by Bill Browder
Published by Simon and Schuster, 2015 Non-Fiction
Reviewed by Bruce Bodden
Bill Browder tells his own harrowing story of pioneering capitalism in the rough and corrupt business world of Russia in the years following the breakup of the Soviet Union. The book’s cover promises, “a true story of high finance, murder, and one man’s fight for justice.” And quite a story it is!
Bill stumbled into the world of commerce out of a perverse desire to rebel against a family background of child prodigies in science, academia, mathematics and communism! That’s right. His grandfather, after distinguishing himself as a trade unionist from Kansas, was recruited by the USSR. After returning to America with his Russian wife and young family, he became the head of the American Communist Party and twice ran for President.
Growing up in a climate of academia and socialism, young Bill, who was decidedly not academically inclined, decided that the best way to rebel against this background was to embrace a career in commerce; specifically, to become a rich and successful “Capitalist”. So Bill eventually gets on track and applies himself, graduating from Stanford and joins the Wall Street scene.
After gaining a few years of experience, he sets his sights on becoming an investor in the privatization of Eastern Europe. Early on he sees a great opportunity to exploit the undervalued investments in the eastern block and eventually finds some backing and sets up his own hedge fund in Russia. His firm, Hermitage Capital Management after some ups and downs went on to become the largest foreign investor in Russia ($4.5b) and for many years, shot out the proverbial lights.
Browder tells us an entertaining story about putting together big deals, making unimaginable profits, and describes the trials and adventures of operating in a fledgling capitalist economy where the rules are open to interpretation at the best of times and abuse the rest. As much fun as all this is, we know early on, that things are going to turn nasty, very nasty. No happy ending is in sight.
I found the book to be totally engrossing; not just the illegal reactions of the Russian Government, the corruption, arrests, torture and murder, but equally so, Browder’s tireless efforts to seek justice and response from the western world.
The inner workings of the Russian administration, courts and police, (from prison guards to Vladimir Putin himself) are shocking, but also, the complexity of politics in the Western world and specifically in the US, where Browder finally turns for help, is also intriguing.
As hard as it is to feel much sympathy for Browder, a brash and aggressive investment maverick, who operates opportunistically in a foreign country, he is convincing as a driven activist railing against injustice and seeking retribution for the death of his friend Sergei Magnitsky. He wins us over as an unlikely convert to the cause of international human rights.
Finally, Browder strips bare any respectable trappings of Russia and its administration. Such a contrast from the extravagant show of the Sochi Olympics to the real world of deceit, corruption and desperation in Russia. We gain insight into a untrustworthy, brutal regime run by a few excessively rich gangsters led by a mad man. A good place to avoid, but never ignore.
March, published in 2005, was the 2006 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. The author, Geraldine Brooks is an Australian, and now an American citizen. She is a former journalist and war correspondent. Brooks lives with her husband and son in Virginia on the edge of the civil war battlefield that is part of the action in the novel.
During renovations in the courtyard of her home a belt buckle that had belonged to a Union Officer was found. This prompted Brooks to begin developing the plan for her novel.
This is the back story of Peter March, a Union Army Chaplain, who was also the absent father and husband from the novel “Little Women” written by Louisa May Alcott. The persona of Reverend March was based loosely upon Louisa May’s father Amos Branson Alcott- an abolitionist, vegetarian, commune founder (Fruitland) and a colleague of Emerson and Thoreau.
The reader follows March while serving as a Chaplain during the Civil War. He is confronted by the horrors of war, the evil that was slavery and the brutality of his fellow man. March almost loses his life and definitely his innocence. His writings home gradually generate memories that reveal his past and his struggles with his moral certainty and his beliefs. The first person narrative is shared with the journey of his spirited wife Marmee as she strives to not only save her husband but also to deal with her own jealousy and resentment.
The novel also describes March’s early life and his days as a travelling salesman. His travels take him to a large southern estate where he meets Grace, a beautiful and educated slave. His fascination with this woman and his well intentioned effort to encourage literacy among the children of the slaves goes awry. It is Grace who suffers. Later in the novel, during the Civil War, his destiny brings him back to Grace when he is in great need both physically and spiritually.
The novel contains a number of scenes with violence and brutality. The factual content depicted in “March” is a far cry from the tone of “Little Women” but this is a story told through the lens of the 21st century by an experienced war correspondent-not the domestic drama of 1868-1869 written by Louisa May Alcott. Geraldine Brooks is an avid researcher and her use of these scenes is designed to further the theme.
Little Women was originally published as two volumes and was based upon the adventures of Alcott and her three sisters.
Geraldine Brooks has written a number of novels including Year of Wonders (about the plague and famine in 1666 Ireland), People of the Book (a story of war and intrigue that begins with a restoration project of a rare book rescued from the Bosnian Civil War in the 1990’s), Caleb’s Crossing and her newest novel is The Secret Chord about the life and times of biblical King David. She is also the author of several non fiction books including Nine Parts of Desire and Foreign Correspondence as well as numerous journal articles. Brooks is known for her intense background research.
Submitted by Jennifer Milne, Member of the Vankoughnet Book Club