A Family in History

The strange odyssey of the Browders

Editor’s Note: This is an expanded version of a piece we published in our January 22 issue.

Ten years ago, at the home of Robert Agostinelli, the financier and National Review trustee, I met Bill Browder. Browder, too, is a financier, and he was soon to be famous as a truth-telling foe of the Putin regime. “Any relation?” I asked him. He said, “To Earl Browder?”

I thought this was puzzling, because who else could I have meant? Anyway, it transpired that Browder was indeed related — he is the grandson of Earl Browder. “My grandfather was the biggest Communist in America,” Bill remarked, “and I became the biggest capitalist in Russia.”

Earl Browder was head of the CPUSA — the American Communist party — in the 1930s and ’40s. Bill Browder created his hedge fund, Hermitage, in 1996. The Kremlin turned on him hard in 2005, declaring him persona non grata. He had been a thorn in the side of Putin’s oligarchs. In 2008, the authorities arrested Browder’s fearless and whistleblowing lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky. They tortured him to death. Real slow, over the course of a year.

That began Browder’s career as a human-rights activist.

At the end of 2016, I read an obituary of Felix Browder, Bill’s father. I then realized why Bill had asked me, those years ago, to be more specific — to be more specific when I asked, “Any relation?” Felix Browder was one of the greatest mathematicians in the world. I don’t know from mathematicians. But others do, and they sometimes ask Bill, “Any relation?”

Earl Browder and his wife, Raisa, had three children, three boys. The first, Felix, became chairman of the math department at Chicago. The second, Andrew, became chairman of the math department at Brown. The third, William, became chairman of the math department at Princeton. And there is more Browder talent where that came from.

Let’s go back to Earl. He was born in 1891 in Wichita, Kan., which is also the home of the Kochs, those illustrious capitalists. America obviously gives birth to many types. Earl’s father was a schoolteacher and a populist — who was kicked out of the school system on account of his populism. He then opened a café. This establishment served, among other people, black people, which was uncommon and scandalous at the time.

Browder went bust, and his children had to leave school and go to work. Earl did this before he was ten. He would educate himself in other ways.

A radical, Earl first went to the Soviet Union in 1921. The dream of Communism excited people from all over the world. He was in the Soviet Union in 1926 when he married Raisa — Raisa Berkman, a lawyer from Leningrad. Their first two sons were born in Moscow. In 1932, Earl returned with his family to America, setting up shop in Yonkers, N.Y. The third son, William, was born in ’34.

By the way, Bill Browder, the investor and activist, was not named after his uncle, the mathematician. He was named after Shakespeare, having been born on the 400th anniversary of the writer’s birth (April 23, 1964).

When the Browders decamped from Moscow to New York, they brought with them a nanny, who stayed with the family for the rest of her life — some 40 years. Andrew’s daughter Laura, a professor at the University of Richmond, discovered something in the KGB archives: The dear nanny had been a spy, charged with keeping tabs on Earl. Of course.

Earl coined the famous (or infamous) slogan “Communism is 20th-century Americanism.” He ran for president in 1936, getting some 80,000 votes. That was a lot fewer than his fellow Kansan, Alf Landon, the Republican nominee, got — but they both lost big to FDR. In 1938, Browder was on the cover of Time magazine, as “Comrade Earl Browder.” He again ran for president in 1940, faring worse than he had in ’36: He got about 50,000 votes.

In the summer of 1939, the Soviets had made their pact with the Nazis, meaning that the Communists in America were in particularly bad odor. In early ’41, the U.S. government sent Browder to prison on technicalities: passport fraud. But that summer, Hitler double-crossed Stalin, and the United States would soon be allies with Uncle Joe. Molotov, the foreign minister, was expected in Washington. In advance of the visit, FDR commuted Browder’s sentence as a goodwill gesture.

“I was released by President Roosevelt personally,” said Browder toward the end of his life. “It was a political pardon.”

Here is a billboard from 1943, in an image sent to me by Browder’s grandson Bill:

After the war, Earl Browder got on the wrong side of Moscow and was expelled from the American party. That was always happening: If you were a Communist, you never knew what would get you on the wrong side of the Kremlin — until it did. The line was often changing faster than you could keep up.

I once asked Eugene Genovese, the American historian, why he was kicked out of the party (which he was in 1950, at 20). He shrugged and said, “I zigged when I should have zagged.”

Genovese was present on March 30, 1950, at New York’s Webster Hall for the famous debate between Browder and Max Shachtman, the head of the Independent Socialist League. Browder was still defending Stalin and the Kremlin, no matter what. Shachtman lit into him, saying the only reason Browder was still alive — instead of done in by Stalin — was that he was safe on American shores.

Here is Shachtman, talking about Browder: “When I saw him standing there at the podium, I said to myself: Rajk was the general secretary of the Hungarian Communist party and was shot, or hanged, or garroted. Kostov was the general secretary of the Bulgarian Communist party. And when I thought of what happened to them, I thought of the former secretary of the American Communist party, and I said to myself: There but for an accident of geography stands a corpse!”

(Rajk was never head of the Hungarian party — he was in charge of the secret police and then foreign affairs — but close enough.)

(In my presence, Gene Genovese imitated Shachtman, making the famous statement quoted above. Genovese was a superb mimic. “Shachtman had a face like a pig,” he told me, “and he talked that way.” He was also a phenomenal rhetorician, said Genovese.)

In the last 25 years of his life, Earl Browder did a little of this, a little of that. He wrote books, articles, and pamphlets. It was hard for him to find work. As his grandson Bill says, “The Communists didn’t like him,” because he was persona non grata, “and America didn’t like him,” because he was Earl Browder, the onetime Communist chief. So, “he was basically supported by his family.”

He died in 1973, having spent his final years with his son Bill in Princeton. They lived at 21 Maple Street. In my mind, that is such a homespun American address for a Communist who had been a world figure and had shaken the hand of Lenin, his hero.

Bill Browder — the younger one — was nine years old when his grandfather died. He remembers him as a genial white-haired fellow, smoking a pipe, working amid a pile of books. Occasionally Bill would sit on his lap.

Now, imagine yourself in the position of Raisa Berkman Browder, a Russian mother, and a Russian-Jewish mother at that. Forget Communism and politics. Your highest aspiration for your sons is that they succeed in the most rigorous academics — that they become top mathematicians or something like that. You steer them that way.

Well, the three Browder boys rewarded their mother in spades.

Felix entered MIT at 16. He had his bachelor’s degree in two years. By 20, he had his Ph.D. from Princeton. When he was 25, in 1953, he was called up for the draft. This is a peculiar story, like most Browder stories.

Felix was working at the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton, though he was not the most distinguished researcher: That was Einstein. In the ordinary course of things, the director of the institute would have signed a letter in behalf of the young genius, asking for a deferment. But the director was J. Robert Oppenheimer, who was under suspicion for Communism. He felt queasy about signing a letter for Earl Browder’s son.

Was Felix a Communist? The question came up at a hearing of the House Un-American Activities Committee. One of his undergraduate professors testified that Felix was not a party member — and, moreover, that Felix had been the best math student in the history of MIT (founded in 1861). Bill Browder affirms that his father was not a Communist. Rather, he was “a hard-core leftist professor,” like all the others. “I never met one who wasn’t,” says Bill.

Felix was indeed drafted into the Army. Not trusted with sensitive work, he spent two years pumping gas at Fort Bragg. This was not all bad, says Bill: Felix worked on his math and, for the first and only time in his life, was around regular folks.

After his service as a gas-station attendant, Felix applied for a job at Brandeis — where the math department was thrilled to have him but where the board of trustees balked. The son of Earl Browder? Lucky for Felix, Eleanor Roosevelt was chairman of the board, and she used a word that was highly significant at the time: “un-American.” It would be “un-American,” she said, “to deny a great scientist his profession because of who his father was.” He got the job and went on with his glittering career.

In 1999, he became the president of the American Mathematical Society. (One of his brothers, Bill, had already served in the job.) The next year, he received from President Clinton the National Medal of Science. The citation said that Felix had “played a key role in the explosive growth of nonlinear functional analysis and its applications to partial differential equations in recent years.”

Felix Browder was known for, among other things, his library: over 35,000 books. He read them all too, at least once. They covered virtually every topic under the sun, in several languages. “I am interested in everything,” Felix said, “and my library reflects all my interests.” The library has not been disposed of, scattered hither and yon. Bill (Felix’s son) is keeping it intact, as a memorial to his father, and for new generations of Browders to enjoy.

Felix Browder (Photo: Rutgers University)

Felix and his wife, Eva, had another child besides Bill: their son Tom. He entered the University of Chicago at 15. Today, he is a leading particle physicist, dividing his time between Hawaii and Japan, searching for the origin of the universe.

I ask Bill, “Do you have a mathematical mind?” “No,” he says, “I’m the dummy in the family.” Color me skeptical. To begin with, he is one of the world’s leading financiers. And I will quote Felix, who in 2000 said, “Computers are fundamentally mathematical, as is biotechnology. The problems of physics are increasingly mathematical in nature, and finance, in its global complexity, is mathematical as well.”

Bill was a rebellious kid, and he figured out how to rebel against a family of leftists: become a capitalist. He majored in economics at Chicago, whose department was a den of free-marketeers. After a stint at Bain & Company, he went to Stanford for an MBA. He then went to work for the Boston Consulting Group. He was interested in Eastern Europe, and just about the only one who was. Soon, the Berlin Wall fell, and Browder was off to the races.

These days, he goes around the world campaigning for “Magnitsky acts” — laws in honor of the murdered lawyer. These laws apply sanctions to human-rights abusers in Russia. They freeze their assets and deny them visas. There are now five Magnitsky acts, the latest having been adopted by Lithuania in November. The first was the American act, adopted in 2012. Boris Nemtsov, looking on in the House gallery, called it “the most pro-Russian law ever enacted by a foreign government.” What he meant, of course, was that those who persecuted, stole from, and killed Russians were at last being penalized, in some fashion. No longer would these thugs and thieves operate with impunity.

Nemtsov, you recall, was the leader of the opposition to Putin in Russia — murdered in 2015 within sight of the Kremlin.

Bill Browder has gotten under Putin’s skin. Putin denounces him, by name. And harasses him day after day. On a recent morning, Browder was late in calling me because he had to deal with something new: A Russian court had sentenced him, in absentia, to nine years in prison. The charge: deliberate bankruptcy and tax evasion. But Browder has had to deal with far worse.

In an act of shocking gall, the Russian state is investigating Browder for the murder of Magnitsky — and three other men. Thus do the murderers finger the champion of the murdered. The word “Kafkaesque” can’t possibly cover it. Putin’s predecessors in the KGB would grin in admiration.

Try to wrap your mind around this: The Russian state won’t concede that Magnitsky was murdered. They say he died of natural causes. Nonetheless, Bill Browder sneaked into Russia, from which he had been banned. Infiltrated the prisons. And murdered his own lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky — possibly with his bare hands.

Got it?

Three years ago, Browder published a book called “Red Notice,” relating his experiences. It is dedicated to Sergei Magnitsky, “the bravest man I’ve ever known.” Magnitsky was indeed brave — unfathomably brave, to blow the whistle on these thieves, as he did. But Browder has been brave himself. He could have walked away, tending his millions, but instead he has put himself in the crosshairs of one of the most powerful and ruthless governments on earth.

“It’s interesting,” says Browder. “I live a normal life in that I still take my kids to school and try to go on the treadmill and try to make sure everyone’s got their birthday present on time and all that. Life goes on in a normal way — 95 percent of the time.” The other 5 percent is hair-raising.

In Moscow, they have a poster hanging on a building. It shows Browder as a British manipulator — he took U.K. citizenship in 1998 — with Alexei Navalny as his little dog, on a leash. Navalny is now the leader of the political opposition to Putin. Needless to say, Navalny is banned from running for president. Here is that poster, a specimen of Soviet-style propaganda:

Why not end with yet another generation of Browders, in the person of Bill’s son Joshua? “He was clearly blessed with a great intellect at a very early age,” says Bill, not only out of paternal pride but also as a matter of simple, honest reporting. “He tended not to do the things that all the other kids were doing. He was always scheming up new ventures and ideas for how to change the world.”

A playwright — the one Bill was named after — had a line: “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” Well, Joshua is doing this in a way. He is an undergrad at Stanford and is figuring out how to get artificial intelligence to perform a variety of legal tasks. This will save a lot of people a lot of money. It will also cost a lot of lawyers a lot of money. In any event, Silicon Valley has a keen interest in what Josh is doing.

In an article for MIT Technology Review, Josh said, “It should never be a hassle to engage in a legal process, and it should never be a question of who can afford to pay. It should be a question of what’s the right outcome, of getting justice.” Earl Browder, possibly, would smile at that.

Joshua is a poster child, quite literally. IBM put him on a poster as a tech phenom, and that poster appeared in Times Square (New York) last summer. (See it below.) So, the family Browder presses on.



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