Flipping through the cable news stations last Saturday morning, I came across an amusing sight at Russia-frenzied MSNBC. There was the stern host Joy Reid ("#AM Joy") giving a concerned and sympathetic interview to William Browder, a worried multimillionaire financier who said that Vladimir Putin wants to murder him.
"Are you afraid, Bill?" Joy Reid asked, "are you taking precautions for your safety?"
"Am I at risk of being killed by Vladimir Putin's regime? Yes," Browder said, adding that there's not much he can do "if they're going to use chemical weapons to put poison on my door knob."
The grandson (hilariously enough) of former US Communist Party General Secretary Earl Browder (a dutiful servant of the Soviet Union during the Great Depression and World War II), Browder is one of at least two "Americans" (including former US Russian ambassador Michael McFaul) Putin told Donald Trump he wants sent to Moscow for questioning by Russian investigators. Trump nodded approvingly as Putin discussed Browder's theft of Russian assets during the Russian president's joint press conference with Trump in Helsinki last Monday. Trump initially said he was willing to consider Putin's request.
Two days before his appearance on "AM Joy," Browder was given time on CNN. "To hand me over to Putin," Browder told CNN host Kate Boldua ...is basically to hand me over to my death... The Russians...they'd like to get me back to Russia ... and once I'm back in Russia, they would like to kill me. Anything that begins that process is effectively a death sentence for me."
Will masses of U.S-Americans rise to the great patriotic cause of protecting William Browder from death in Putin's Russia? Not likely. Communist patrilineage aside (we don't choose our grandparents), the Chicago-born William Browder isn't actually a U.S.-American. He hasn't been since 1998, when he became an American expatriate by re-"domiciling" to Britain in order to avoid paying US taxes on foreign investments.
Something tells me that Sam Adams and his Boston Tea Party compatriots would think twice before rallying to the defense of William Browder.
Making Browder an even less likely American hero, Browder was for many years a top Russian kleptocrat, albeit one of a very curious kind.
Why does the former KGB official Vladimir Putin hate William Browder? Is it all because of Earl Browder's misleadership of the American proletariat during the 1930s and 1940s? (That was a joke.) No, it's about how Browder conducted his affairs when he swept into Russia and became a ruthless, spectacularly wealthy Russian financial oligarch in the wake of the Soviet Union's collapse. Backed by the mobbed-up global investors and money launderers Edmond Safra and Beny Steinmetz, Browder's firm, Hermitage Capital, became the leading foreign investment portfolio in Boris Yeltsin's Russia. Browder made a fortune off the collapse of Russian socialism, filling his coffers while the collapse of social protections and the advance of the so-called free market drastically increased Russian mortality. Browder profited from the great sell-off of Russian public and natural resources while ordinary Russians struggled with U.S-led capitalist "shock therapy."
There was a brief specter haunting Browder's success by the mid-1990s. Yeltsin's opponent in the 1996 Russian election was the communist Gennady Zyuganov, who threatened to re-expropriate privatized Russian companies. That would have called off the great plutocratic dispossession and enclosure that was fueling the rise of a new state-capitalist oligarchy in Russia. Browder's his wealth. "I can stomach strikes, food shortages, and street crime," Browder (still technically a U.S. citizen) said, "but not government expropriation."
A great statement of Western capitalist humanism: Browder could have dealt with people starving and mugging each other in the streets, but the Russian government taking back public resources he and other capitalist oligarchs had stolen was too much.
Faced with the specter of Zyuganov, Browder, Safra, Steinmetz and more native Russian oligarchs joined their normally contentious deep pockets hands long enough ensure the drunken Yeltsin's re-election. The United States helped Yeltsin win with a little "election meddling" of the right kind --election meddling conducted by the United States.
How did Browder make it on to the poison-door-knob sh*t list of "the world's most powerful man" (according to CNN's Fareed Zakaria), the Russian president? Putin didn't and doesn't mind cold-blooded and hard-nosed wealth acquisition. He's all in with gangster state capitalism.
Still, callous fortune accumulation in Russia must proceed according to Putin's dictates and on Putin's terms. Browder broke two of Putin's rules. First, he violated Russian national sovereignty concerns by using Russian front-men to circumvent restrictions means to prevent foreigners from gaining control over Russian oil and gas.