The Browder Family and Russia's Leaders

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A communist man holds the national flag of Russia, whose human rights record has often been criticized. Alexander Natruskin / Reuters-Corbis

Had you asked Stalin about Earl Browder, he would have snorted in derision. Ask Putin about Bill Browder, and the reaction will be the same. The Browder family's tortured relationship with Russian leaders is worthy of a Ken Follett novel.

Earl Browder was the leader of the Communist Party USA in the 1930s and during World War II. A Stalin worshiper, he wielded immense influence in the trade-union movement, which grew in power as America's war machine sucked in millions of industrial workers. During the years of the Hitler-Stalin pact, Browder was a class warrior opposing the "imperialist" war between Britain and Germany. With the Soviet and American entry into the war in 1941, he used his communist machine to lash U.S. workers into heroic feats of output. But as the wartime love-in between Stalin and Roosevelt turned into U.S.-Soviet rivalry and the Cold War, Browder was dismissed by Stalin for not understanding quickly enough the change in line. Instead he and his son, Felix, a brilliant mathematician, fell victim to McCarthyism, living shrunken lives in the anticommunist hysteria of the 1950s.

Earl Browder's grandson Bill grew up as an all-American boy with a head for figures and a fascination for the Russia of his grandmother's birth. After a Stanford M.B.A. he went to Salomon Brothers at the start of the great privatization bonanza of the 1990s, when nearly half of Russia's wealth was transferred to two dozen oligarchs. He went into business for himself and built a $4.5 billion investment fund. Such money was too tempting for the kleptocrats around Putin, who had no qualms squeezing the super-rich with threats of jail or exile. What happened to Bill Browder is a cautionary tale for European leaders like President Nicolas Sarkozy, Chancellor Angela Merkel, and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who have decided to embrace Russia despite its human-rights record, and to President Obama, whose reset strategy is meant to inspire Russia to cooperate with the West on Iran and Afghanistan.

Browder avoided a spell in the Putlag, as Russians now call the prison network where Putin dumps his opponents. Instead he was expelled from Russia in 2005 as a "threat to national security." He paid a $230 million tax bill and exiled himself to London. But in 2007 the Russians moved against Browder's residual one-secretary office in Moscow and charged him in absentia with failing to pay a debt, which he claims he knew nothing about. He hired the best lawyers in Moscow to defend him and investigate fraud by Russian officials trying to squeeze him for cash. The response of the state was to arrest his chief lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, who died from 12 months of mistreatment in a Moscow jail.

Browder gets regular death threats in London, yet he is pressing hard to bring Magnitsky's killers to justice. On Nov. 16 the U.S. Senate, the British House of Commons, the Canadian and German Parliaments, and other legislative bodies hosted public meetings on the anniversary of Magnitsky's death. British Prime Minister David Cameron has officially recognized Browder's complaint about Magnitsky. The European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee voted 50–0 for the EU to blacklist 60 Russian functionaries who were involved in the torture and death of Magnitsky and the fraud he uncovered. Earl Browder was determined to convince Americans of the virtues of socialism and Stalin; Bill is equally passionate about exposing what he calls the "evil" of a new Russian system that can casually put a respected lawyer to death.

Russia now ranks below Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Nigeria in Transparency International's listings of the most corrupt nations. Valery Zorkin, president of the Russian Constitutional Court, has admitted that his country is "something of a rogue state" in the international legal community. Anthony Brenton, Britain's ambassador to Russia until 2008, notes with considerable understatement that "it would be much more comfortable" to live in a world that could trust Russia to respect the norms of international law and human rights. The WikiLeaks exposure of U.S. government views on the links between the Russian state and crime only bring into the open what every diplomat talks about privately.

Russia without the rule of law is unlikely to be a full partner for the democratic world. Earl Browder wanted to impose Russian communism on the West. His grandson is determined that Western rule of law will one day arrive in Russia. He deserves more Western support.

MacShane is a British M.P. and a former minister for Europe.