In November 2009 a Russian accountant, Sergei Magnitsky, then in the employ of a Russia-based British hedge-fund manager, William Browder, died in a Russian prison under what are widely believed to be suspicious circumstances. In Browder’s telling, Magnitsky died at the hands of Russian investigative authorities after he had uncovered their theft of $230 million in tax payments from Browder’s investment fund. Browder, an American by birth who renounced his citizenship in 1998, subsequently launched a highly publicized campaign ostensibly meant to shine a light on Magnitsky’s whistle-blowing heroics, decry the corruption of the Russian government, and in the process strike a blow against Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In the years since Magnitsky’s death, Browder, the grandson of former Communist Party USA Chairman Earl Browder, has undergone a remarkable transformation: from a vocal supporter of Vladimir Putin who applauded the imprisonment of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, into a “human rights” crusader with loyal constituencies among journalists and policy-makers in Washington. Browder’s incessant lobbying resulted in the 2012 passage of the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, which places sanctions on individuals believed to be responsible for Magnitsky’s death. The passage of the Magnitsky Act presaged the precipitous decline in US-Russian relations that followed and resulted in the Russian government’s ban on American adoptions soon thereafter. As The Nation pointed out in December 2012, the Magnitsky Act “recklessly and needlessly jeopardized US-Russian cooperation in vital areas from Afghanistan and the Middle East to international terrorism and nuclear proliferation.”
And now a controversial new film, The Magnitsky Act—Behind the Scenes, by Russian filmmaker Andrey Nekrasov, is questioning Browder’s version of events and in the process raising troubling questions about the ability of a wealthy hedge-fund manager to get Congress to do his bidding. In a very real sense, what Browder accomplished with the Magnitsky Act is the privatization of US foreign policy.
At a screening of the film at the Newseum in Washington on Tuesday night, the legendary journalist Seymour Hersh said that he believes the film “goes a long way toward deconstructing a myth.” Browder’s legions of neocon cheerleaders—some of whom were present at the screening—have tried to paint Nekrasov as a pawn of Russian intelligence, or, in the words of one attendee, “a foot soldier of the propaganda war.”
Yet, given the filmmaker’s history of taking on Putin in films about the death of Alexander Litvinenko and the wars in Georgia and Chechnya, such accusations are hard to take seriously. According to Nekrasov, “I am a critic of the Russian authorities” but in his opinion, “the West made a mistake by adopting the Magnitsky Act…as they are based on a made-up story.”
The film itself is an uneven affair. The first half is centered around a cringe-worthy reenactment of Browder’s version of events and an overlong explanation as to how Nekrasov came to see things differently, featuring plenty of shots of the filmmaker pensively looking out the window, nervously pacing around hotel rooms—that sort of thing. But the film picks up in the second half, as the filmmaker begins to document the grave inconsistencies embedded within Browder’s narrative. It makes for riveting viewing.