'I Couldn't Let Those Emotions Get the Better of Me'
We spoke with financier and best-selling author Bill Browder to discuss his relentless pursuit for justice in Russia and overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds.
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His asset management company’s office in Russia had been raided, his law firm’s too.
So American financier Bill Browder hired a tax lawyer to investigate why.
But when Sergei Magnitsky began to probe the factors that triggered the raids, he was picked up by Russian authorities — and soon died in prison after being tortured.
Holding Russia accountable for Magnitsky’s death became Browder’s cause in the coming years — as he aggressively lobbied U.S. Congress to pass the Magnitsky Act, punishing Russia for human rights violations. Browder later penned two books on his dramatic experiences.
The Daily Coach recently caught up with him recently to discuss his relentless pursuit of justice, keeping emotions in check amidst chaos, and overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Bill, thanks a lot for doing this. The details in your books are truly amazing. How did you go about keeping such meticulous notes when you had no idea you were going to write a book?
First of all, I have a very visual memory, which helped in coming up with these descriptions of events that happened. When I think about situations and places I’ve been, particularly when it’s a traumatic situation, it all gets imprinted in my memory.
The other thing I’d say is we all have a huge amount of information at our fingertips in the form of emails, Tweets, Instagram posts, YouTube video, court transcripts. We have all sorts of corroborating information and corroborating detail that helps.
The third thing is if any of these situations in my book involved other people, I always went to the other people and interviewed them and asked them for their recollection. By putting all three things together, I was able to come up with a very granular and detailed recollection of things that happened.
There’s a concept from the New Zealand All-Blacks rugby team called “finding the gap” and seeking a non-obvious advantage. You really seemed to do that with your work. How did you go about “finding the gap?”
First off, it wasn’t just me. It was a team effort. I had a very motivated team of people working for me who had all known and worked with Sergei before. Every single one of us was heartbroken by his death and outraged at the impunity. The level of motivation to get justice was so much higher than any other motivation for doing anything.
When you have a group of people who are motivated who also are talented and ready to work literally every night into the night, every weekend through the weekend, looking for every opportunity in every situation, every weakness of the opponent over a decade-long period of a campaign… we were able to find all of the weaknesses of the Russian government.
We were able to see all of the failings and opportunities for justice. We just kept on pushing and pushing until “the gap” emerged, and it did in a variety of ways.
In your second book, you talk about having your flute stolen as a young kid and how that impacted you on this journey. Reading both books, it was hard to figure out who was on each team. Everyone seemed to have an agenda. How did you make sense of this?
Every step of the way, people had agendas. In Russia, when I was investing, the oligarch had an agenda of stealing money. When Sergei Magnitsky was arrested, the criminals had an agenda of hiding their crimes. After Sergei was killed, the entire Russian government had an agenda of covering it up. As we lobbied for justice in the West, the West had an agenda, for the most part, of trying to appease Russia to do more business.
At each step, we had to figure out what the weaknesses were and where we could overcome the agenda. But we discovered that publicizing the corruption of the oligarchs with the international media created leverage. When Sergei Magnitsky was arrested, the leverage came from understanding why they arrested him and what the crime was they committed. The Russian government was trying to cover up the crime. We had to find ways of finding external information, proving their cover up was false, and when the West and U.S. government in particular were trying to appease Russia, we had to shame them into doing the right thing.
Your poise throughout seemed remarkable. Is that something you’ve always had or is it something you’ve learned?
You can’t really react too emotionally to these situations because if you do, you’ll make a mistake. What (American lawyer) John Moscow did was unforgivable. It was the ultimate betrayal. He was my lawyer trying to help us as victims of a terrible crime in which a man was killed, then switched sides to become a lawyer for the perpetrator of a crime, then tried to terrorize us, his former client. That was unforgivable.
Of course, I had every high emotions in my own head when the whole thing was going on, but I couldn’t let those emotions get the better of me. It required being deliberate, consistent and unemotional. I don’t know if I acquired this skill or if I had it all along, but the process took a long time. If I had gotten emotional, I probably would’ve given him the upper hand. I couldn’t allow that to happen.
You have a great line that applies to all leaders. You say “Acting irrationally for smart people isn’t something that’s normal. It means they have more information than you do.”
Of course, there are people who are irrational. But generally, if you look at the behavior of governments or organizations or high-level individuals, they always act in their own interests…
When people say, “That person is acting crazy” or not acting rational, I’m almost always sure that isn’t the case, that they’re not acting irrationally, that they’re acting on a set of objectives and information that perhaps, when you look at it from the outside, you don’t have access to all of that information.
If you had access to all of the information, then their actions would make sense. They may not make sense for how you would act, but it makes sense for how they would act.
The Magnitsky Act getting passed for you was your Super Bowl win. But you didn’t stop there. Where do you find the energy to continue doing this in other countries?
In my case, the motivation for carrying on is the burden of guilt and responsibility I feel for the murder of Sergei Magnitsky. He was 37 years old when he died. He left a wife and two children and was tortured to death. All of this happened because he was my lawyer and worked for me. If he hadn’t been my lawyer and hadn’t worked for me, he’d still be alive today.
That feeling of responsibility and the burden of responsibility weighs on me today as much as it did 13.5 years ago when he was killed. That is the motivation that keeps me going. Unlike in sports or other things, the passage of the U.S. Magnitsky Act, I felt pride and satisfaction that we passed it, but the day afterward, we got to work on the next one. It wasn’t like we were basking in any type of glory. We were just moving ahead. The reason we were able to do that was the enormous burden of guilt and responsibility from Sergei Magnitsky’s death.
The other thing that stands out from your books is your ability to second-order think and consider what problems a solution may bring. Is that innate in you or how did it come about?
They say necessity is the mother of invention. We had a very strong necessity to get to the bottom of all of this and find out who was benefitting from this crime, who financially benefitted, who was involved in the cover up, which Westerners were involved in the conspiracy to cover it up. It’s like anything else. If you push hard enough, you find all of the things you need to find.
This was a life-and-death fight for us. It wasn’t just for Sergei Magnitsky. They were interested in killing me and my other colleagues. When you have that kind of motivation, you’ll find every first, second and third-order issue that comes out of this. To find it will keep you alive. To overlook it will lead to your death. We all wanted to stay alive for obvious reasons.
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