There’s much that we don’t know about the bonds that tie Donald Trump, his campaign or his family to Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin. But there are some important clues that are mostly being overlooked. To follow the trail, it helps to recall that the Trumps are not the only American family whose tangled ties to the Kremlin contributed to our current mess.
In fact, no figure in this saga has a more tangled family relationship with the Kremlin than the London-based hedge fund manager Bill Browder. A major investor in Russia, Browder got himself into a deadly feud with the Putin regime a decade ago. It began with Browder, a brash young foreign investor, challenging the corrupt billionaire oligarchs who surround Putin and lord it over everyone else. It led eventually to Trump Tower, where a shadowy Russian lawyer met last year with Donald Trump’s son, son-in-law and presidential campaign manager to explore enlisting the Trumps on Putin’s side of the feud.
Along the way, the feud turned deadly in November 2009, when Browder’s Moscow lawyer and friend Sergei Magnitsky died in a Moscow prison after being held without charges for a year under barbaric conditions. From there the feud jumped to Capitol Hill, where Browder won passage in 2012 of the so-called Magnitsky Law imposing sanctions on the Putin cronies associated with the lawyer’s death. Putin, reportedly apoplectic over the new sanctions, retaliated by abruptly outlawing the popular practice of American couples adopting Russian orphans.
And from there the feud led to Trump Tower, where a Russian lawyer with Kremlin ties, Natalia Veselnitskaya, met in June 2016 with three of Donald Trump’s top associates: his son Donald Trump Jr., son-in-law Jared Kushner and presidential campaign manager Paul Manafort. Her goal was to enlist them in Putin’s effort to overturn the hated sanctions. The bait: an offer to supply damaging information on Hillary Clinton.
Trump Jr., when first questioned about the meeting, said the Russian wanted to talk about “Russian orphans.” That’s about right. “Orphans” is apparently Kremlin code for “Magnitsky sanctions.”
We don’t know what information about Clinton was on offer, but it was just weeks later that America was first bombarded with damaging Clinton information hacked from Democratic Party computers on Putin’s orders.
Examining the Browder-Kremlin feud thus seems to clear up at least some of the mystery surrounding the Trump-Kremlin relationship. To fully understand the Browder-Kremlin feud, though, it’s important to note that it’s much older than either Bill Browder or Vladimir Putin. It goes back to the time of Browder’s grandfather, Earl Browder, longtime head of the Communist Party USA.
The Kansas-born son of a Methodist preacher, Browder joined the Communist Party shortly after the party’s birth in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution. Rising quickly through the ranks, he took over in 1930 as general secretary, head of the party, and held the post until 1945. He led American communism through the Great Depression and World War II, the years when the party had its closest flirtation with respectability, thanks to its labor and civil rights activism in the 1930s and the U.S.-Soviet wartime alliance in the 1940s (just ignore that little interlude when Stalin was allied with Hitler). Browder ran for president twice on a Communist ticket, in 1936 and 1940. His running mate, James Ford, was the first African American ever to appear on any national presidential ticket.
Browder was probably the closest thing the party ever had to a popular national figure. In 1945, though, he was summarily deposed from party leadership on Stalin’s orders. He was expelled from the party a year later, in 1946. He returned home to Yonkers and lived out his life far from the public eye. He died in 1973, when grandson Bill Browder was 9.
The reason for Browder’s humiliating fall was his advocacy of what’s called Browderism: an effort to take American communism away from its conspiratorial, revolutionary roots and remake it as a sort of left-liberal reformism. The heresy was tolerable from Moscow’s viewpoint during the depression and war years, when Stalin needed the American public’s goodwill. Starting in 1945, though, he was gearing up for a long cold war against the capitalist West. The last straw came when Browder formally reorganized the party as a liberal civic association. Stalin needed it to remain a conspiratorial underground, available for infiltrating unions and stealing nuclear secrets.
That’s the history, in broad strokes. What remains unclear is what the impact was of Browder’s humiliation by Stalin on his grandson’s feud with Putin. Bill Browder sends out mixed signals.
He describes his childhood and his relationship with his grandfather at some length in a 2015 memoir, “Red Notice.” It’s a gripping account of his feud with Putin & Co., of Magnitsky’s tortured death and of Browder’s own growing outrage at Putin’s Russia, with its culture of casual brutality. The early part of the book, though, is a lighthearted tale of a normal childhood in a conventional suburban household of communists. It’s almost like two books. In the second half he has something he urgently wants to say. In the first half he has a lot that he seems unable to get out.
Bill Browder’s father, Felix Browder, was born in 1927 Moscow, where Earl Browder spent several years doing party work. While in Moscow, Earl Browder met and married Raisa Berkman, described by his grandson as “a Russian Jewish intellectual.” Felix Browder was the first of three sons. All three grew up to be distinguished mathematicians at Berkman’s encouragement. None had any role in public or political life. The reader infers that Berkman didn’t much like what politics did to her husband, and wishes Bill Browder had something to say on the topic. But he didn’t.
Felix Browder was married in 1949 to Eva Tislowitz, a child refugee from Nazi-ruled Vienna who was sent to America on her own, was raised in an American foster home and graduated from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Of himself, Bill Browder writes that he was an indifferent student, but he decided in high school that when he grew up he “would put on a suit and tie and become a capitalist. Nothing would piss my family off more than that.” He sounds like an utterly normal American teenager whose family just happened to be communists.
Reading between the lines of the memoir, the reader infers that Bill Browder’s Jewish upbringing was equally conventional, despite the family’s unconventional politics. He writes casually of his best friend as “a Jewish kid.” Similar phrasings pop up repeatedly when he interacts with a fellow Jew. Moving to London after college to learn investment banking, he affectionately describes his traditional wedding in London’s fashionable Marble Arch Synagogue. He writes of taking David, his son from his first, Jewish marriage, to spend Christmas with his second, non-Jewish family, and one senses his mild discomfort at celebrating the Christian holiday “even though David and I are Jewish.”
After working at several London investment houses he decides to set up his own hedge fund, specializing in post-communist Russia and Eastern Europe. Why Eastern Europe? It’s 1990, and communism is collapsing. “My grandfather had been the biggest communist in America,” he writes, “and as I watched these events unfold, I decided that I wanted to become the biggest capitalist in Eastern Europe.” He did, in fact. He became the biggest foreign investor in Russia, until Putin’s henchmen raided his offices, cleaned out his bank accounts and murdered his lawyer, Magnitsky.
But there’s a reticence in his Jewish narrative. One of his first jobs in London is with the investment operation of the publishing billionaire Robert Maxwell. As it happens, Maxwell was originally a Czech Jewish Holocaust survivor who fled and became a decorated British soldier, then helped in 1948 to set up the secret arms supply line to newly independent Israel from communist Czechoslovakia. He was also rumored to be a longtime Mossad agent. But you learn none of that from Browder’s memoir.
The silence is particularly striking because when Browder launches his own fund, he hires a former Israeli Mossad agent, Ariel, to set up his security operation, manned mainly by Israelis. Over time, Browder and Ariel become close. How did that connection come about? Was it through Maxwell? Wherever it started, the origin would add to the story. Why not tell it?
When Browder sets up his own fund, Hermitage Capital Management — named for the famed czarist-era St. Petersburg art museum, though that’s not explained either — his first investor is Beny Steinmetz, the Israeli diamond billionaire. Browder tells how Steinmetz introduced him to the Lebanese-Brazilian Jewish banking billionaire Edmond Safra, who invests and becomes not just a partner but also a mentor and friend.
Safra is also internationally renowned as the dean of Sephardi Jewish philanthropy; the main backer of Israel’s Shas party, the Sephardi Torah Guardians, and of New York’s Holocaust memorial museum, and a megadonor to Yeshiva University, Hebrew University, the Weizmann Institute and much more. Browder must have known all that. Considering the closeness of the two, it’s surprising that none of it gets mentioned.
It’s possible that Browder’s reticence about his Jewish connections is simply another instance of the inarticulateness that seizes so many American Jews when they try to address their Jewishness. It’s a topic they don’t much think about. Anyway, Browder has so much to say on another topic of vital importance, Russian brutality, that it may be pointless to pick on the parts he left out. It could be, too, that Earl Browder was an early example of what’s now a widespread phenomenon — a Jewish-gentile marriage that has not a Jew marrying out of the Jewish community but a gentile marrying in. If we’re looking at a Methodist preacher’s son who became America’s most important communist and then settled down to raise a suburban Jewish family, it’s a great story, but not an urgent one. We don’t need Bill Browder to tell it.
There was a moment, however, when Browder seemed to let down the veil just a bit and show a hint of his inner turmoil regarding his own background. It came in a 2012 interview with New Republic writer Julia Ioffe, who is herself a Russian Jewish émigré. Browder was in Washington at the time, lobbying for his Magnitsky Act. Ioffe suggested there was a certain irony that he, an American-born expat, naturalized British, who’d voluntarily and unnecessarily renounced his U.S. citizenship, was now looking to Washington for moral leadership on the world stage.
“I don’t want to get into this too much,” Ioffe quotes Browder as saying, “but we came from a family that was persecuted in America, so I don’t have the same sort of, uh…. We were communists and we were persecuted in the McCarthy era.”
He added that “in a certain way, now I’m being politically persecuted in Russia.” And, Ioffe notes, he recalled that his grandfather “was kicked out of the Communist Party by Stalin, and they started killing all the people who were supporters of Browderism.”
That’s a far cry from the Grandpa-was-a-bigshot-commie approach that he would later take in his memoir. There’s a pain there. He comes from a family of American communists who’ve been spurned and betrayed by both America and communism. Nothing lighthearted about it.
In 2012, even in 2015, one could say it’s all Bill Browder’s private business. A casual observer might wonder whether and how much his battle with the Putin regime reflected an ancient grudge resurfacing across the generations, but there was nothing urgent about it. Now the stakes have changed. It could be, far-fetched though it seems, that the crisis in American governance exploding before us right now is just the latest twist in an old grudge match between the Soviet dictator and the sad, betrayed world of American Jewish communist idealism. That’s something we need to know about.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).