A not unbiased look at Russia under Putin

Originally posted in Canadian Lawyer magazine.

The Soviet Constitution of 1936 stated that citizens of the U.S.S.R. had the right to freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of conscience, and “guaranteed inviolability of the person,” adding that “no person may be placed under arrest except by decision of a court or with the sanction of a procurator.”
At the same time, of course, Joseph Stalin was having his subjects murdered, imprisoned, and enslaved by the hundreds of thousands, not to mention the millions more left to starve.

Vladimir Putin is not Stalin (at this stage, he’s not even Leonid Brezhnev — yet) but he is the latest in a depressingly long line of Soviet and Russian leaders for whom the rule of law does not apply. Putin’s reputation in the West has plummeted since the start of the Ukraine crisis, but the signs of what he would become were always there.

Venture capitalist Bill Browder lived and worked in Russia during the chaotic 90s, witnessed the rise of Putin up close, and eventually found himself on the Russian president’s enemies list. But he survived to tell the tale in his gripping book Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man’s Fight for Justice, which makes him more fortunate than his lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, whose mistreatment and death laid bare the lawlessness that governs Putin’s Russia.

The grandson of a Depression-era presidential candidate for the American Communist Party, Browder rebelled by entering the business world — but his lineage instilled in him a fascination with the other side of the Iron Curtain. The Berlin Wall was coming down, and the U.S.S.R. was disintegrating just as Browder entered the work force, and he gambled on investing in newly privatized companies in Russia.

The gamble paid off, and Browder’s Moscow-based Hermitage Capital earned millions of dollars. And lost almost all of it, then earned most of it back again. Investing in Yeltsin-era Russia was not for the faint of heart, and that was before Browder and his company made enemies of corrupt government officials and wealthy oligarchs, who tried to blatantly steal his assets.

Instead of cutting his losses and leaving Russia, Browder fought back in the Russian and Western media, making his enemies — and their protector/beneficiary, Putin — even angrier. By 2005, Browder had been expelled from the country.

As Russian authorities closed in on what was left of Hermitage Capital, Browder helped several of his colleagues flee to the West. But Sergei Magnitsky, a tax lawyer with the Anglo-Russian firm Firestone Duncan, refused, and paid the ultimate price. While investigating the fraudulent tax-evasion case brought against Hermitage, Magnitsky was himself arrested, detained in brutal conditions, denied essential medical treatment, and ultimately died in custody.

And then the Russian state put him on trial, with a judge, prosecutors, and even court-appointed defence counsel going through the motions while the prisoner’s cage sat empty. (The defence lawyers stopped bothering to show up after a while.)

In response, Browder lobbied the American and British governments to take action against the corrupt Russian officials who sent Magnitsky to his death, and the United States Congress eventually passed a law sanctioning them, much to the chagrin of President Barack Obama, whose administration was in the middle of a largely ineffective “reset” of relations with Russia.

Putin and his parliamentary puppets responded by banning Americans (and eventually people from other countries, including Canada) from adopting Russian children. They also tried to have an international arrest warrant (the titular “Red Notice”) issued against Browder through INTERPOL.

Needless to say, Red Notice is not an unbiased look at what Russia has become under Putin. Browder is trying to defend himself against the state’s allegations against him, and he is understandably emotional about what happened to his friend Magnitsky.

But those who have observed Putin’s increasingly authoritarian rule — clamping down on the Russian media, fostering a growing cult of personality, meddling in Ukraine, annexing Crimea, passing laws against “gay propaganda,” and launching shrill, conspiratorial agitprop outlets like RT — will find Browder’s story very credible indeed.

More importantly, Red Notice illustrates what happens when a government is not bound by the rule of law. Whatever semblance of an impartial judiciary or law enforcement Russia once had, it’s all gone now. The president and his cronies get what they want, regardless of what the statute books say.

For a few years, even I thought Vladimir Putin deserved some credit for restoring “order” to his country, after turbulent post-Soviet years rocked by dueling mafia clans battling it out on the streets of Moscow. Instead, the out-of-control, violent, lawless gangs have been supplanted by a violent, out-of-control, lawless government.

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