Bill Browder's Quest to Challenge Authoritarian Regimes and Advocate for Change
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Stanford GSB alumnus Bill Browder outed Russian government corruption, and Putin wants him silenced.
by Kevin Cool
Bill Browder was enjoying a quiet morning at his Colorado home in 2018 when he learned that Vladimir Putin had put a bounty on his head.
Browder, MBA ’89, CEO of Hermitage Capital, led one of the most successful investment firms in Russia in the early 2000s but was targeted by Putin after Browder’s attorney uncovered massive fraud perpetrated by government officials there. The attorney, Sergei Magnitsky, was subsequently jailed, tortured, and killed.
Browder’s 2015 book Red Notice described how hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes meant for the Russian people were diverted to a group of Kremlin cronies, and the often-violent measures they took to conceal their crimes. And Browder fingered Putin as the head of “a criminal regime.”
In a recent talk sponsored by Stanford Libraries and the Stanford GSB Corporations and Society Initiative, Browder discussed Putin, the war in Ukraine, and ongoing efforts by the Russian leader to punish him. “He has hated me ever since the passage of the Magnitsky Act and has done all this crazy stuff to try to get me,” Browder said.
The Magnitsky Act, passed by Congress in 2012, authorizes governments to ban visas and freeze the assets of human rights abusers and highly corrupt officials anywhere in the world. Browder spent years advocating for the legislation, a version of which has now been adopted in more than 30 countries.
Although Browder knew of Putin’s interest in capturing him, it wasn’t until a 2018 summit meeting between President Donald Trump and Putin that the threat became glaringly public. Shortly before the Helsinki summit, the U.S. Justice Department had indicted 12 military intelligence officers from Russia’s notorious disinformation unit, the GRU, for their role in election interference during the 2016 presidential campaign. During a press briefing after Trump and Putin had met, Putin was asked if Russia would turn over the GRU agents. Possibly, he said — if the Americans gave them Bill Browder.
Within minutes, Browder said, his phone lit up with more than 150 messages, mostly from friends worried about his safety. (One of them even offered to loan Browder his cabin in the mountains as a hideout.) “Of the 8 billion people on the planet, I’m the one that came up at the summit,” Browder cracked.
But there was nothing funny about the threat. Russian agents have been implicated in several politically motivated murders, and the poisoning of Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny. “It was very unpleasant, obviously, but it wasn’t a surprise,” Browder said of Putin’s proposed swap. Alarmingly, he noted, it took several days and a 98-0 vote in Congress before the Trump administration declared there would be no trade.
Since then, Browder has continued to document the financial crimes committed by Putin and his inner circle. He estimates that over the course of Putin’s 23 years in power, more than $1 trillion has been stolen and laundered through Western banks. “That’s money that should have gone to hospitals and schools and public services, but instead was spent on private jets and yachts and Swiss bank accounts.”
Browder, who now lives in London, was asked whether he felt safe there. Although the city has deep associations with Russian money laundering — “it’s a viper’s nest” — Browder said the long arm of Putin’s regime could potentially reach him anywhere. “It’s dangerous wherever I am.”
As the war in Ukraine has unfolded, Putin has employed a familiar playbook, Browder said. His motivation has little to do with security concerns or recapturing historical glory but rather distracting the Russian people from the country’s domestic problems, and Putin’s own vulnerability. “Putin is living in a world in which if he’s not in power, he loses all the money he stole, he goes to jail and he dies. It’s a mortal risk.”
However, Browder is not optimistic that Putin will be overthrown. “There is no oxygen for dissent whatsoever,” he said. “Dictators have all the tools at their disposal. The most likely scenario is that five years from now there is no post-Putin.”