Magazine | January 22, 2018, Issue

A Family in History

The strange odyssey of the Browders

Ten years ago, I met Bill Browder, soon to be world-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. Who else could I have meant? Anyway, Bill was indeed the grandson of Earl Browder. “My grandfather was the biggest Communist in America,” he said, “and I became the biggest capitalist in Russia.”

Earl Browder was head of 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 — and tortured him to death. Slow, over the course of a year. This began Browder’s career as a human-rights activist.

A year ago, I read an obituary of Felix Browder, Bill’s father. I then realized why Bill had asked me 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.) He was, for example, chairman of the math department at Chicago.

Earl Browder had two more children, two more sons: Andrew and William. The former became the chairman of the math department at Brown; the latter became chairman of the department at Princeton. And there’s more Browder talent where that came from.

But back to Earl — who was born in 1891 in Wichita, Kan. Wichita is also the home of the Kochs, the illustrious capitalists. America gives birth to many types. Earl had to leave school before the age of ten, when his father went bust. He educated himself in other ways.

A radical, he 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 Berkman, a lawyer from Leningrad. Their first two sons, Felix and Andrew, were born in Moscow. Earl returned with his family to America in 1932, 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. Browder fared worse in 1940, getting 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. In advance of a visit by Molotov, the foreign minister, to Washington, FDR commuted Browder’s sentence as a goodwill gesture.

After the war, Browder got on the wrong side of Moscow and was expelled from the American party. He died in 1973, having spent his last years with his son Bill in Princeton, living at 21 Maple Street. 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, a Russian mother, and a mother of three sons. A Russian-Jewish mother at that. Forget Communism and politics. Your highest aspiration for your children is that they succeed in the most rigorous academics — that they become top mathematicians or something. You steer them that way. Well, the Browder boys certainly 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 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. 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.” (Nemtsov was the leader of the opposition to Putin in Russia. In 2015, he was murdered within sight of the Kremlin.)

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. Putin’s predecessors in the KGB would grin in admiration.

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.” 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.

Let’s end with Joshua — Joshua Browder, one of Bill’s children. He is an undergraduate at Stanford. Last summer, he appeared on a poster in New York’s Times Square. He is literally a poster child for IBM as a tech phenom. Joshua is figuring out how to get artificial intelligence to perform a variety of legal tasks, thus saving people bundles (though disadvantaging lawyers). Silicon Valley is licking its chops. And the Browders press on.

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