Bill Browder, a millionaire hedge-fund manager based in London, realized something was wrong the moment a stunning blond woman with full red lips and a skimpy black cocktail dress approached him.
It was July 2012, and Browder was at a reception at the Hotel Le Méridien in Monaco, as part of a human-rights conference with representatives from over 57 countries. The woman, who introduced herself as Svetlana Melnikova, flirted unabashedly with Browder.
“I normally work in fashion,” she said, touching his arm. “But I find politics to be so fascinating.”
Browder wasn’t buying any of it. “I’m a five-foot-nine middle-aged bald man. Six-foot, busty blond models don’t throw themselves at me. This couldn’t have been a more blatant honey trap,” he writes in his new book, “Freezing Order: A True Story of Money Laundering, Murder, and Surviving Vladimir Putin’s Wrath” (Simon & Schuster), out now.
He had good reason to be suspicious. He’d come to the conference to argue for the Magnitsky Act, a proposed bill that would sanction Russian officials suspected of human-rights abuses. Later that year, the act would be signed into law in the United States, and Browder was on a mission to convince the European Union to follow their lead.
Russian President Vladimir Putin considered the Magnitsky Act an “existential threat” to his regime, and he would stop at nothing to bring the man responsible to justice — or at least his idea of justice.
Later that night, Svetlana e-mailed Browder, asking to meet him for a drink.
“I can’t stop thinking about you,” she wrote. “I’d really like to see you this evening.”
Browder, who was staying in a hotel across the border in the south of France, knew what she was really after.
“I’d heard stories about Putin’s enemies checking into Monaco hotels, presenting their passports, and finding themselves arrested within minutes by the local police,” he writes. Sharing his location with Svetlana, he knew, could have put him in mortal danger.
On the run from Russian officials since 2005, Browder left the country after being accused of everything from tax fraud to money laundering. He was one of the most sought-after fugitives on Russia’s domestic wanted list, and it was all because of his campaigning for the Magnitsky Act — named for Browder’s lawyer, the Ukrainian-born Sergei Magnitsky, who was murdered in a Russian jail in November 2009.
Born in New Jersey and raised in Chicago, Browder moved to London after getting his MBA from Stanford Business School in 1989. He worked for consulting firms like Boston Consulting Group, married a Brit, and renounced his US citizenship (mostly as a protest over how his communist grandparents had been treated during the McCarthy era).
His success with Russian investments at Salomon Brothers in London inspired him to relocate to Moscow and launch the hedge fund Hermitage Capital Management in 1996, which became one of the largest foreign investors in post-Soviet Russia. Although they had about $4.5 billion invested in Russian equities, he was frustrated that many of his investments “were being robbed blind by Russian oligarchs and corrupt officials,” he writes.
So he fought back, exposing the corruption to the international media. “To make money, I didn’t have to put a complete stop to the stealing,” Browder writes. “I just needed to create enough pressure for marginal change.”
It didn’t, however, make him very popular in Russia. And by November 2005, on trumped-up charges of tax fraud and money-laundering — basically accusing him of what he’d accused the oligarchs — the Kremlin declared him a “threat to national security” and barred him from ever returning to Russia.
Browder hired Moscow lawyer Sergei Magnitsky to investigate, and in the summer of 2008, Magnitsky uncovered a massive conspiracy involving the theft of $230 million using tax-refund fraud from three of Hermitage’s companies. Browder hoped that by exposing the fraud, it would quietly go away as it had in the past. Instead, he’d poked a sleeping bear.
Magnitsky was arrested, accused of committing the same fraud he had just exposed, and held for 358 days where, according to Browder, he was regularly tortured and deprived of medical treatment. On his final day, he was “chained to a bed, and eight riot guards with rubber batons beat Sergei until he was dead,” Browder writes. “He was only 37 years old.” (The Interior Ministry listed Magnitsky’s cause of death as “heart failure.”)
“He’d been killed because he’d worked for me,” Browder writes. “The guilt I felt and continue to feel permeates every cell of my body.” To avenge his deceased friend and colleague, he started campaigning for lawmakers to create legislation he’d dubbed the Magnitsky Act, which punished not just the oligarchs responsible for the stolen millions uncovered by Magnitsky but also freezes the US assets of all Russian human-rights violators.
“The Magnitsky Act put all of Putin’s wealth and power at risk,” writes Browder, who claims that the Russian president isn’t just aware of the corruption but directly profits from it. “That made him a very angry man. His crusade against the Magnitsky Act wasn’t just philosophical, it was personal. We had genuinely hit Vladimir Putin’s Achilles’ heel.”
As Browder traveled the world, championing countries to enact their own versions of the Magnitsky bill, his allies and whistleblowers were being assassinated.
Alexander Perepilichnyy, a Russian financial advisor who “played an important role in our money-laundering investigation,” Browder says, collapsed while jogging near his Surrey home in November 2012. He was found with “green foam” bubbling from his lips and died shortly thereafter.
Boris Nemtsov, an outspoken critic of Putin who “became my partner in fighting for the Magnitsky Act all over the world,” Browder writes, was shot in the back in February 2015, just feet from the Kremlin.
When Browder released his first book about taking on Putin, the 2015 bestseller “Red Notice,” and went on tour to promote it, he felt a bigger target on his back than ever. While he was in London, his wife and four kids were visited at their Aspen summer home by two men, who confronted his children outside with questions like, “Is your daddy home?” Even after they retreated to the basement, the men stood outside and rang the bell for more than an hour.
“I don’t feel safe here anymore,” Browder’s wife told him.
“When the dust settled, we learned that the people chasing me had not been kidnappers or poisoners, but process servers hired by the Russians,” writes Browder.
It was part of a court case involving the Russian company Prevezon, accused by the US Attorney’s Office in New York of tax fraud involving millions in Manhattan real estate — all part of the original stolen $230 million first identified by the late Magnitsky. Their defense lawyers were determined to make Browder central to the case, pinning him as the real mastermind behind the fraud.
Browder finally showed up for his deposition, and after nine hours of questioning, in which he mostly replied that he didn’t know or didn’t remember, he was released. By 2018, Prevezon settled out of court, paying a $5.9 million settlement.
That same year, however, Browder was finally placed in handcuffs. Not by Russian agents, but by uniformed police officers in Madrid, working for Russia, who surprised him at his hotel room.
Before they took him away, Browder tweeted a distress signal to his 135,000 followers, many of them journalists, government officials, and politicians from around the world: “Urgent: Just was arrested by Spanish police in Madrid on a Russian Interpol arrest warrant,” he tweeted.
His captors took him to an unmarked building for a “medical exam,” but Browder refused to leave the car. They eventually escorted him to the police station, but he didn’t stay for long.
“My tweets had generated hundreds of phone calls to Interpol and the Spanish authorities,” Browder writes, “who soon realized the mess they’d waltzed into.”
Interpol ruled that the Russian warrant wasn’t valid because it was politically motivated, and Browder was released.
He came close to being captured again that summer, during a Helsinki summit between Putin and then-President Donald Trump, when Putin suggested during a press conference that he’d allow Russian officials indicted for hacking into Democratic Party servers to be interviewed by special counsel Robert Mueller, but only if “the Americans would reciprocate. For instance, we can bring up Mr. Browder in this particular case.”
Browder waited for Trump’s reaction. “‘I think that’s an incredible offer,’ Trump said, suggesting he was ready to trade me.”
So Browder went on the defensive, giving interviews to CNN, Fox News and the BBC, explaining that if he was extradited to Russia, he would be “thrown in a Russian prison, where I would be tortured and eventually killed.” Just a few weeks later, a state department spokesperson called Putin’s proposal “absolutely absurd.”
Browder, now 57 and still running his Hermitage hedge fund in London, says he’s sleeping peacefully these days. As of this writing, there are Magnitsky Acts in 34 countries: the United States, Canada, the UK, Australia, the 27 countries of the European Union, Norway, Montenegro, and Kosovo.
Magnitsky sanctions have been used outside of Russia, punishing everyone from the Saudi assassins who murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi to the Chinese officials who set up the Uighur concentration camps in Xinjiang.
But there’s a long way to go, says Browder, who still faces 18 years in a Russian prison camp if he ever returns to Moscow. The $230 million discovered by Magnitsky is just a fraction of Putin’s fortune, which is estimated at $200 billion. It hasn’t yet been used against Putin during the invasion of Ukraine, but in March, Human Rights First and almost 60 other civil society groups called on Congress to strengthen the Magnitsky Act so it could be used to punish recent atrocities.
Still, Putin hasn’t given up on demonizing Browder. When the European Union passed the European Magnitsky Act in late 2020, the Russian General Prosecutor’s Office held a press conference in Moscow, in which they accused Browder of forming a “transnational criminal group” that murdered Magnitsky using “a diversionary chemical substance containing aluminum compounds.”
After almost a decade of insisting that Magnitsky had died of natural causes, “the Russian government was claiming that Sergei had in fact been murdered,” Browder writes, “and that I was his murderer.”