BILL BROWDER MAY SEEM LIKE A MILD MANNERED FINANCIER, BUT HE'S perhaps nemesis number one for Russian President Vladimir Putin. The 53-year-old is the CEO of Hermitage Capital Management, once the largest foreign investor in Russia. But in 2006, the authorities kicked him out of the country, calling him a threat to national security. The American-born hedge fund manager, however, claims he was booted for exposing corruption. Browder’s partner in that effort: his tax lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, who was imprisoned and died behind bars. Browder says that the charges against his attorney were false—and that he was murdered. And in 2012, the financier became the driving force behind the Magnitsky Act, a U.S. law that slapped sanctions on Russian oligarchs—to Putin’s great ire.
Canada has since passed similar legislation, and Moscow convicted Browder of tax fraud in absentia. In October, the Kremlin put him on Interpol’s international police watch list—and accused him of murdering Magnitsky. (Browder calls the charge absurd.) Either way, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security briefly banned him in late October after the Russians had him placed on the Interpol list. In a telephone interview from London, Browder spoke to Newsweek about Putin, corruption and his family’s history with the American Communist Party.
Has your travel problem been cleared up?
The U.S. visa part has been cleared up. The part that’s not been cleared up is that...i have not heard from Interpol that they deleted the notice from their system. So there’s two countries I can safely travel to now. One is Canada, and the other is the United States. Beyond that, if I cross over into any other country with an Interpol notice hanging over my head, I will be arrested. [After this interview, Browder tweeted that Interpol blocked the Russian warrant.]
What was Magnitsky like?
Sergei Magnitsky was an incredibly intelligent, principled and idealistic man. He was in jail, really, as my proxy, and so it was impossible for me to sleep. I felt guilty taking a shower because I knew he couldn’t.
You weren’t always Putin’s enemy, right?
I had a rose-colored glasses view of Putin in his first couple of years—primarily because the situation was so chaotic at the end of the [Boris] Yeltsin era, so that everybody, including myself, was looking for some kind of order. Instead of getting rid of the concept of oligarchs, he just became the biggest oligarch himself.
You renounced your American citizenship in the ’90s and moved to London. Why?
My grandfather was an American Communist, and he married my grandmother, who was a Russian Communist. During the 1950s, the Mccarthy era, my family was viciously persecuted. [When] my grandmother was dying of cancer... the U.S .... wanted to deport her back to Russia. It just left a legacy of bad feeling about the rule of law. Things can swing wildly in the wrong direction from time to time. And in a certain way, we’re sort of seeing that right now.
Would you ever move back?
I’ve made my choice. Do you have hope for Russia? No, I’m highly pessimistic. Right now, it’s an authoritarian regime. It’s headed towards a totalitarian regime. Putin is terrified of losing power, and the only way he can stay in power is to turn the screws tighter on the people.