Archive for November, 2012

His Russian Lawyer Dead, A Former American Turns to Congress for Revenge

Friday, November 16th, 2012

More than a few turns of the irony wheel brought Bill Browder to the dining room of the Hay-Adams, to the hotel’s gilt frames and bright silver, to the Cobb salad he would eat overlooking the White House, trying to get some fuel for the long afternoon ahead. There were to be hours spent testifying in Congress on the eve of the House vote to pass the law that would wreak vengeance on Russia, and on those who had plundered his wealth and killed his lawyer three years ago today. After that, he would go and lobby individual senators to cement their support, before catching a flight back home to London to see the premiere of the play “One Hour Eighteen Minutes,” about the last mortal moments of that slain lawyer, the posthumously famous Sergei Magnitsky.

On Nov. 16, 2009, Magnitsky died in mysterious circumstances in a Moscow prison. He was working for Jamison Firestone’s American law firm, which had been hired by Browder to investigate whatever had happened to his assets in Russia. In November 2005, Browder, who had become the largest foreign investor in Russia, had been turned around at a Moscow airport, sent back to London, and labeled a security threat to Russia. His offices were raided and his riches began to disappear. Magnitsky discovered what happened to them: Russian tax and interior ministry officials had used Browder’s company to plunder $230 million from state coffers. When he pried further, Magnitsky was thrown in jail for nearly a year and suffered what was, by all accounts, a grueling and painful death of untreated pancreatitis. (When, in his death throes, he began to howl with pain, the prison called a psychologist. According to some sources, he was put in solitary confinement, handcuffed to a bed and beaten. He died an hour and eighteen minutes later, bruised and in a pool of his own urine.)

Browder, his lawyer dead and $4.5 billion fortune in Russia destroyed, wanted revenge. His friend, former deputy assistant Secretary of State Jonathan Winer, suggested a legal avenue of doing so. “The law banned corrupt foreign officials from entering the country,” Browder explained to me, referring to Proclamation 7750, which prohibits officials tied to corruption from entering the U.S. Browder liked the idea of applying it to those involved in Magnitsky’s death, so he turned to Kyle Scott, head of the Russia desk at the State Department at the time. “He dismissed my suggestion out of hand,” Browder recounts. That’s when Browder remembered a new acquaintance, Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.). “I had testified about Magnitsky’s incarceration at the Helsinki Commission, and I went back to Cardin’s office, and I told him what happened. And the response was, ‘Let’s see if they treat a U.S. senator the same way.’”

From there, Browder’s tale trails through the nooks and crannies of the couloirs of American power. He found a Republican co-sponsor, John McCain, for a bill going after the guys who got Magnitsky, and then expanded it to include other international bad guys. He hired Washington consultants from the Ashcroft Group, the firm founded by former Attorney General John Ashcroft. He navigated the tensions between the State Department and Congress (he gleefully retells the story of Cardin’s showdown with State over its own secret list of offenders, compiled to head off Browder’s bill). He exploited the friction between Congress’s desire to win easy human rights points and a White House that likes to set its own foreign policy (and that has less hawkish ideas about Russia). In the end, he and Cardin won, by striking a bargain: the White House wanted to help Russia enter the WTO, and to do that, the U.S. had to repeal the outdated 1974 Jackson-Vanik Amendment, which denied the Soviet Union “most favored nation” trading status because it blocked Jews from emigrating. Cardin and his allies in the Senate— McCain, Joe Lieberman, Roger Wicker—hitched the repeal of Jackson-Vanik to the passage of the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, which would ban officials implicated in Magnitsky’s death, as well as other human rights offenders, from traveling to the U.S., while also freezing their assets. A quid pro quo in the best traditions of Washington.

“This is the beauty of the American system, that Democrats can challenge their own administration,” Browder marveled, and speared a perfectly oval slice of hard-boiled egg.

And this is the beauty of Browder’s place in it all: he has none, officially. Born in Chicago, to American parents, in 1964, he moved to the U.K. in 1989. When he became a British citizen, he quit being an American one. What motivated him to do this is not something he’s ever been clear on. “I relinquished it when I swore my allegiance to the Queen,” he explains, shrugging and clearly uncomfortable. “I had emigrated.” Nor does Browder see the irony in this, or the fact that his adopted homeland and a dozen European parliaments currently considering their own versions of the Magnitsky Act are waiting for the Americans to do it first. “Everyone in Europe needs Americans to do it to have the confidence to do it themselves,” he says. Including Britain.

Why did Browder renounce his American citizenship in an age when it’s possible to carry a deck of passports? It may have something to do with his past: His grandfather Earl Browder was head of the Communist Party USA in the 1930s and 40s. He twice ran for president, twice failed, and was, unrelatedly, twice jailed. “I don’t want to get into this too much,” Browder says, “but we came from a family that was persecuted in America, so I don’t have the same sort of, uh… We were communists and we were persecuted in the McCarthy era.” Earl, he points out, was jailed “by Roosevelt, for being against the War. My grandmother was dying of cancer and they wanted to deport her.” He happily notes the irony that, even after that, and after he became Putin’s champion—he publicly cheered the 2003 arrest of oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky (“Who’s next?” were the words) and continued to lavish praise on Putin even after being expelled from Russia— after all that, he says, “in a certain way, now I’m being politically persecuted in Russia.” (His grandfather, ironically, had similar luck. “He was kicked out of the Communist Party by Stalin, and they started killing all the people who were supporters of Browderism,” Earl’s idea that capitalism and communism could co-exist.)

Browder does whatever it takes. When he was working for Salomon Brothers, in London, he took one of the fund’s biggest investors with him and started a fund in Russia that famously earned a 2,549 percent return. He made that money in notoriously shady times and in hazy, inscrutable ways. When the big Russian corporations weren’t making him enough money, he started greenmailing them, waging war for corporate reform from within. This is where he stepped on large and powerful toes, and probably how he got himself kicked out of Russia, his other adopted homeland. (“I’m still obsessed and fascinated with the place,” he says.) After making billions in the hurly-burly gangland Russia of the 1990s, Browder goes on at length about the pain he still feels about Magnitsky’s death. “I would die of a broken heart,” he said, when I asked him why he’s spent so much sweat and money on pushing this bill. “I have a hard time even thinking about it.” And yet, he admitted he didn’t know Magnitsky well—just one of his many lawyers, a young guy he saw at corporate parties.

It’s a familiar conversion: Khodorkovsky, once the most ruthless of all the oligarchs, seems to have had his soul cleansed by the fire of state persecution and years in a Siberian penal colony. He is now a bona fide opposition martyr. And, like many people in that part of the world, Browder has become yet another former bad guy who got religion when the system turned on him, a man whose desire for revenge has become so entwined with worthy motives that they have become increasingly hard to untangle. In Russia, Browder says, “you either have to be either poor and persecuted and good, or you have to be rich and make compromises and be bad.” Speaking for himself, he adds, “When something like this happens, it kind of changes your priorities.”

The fact that America has helped him in this struggle—the House passed the Magnitsky Act on Friday morning—has not redeemed this country for Browder just yet. He has no plans to restore his U.S. citizenship. He is, he says, “very involved” in British politics. He has a British house, a British wife, two British sons. “My kids go to British schools, they have British accents,” Browder said, and shrugged, as if to indicate that this just about settles the matter. Then he forked some pink-slathered lettuce into his mouth, chewed, and pattered on about American politics.

His Russian Lawyer Dead, A Former American Turns to Congress for Revenge [TNR]

The Rise of Russia’s Gun Nuts

Friday, November 16th, 2012

Maria Butina greeted her guests with a gun in her holster and her hands on her hips. A pair of professional shooting earmuffs hung from her neck; a pair of yellow goggles pushed up her dyed-red hair like casually forgotten sunglasses.

“Welcome!” she said and explained to the gathered what they were about to do: shoot stuff. “I hope tonight will be an unforgettable night, and that you’ll come away with a feeling that you held something so powerful, so incredible, in your hands. So enjoy!” She added, “Oh! And there will be adrenaline.”

Butina, who was wearing an outdoors­man’s puffy vest over a striped shirt and jeans, scanned the four middle-aged men standing in front of her, gripping black Russian-made Viking pistols. We were in a shooting gallery in a basement under a shabby, mafia-ridden hotel complex built for the 1980 Moscow Olympics. On the way in, as we passed a sweating, balloon-bellied guard who had stripped to the waist, Butina told me the place had once been a KGB shooting range. It was scattered with white metal targets and tires clawed apart by bullets. Everything smelled vaguely of kitty litter.

At the age of 23, Butina is often the youngest person in the room at events like these and usually the only woman. I asked how it felt to be surrounded by all those armed men. “A woman can defend herself if she knows how to use weapons, and that’s all great, but it’s still nice to be protected by a man,” she told me in her tart, matter-of-fact way. “It feels great.”

It must feel especially nice because she is their leader. About a year ago, Butina founded an organization called Right to Bear Arms, in the process almost single-handedly inventing Russia’s gun-rights movement. The guys at the shooting gallery were her dues-paying members, all of whom believe the legal code should be amended to allow Russians to carry concealed handguns.

This is not a popular idea in Russia, where there is no constitutional right to bear arms, in a well-regulated militia or otherwise. Instead, Russians are allowed to own smoothbore hunting rifles, as well as “compliance weapons”—that is, guns that shoot rubber bullets or are powered by gas.

Although she is a member of the National Rifle Association (NRA), Butina’s vision of gun rights has little to do with the “rights” part of it; the American insistence that a gun is a vessel of liberty seems alien to her. Nor does she see any connection between her movement and the anti-Kremlin protests that gripped Moscow last winter and spring, though hers is one of a new crop of civic groups that have sprung up in the ferment. Her organization, currently 400 members strong, is a soup of communists and nationalists, while Butina herself votes for Vladimir Putin and his United Russia Party. But in Russia, the fledgling pro-gun movement is less a political cause than it is a self-help strategy.

After Butina had finished with her introduction, the instructor, Igor Shmelev, demonstrated the drill. It went as follows: Cock your pistol, take two shots at a cardboard target. Scurry to the left, take two shots at a metal target. Duck back through a plywood screen door. Open the door, take two shots, knock down another target, duck back in. Reload. Open the door, take two more shots at a smaller target, lean around the corner, shoot down another one. This seemed less like shooting practice than a rehearsal for an action movie. When her turn came, Butina’s movements were sure and sharp, and when she was done, she turned and flashed a face that was all no-nonsense, tight-lipped happiness.

Unlike most Russians, Butina grew up with guns—she comes from Altai, the rugged, mountainous part of Siberia. For centuries, Siberia was the Russian frontier— home to serfs fleeing their masters, the final destination for both criminals and political exiles. “It is a rare Siberian who can imagine himself without a rifle in the home,” Butina told me.

Butina decamped to Moscow when she was 22. At the time, most Russian gun-related organizations were for sports shooters, and so Butina decided to recruit people who congregated in Web forums to discuss gun rights. At first, they focused on regulations that made target practice prohibitively expensive. But before long, Butina realized that the idea of self-defense was a far more potent recruiting tool.

This summer, the group successfully defended a woman named Tatyana Kudryavtseva who fought off a rapist with a knife and accidentally killed him. She faced 15 years in jail for homicide; Right to Bear Arms got her exonerated. “If she had had a gun, it would have been enough just to show the gun, as American statistics show,” says Butina, who is a fan of statistics in general and American statistics in particular.

Along the way, she gained a powerful ally in Alexander Torshin, a high-ranking member of United Russia and the first deputy speaker of the Russian senate. Torshin is also a member of the NRA, which he told me he admires because it stands for “stability”—the credo of Putin’s reign.

On July 24, the pair made their case for gun rights before the senate. However, their appearance came only four days after James Holmes mowed down dozens of people at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. This fortified the view of many Russian senators, Torshin said, that, if Russians had handguns, they would all shoot each other. “How can you have so little trust for yourself, for your people?” he lamented.

But, in fact, Russians don’t trust each other. Three-quarters of the population feels this way, according to the independent Levada Center. The cause lies in the traumas of the Russian twentieth century: two world wars and a civil war, collectivization and industrialization, and mass political terror. Millions perished because their neighbors, colleagues, and friends betrayed them, creating a visceral mutual suspicion. After the collapse of the Soviet Union came the age of unfettered capitalism. A handful of oligarchs stitched together shady fortunes while millions below them were defrauded.

Over the last decade, this bleak picture has been accentuated by metastatic government corruption and almost daily news of police officers committing crimes. In recent years, Russia has been rocked by news of police officers raping a young woman in custody, sodomizing a man with a champagne bottle, and beating the fingers off a professional pianist. “Violence and potential violence surrounds you, and you can’t escape it,” says Boris Dubin, a sociologist and former head of Levada. “Repression is spilled throughout society and absorbed by every institution, from the family to the government.”

Most Russians deal with this by bundling themselves tightly in conformity and dissimulation—treating strangers with extreme distrust and relying only on thoroughly vetted family and friends. Butina and her allies, however, see guns as genuinely useful social tools, an alternative to living in a state of permanent suspicion.

This view requires a certain unbendable logic. The world, as Butina sees it, is both inherently savage and inhabited by people who behave rationally at all times— especially criminals. “A person may decide not to commit a crime if he thinks he may be shot or may encounter resistance,” Butina said. As proof, she pointed to America’s permissive attitude toward gun ownership. “If we take the number of homicides per one hundred thousand people in the population, according to our police statistics, it’s thirteen homicides in Russia, and 5.2 in the U.S.”

Of course, homicide rates are lower still in countries with stricter gun laws. But Butina doesn’t flinch when challenged on her statistics; she simply summons more statistics. “People online take facts from my blog, turn them upside and scream, ‘Just look at this! In the States, thirty thousand people die from firearms every year! How awful!’” she scoffed. “But so what? Switzerland has the most suicides using a gun, and yet, Switzerland has the least number of total suicides. Moreover, a gun is the most humane weapon for suicide compared to all the other methods that exist.”

Butina’s arguments may have their flaws, but it’s not unusual to hear them echoed by leading figures in the opposition. “We have a huge homicide rate, most of these murders are unsolved, and many police officers are among the criminals,” says opposition politician Alexey Navalny, who supports gun ownership and whose two rifles were recently seized because of his role in anti-Kremlin protests. “In America, the argument works that there are pro­fessionals to protect us. Here, the police are the main criminals, and they’re armed.”

Gennady Gudkov, a former KGB officer and an opposition parliamentarian until he was stripped of his mandate after participating in the protests, was once the most vocal opponent of gun rights. But after Dmitry Medvedev’s efforts at police reform failed, he changed his mind. “If our government is not willing and not capable of reforming law enforcement and the judicial system, then the citizen is left face to face with criminals, and they have to defend themselves on their own,” Gudkov says. “And the best way to do this is with handguns.”

The major obstacle for Butina and her group is Putin. Never mind that he himself is an avid outdoorsman. Behind closed doors, Putin seems to have put forth the position that his surrogates are vocalizing: It is too soon, and too dangerous. Gudkov has a different explanation: “He’s afraid of his own people.”

For her part, Butina denies that an armed populace would threaten the Putin regime. “The right to bear arms is given to you by your government and is a nice right to have,” she reasoned, “so taking some kind of anti-government stand … .” She trailed off to indicate that doing so would be the height of rashness. Plus, she pointed out, “pistols are the absolute worst weapon for toppling a government, let me tell you.”

The Rise of Russia’s Gun Nuts [TNR]