“Like anyone else, I have no death wish and I have no intention of letting them kill me. I can’t mention most of the countermeasures I take, but I will mention one: this book. If I’m killed, you will know who did it. When my enemies read this book, they will know that you know. So if you sympathize with this search for justice, or with Sergei’s tragic fate, please share this story with as many people as you can. That simple act will keep the spirit of Sergei Magnitsky alive and go further than any army of bodyguards in keeping me safe.” (from “Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man’s Fight for Justice” by Bill Browder)
I recently finished Red Notice – an excellent story, well told, which I thought was going to be about economic battles between Russia and the West. It covered those topics, but then it took a tragic and historically relevant turn with the death of Sergei Magnitsky, the Russian attorney whose name was put on a law sanctioning Russian officials for torturing and killing him, or at least being complicit in his terrible treatment.
During the first six months of last year, when we were traveling around Southeast Asia, at some point I realized that every country we were going to had a repressive, if not totalitarian government, or – in the case of Fiji – was expected by locals to experience a military coup in the near future. The fear of community espionage was alive in Vietnam; Cambodia’s opposition and media were being hounded by government thugs; the government was simply not discussed in Laos; Thailand seemed socially free, but was still politically oppressed; religion is a minefield in Indonesia and Malaysia; and Singapore’s repression is famous.
It wasn’t difficult to censor myself in order to stay out of trouble. It merely meant following a few simple conversational rules: don’t criticize the government; complement everyone on how beautiful their country is or, if you can’t, at least praise the food, or the temples, or the friendliness of the people. If you heard someone else complaining about something, distance yourself. I didn’t want to end up in a foreign jail, trying to contact the American Consulate.
In retrospect, I’m a bit ashamed for following those rules, because by not voicing opposition, I was just reinforcing the public acceptance of brutal repression. Without speaking up for concepts like the rule of law, one person one vote, and civil decency, wasn’t I implicitly supporting their opposite? And by being a foreigner who seemed to love how things were going in foreign countries, wasn’t I, in effect, saying that the West supported, or at least didn’t oppose, these oppressive governments?
And upon returning to the United States, then the U.K., it was as if suddenly the air cleared. When I thought about it afterward, the west is extremely rare, in history and in the world today, in terms of its openness to free speech, even if that is under attack by Western leaders.
So Browder’s book, describing the terrors of Russia today, and the criminal actions of its leaders, is extremely brave; it also made me remember how much I have to be thankful for, and how important it is for us to fight for civil and human rights. And it seems that now, in America, the threat is partially from outside, but also internal.
2017 brought with it a lot of changes. Many older people I know say it was one of the worst years in their memory, mostly due to Trump. I don’t know about that; it was just new and different, and we’ll see where we end up. I kind of feel like perhaps it’s like the economy: in the markets, if it’s a down year, that means that there were both a lot of buying opportunities and a lot of opportunities to start businesses. Perhaps, politically, it’s the same; perhaps 2018 will see the reinvigoration of democratic forces, of free speech, of sanity and law and order. Perhaps the people who stood up this year and said “We’ve had it” will be the political leaders of tomorrow; perhaps this is the beginning of a crucible that will forge a tougher generation, one that will meet the challenges of the future with strength and resolve. Perhaps this will be the birth of new ideals, and vision, and light, and truth.
I hope so. Because the alternative – of political repression, and universal self-censorship in order to avoid trouble – is a world I’ve been in, and not a place I want to live.