When I was a teenager growing up in Pittsburgh, I used to joke that I wanted to grow up to be the hero of a Robert Ludlum novel. (Ludlum’s books inspired the now-famous Jason Bourne movies.)
In my eyes, the heroes of these spy thrillers had it all.
They were brilliant graduates of the world’s best universities.
They spoke half a dozen languages.
They traveled the world with a fistful of passports.
Above all, they tolerated being pursued by the bad guys with inhuman stoicism.
Alas, I fell short of my goal.
But as it turns out, such real-life heroes do exist.
And if you don’t believe me, read Bill Browder’s latest book, Freezing Order: A True Story of Money Laundering, Murder, and Surviving Vladimir Putin’s Wrath.
A tense and gripping read, Freezing Order has everything you’d want in a thriller: murder, conspiracy, piles of dirty money, sexual intrigue, constant threat of assassination, abduction, extreme violence…
In other words, it reads like a high-octane Robert Ludlum novel of my youth, except for one thing.
It is all true.
And if there is a real-life Jason Bourne, then this guy is it.
I first met Bill Browder in 1991 when I was an upstart lawyer at an American law firm in Budapest.
At the time, Browder was working for an investment fund focused on investing in Eastern Europe. He had hired my law firm to assist with some of his high-profile investments.
After a brief stint at Salomon Brothers in London, Browder established Hermitage Capital – an investment fund focused on Russia – in 1996.
I remember meeting him for lunch near my office in London that spring. Browder had just secured his first $25 million investment for his fund.
Hermitage Capital went on to become a remarkable success.
In 1997, as the Russian stock market boomed, the Hermitage Fund became the best-performing fund, up 238%.
Those of us working in the civilized confines of the city were envious of Browder. His success was widely covered in the global financial press.
But he was far from a conventional hedge fund manager.
Instead of focusing on balance sheets and income statements, Browder focused on uncovering corruption in Russian companies.
Taking On Russia
This approach did not endear him to the Russian authorities.
After the collapse of the Russian market in August 1998, Browder stuck with Hermitage Capital even as expats abandoned Moscow in droves. As he told me, he had enough money left to keep the lights on.
Besides, he had nothing else to do.
Browder benefited enormously from the rebound in Russian markets. As a result, he became one of the world’s highest-paid hedge fund managers in 2006 and 2007, earning north of 100 million pounds sterling for at least two years.
Then, one day in 2005, he was banned from entering Russia.
A handful of Russian officials had launched an elaborate $230 million tax fraud and blamed it on Hermitage. One of Browder’s lawyers, Sergei Magnitsky, was imprisoned, tortured and eventually murdered.
From then on, Browder dedicated his life to punishing the Russian authorities for Magnitsky’s death.
He has spent the past 15-plus years lobbying for the Magnitsky Act. This legislation sanctions foreign government officials worldwide who are human rights offenders, freezes their assets and bans them from international travel.
And today, there is a Magnitsky Act implemented in the U.S., Canada and Europe, among other regions – amounting to dozens of countries globally.
During this process, Browder uncovered an elaborate plot whereby Russian President Vladimir Putin had siphoned off over $1 trillion from Russia’s government coffers for his personal benefit.
Yes, that’s $1 trillion – just about four times the net worth of Elon Musk. According to Browder, that makes Putin the world’s richest man by a huge margin. considerably
Lessons Learned From Freezing Order
Let me share a couple of my takeaways regarding Freezing Order.
First, Browder has an unrivaled psychological resilience.
Imagine being called out by name by Vladimir Putin at a global press conference, where the Russian president asked then-President Donald Trump to extradite Browder to Russia in exchange for 12 Americans.
An “incredible offer.” (Luckily for Browder, the proposed exchange was quickly dropped.)
Browder also gets death threats as often as I get credit card bills.
I once asked him how he deals with the constant threats to his life.
He shrugged and said, “You just have to accept it.”
Meanwhile, I freak out during a bumpy flight.
Second, Browder’s life is dominated by his mission to an extent that’s hard for us to imagine.
When I had dinner with him at an event he was speaking at in London, I asked him why he wasn’t touching his food.
As he looked around at the Eastern European waiters serving us, he said, “Why would I eat anything here? I don’t know who these people are!”
He lives with the ever-present danger that he could be poisoned – just like former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko was in 2006 at the sushi place down the street from us.
Third, Browder’s sense of justice is as deeply ingrained in him as it is remarkable.
In Freezing Order, he recounts how three bullies stole his flute when he was a kid. When his flute turned up in a pawn shop, he took the bullies to court.
He was all of age 11 at the time. And he won his case.
Browder has made far more money than he could ever spend. Yet he is willing to live under the sword of Damocles, risking his life for what he sees as a just cause.
When you think of Wall Street hedge fund managers, you often think of Gordon Gekko bellowing, “Greed is good!”
That’s not him.
No one else in the hedge fund industry has taken on what Browder has.
Sure, hedge fund manager Bill Ackman may tussle with rival Carl Icahn over a hostile takeover bid.
And Ackman may fancy himself a “master of the universe” for paying John McEnroe to play tennis with him.
But these “battles” occur on the civilized streets of Manhattan.
Only big egos – not lives – are at stake.
Browder is playing a far more noble – and dangerous – game.
Run – don’t walk – to buy Bill Browder’s book Freezing Order.
It may be the most remarkable piece of nonfiction you will ever read.
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