyn he was a big Putin apologist. I was very happy he wasn’t made prime minister. So these are things I have to watch all the time because you just don’t know who’s going to make some…
01:07:43.08 Andy Coulson:
And this is forever, right? As far as you’re concerned this is something that you’ll be focused on for the rest of your life?
01:07:52.10 Bill Browder:
Until Putin is no longer president of Russia.
01:07:56.00 Andy Coulson:
Yeah. Bill, it’s been a privilege to talk to you today and to hear the story from you. Your book is amazing, it’s been out there obviously for a long time. I suspect a lot of people listening to this have already read it but if they haven’t, go and get it. It is you know, we’ve scratched the surface of the story in this conversation today, it’s an incredible story told brilliantly. I just want to thank you for your time. I’d also like to ask you for you crisis cures though, Bill, if I may. So these are three things that in some of those moments that you’ve described so brilliantly for us today, that you’ve leant on, relied on. The only rule is that it can’t be another person. So your first cure please?
01:08:41.12 Bill Browder:
Well I have a Peloton in my basement and the worse things get the harder I work out. So I’m in the best shape when time is really, really bad.
01:08:55.03 Andy Coulson:
You are in all seriousness you’re a great believer that stress relief through exercise is an absolute must. It’s…
01:09:00.17 Bill Browder:
Oh my god, it’s incredible and to be honest, I feel, you know, even in the worst times I feel you know calm and grounded after I’ve had a good hour of heavy, high intensity interval training, I’m usually good on that.
01:09:16.00 Andy Coulson:
Well I hope you invested in Peloton?
01:09:18.18 Bill Browder:
I didn’t and I certainly wouldn’t now because there’s too many competitors but that’s been a real godsend. Anyway you say I can’t name another person but I focus on my family. I focus on when I’m not… I mean, it’s kind of weird to be fighting murderers one moment and then being at the school gates at the next. But the normalcy of bringing up a family is incredibly helpful in these situations and then I also listen to country music which sounds pretty odd but there you go.
01:10:05.00 Andy Coulson:
Give me your favourite. If you were only allowed one song what would it be?
01:10:11.05 Bill Browder:
There’s a great justice song which nobody else in the world will ever know or think about, it’s called, it’s a song called Beer For My Horses. And it’s all about a bunch of Texas law men that after they’ve rounded up a bunch of really bad guys and hung them they go and they serve beer for their horses and whisky for their men. And for some reason that gives me chills when I think about that.
01:10:38.05 Andy Coulson:
Outstanding. Bill Browder thanks so much for your time today. A real privilege to have heard the story from you directly and the work that you’re doing, it goes without saying and I’m sure everyone listening to this would want to say the same to you, is just so impressive on a number of different levels. Just thanks so much for your time.