Monday, July 27, 2015
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“LYDIA BRADEY: GOING UP IS EASY” with Laurence Fearnley ($38, Penguin-Random House); “RED NOTICE” by Bill Browder (Bantam Press, $37:99)
This week, for a change of pace, I look at two recent works of non-fiction, one New Zealand and one American. The New Zealand one first.
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I admire physical adventurers, risk-takers, people who accomplish extraordinary physical feats. But I know I am not one of them. So I admire them from a distance. All the time I was reading New Zealand mountaineer Lydia Bradey’s memoir Going Up is Easy, I was looking for insights into what makes such adventurers tick, and I think I found quite a few.
To orient you – Going Up Is Easy is Lydia Bradey’s first-person account of her climbing career. It was put together in a long series of conversations with her friend, and sometime flatmate, the novelist Laurence Fearnley. Fearnley recorded and edited Bradey’s words, and at the end of some chapters Fearnley provides commentary (printed in italics), adding details and making observations about Bradey that Bradey has not made herself.
Bradey’s main claim to fame, and the one that is emphasised in the blurb, is that she was the first woman to climb Mount Everest without using oxygen. She achieved this feat in 1988, when she was 27. Laurence Fearnley speaks about sharing a house with Lydia Bradey in 1989, and of the climber’s troubles at that time:
“Lydia was troubled about what was going on around her, the direction her life was taking and her future. She was awaiting word from Nepal concerning her penalty for climbing Everest illegally, without a permit. On a more personal level, she was pretty lonely. She was still processing the grief surrounding the deaths of four of her closest climbing companions on Everest and she was separated from the man with whom she had formed a relationship overseas. On top of that, her New Zealand boyfriend, Leo, was killed in a paragliding accident only a few months into their relationship.” (pp.9-10)
Like a true epic, Going Up Is Easy begins in medias res with an account of theEverest climb. Admitting that she got on better with the Czech members than the New Zealand members of the (otherwise all-male) Czech-New Zealand climbing team of which she was a part, Bradey confesses how inexperienced she was about some things on that climb. Nevertheless, she managed to reach the summit on her own. Unfortunately, her frozen camera denied her the ability to give physical proof of her achievement. To her distress, the New Zealand members of the team, under Rob Hall, had packed up and left base camp before she descended; and on returning to New Zealand, Rob Hall disputed Bradey’s claim that she had ever reached the summit….
At which point, with the matter unresolved, Going Up Is Easy proceeds to a more chronological account of Bradey’s life in ten or so brisk chapters. Bought up by a strictly logical but emotionally-distant single mother, Bradey took to climbing early, made her first big climb on Mount Aspiring and reached the summit of Aoraki /Mt Cook when she was 18. But when, at the age of 19, she failed to reach the summit of Denali / Mt McKinley, the highest peak in North America, Bradey decided she needed to learn more of the technical skills of climbing. She managed to talk her way into doing three seasons of vertical rock-climbing in Yosemite national park in the USA, and then moved on to high altitude work in the Himalayas, climbing (but not summiting) Cho Oyu on the border of Tibet and Nepal, and then conquering one hitherto unclimbed peak. In 1987-88 she was with Rob Hall and a New Zealand team on the notorious K2. Here (in what reads as her best story) she was almost dragged into a crevasse and killed when another climber fell and was dangling on the rope she had to secure. Bradey admits that there were strong tensions between herself and Rob Hall on that expedition as he (and other male members of the New Zealand team) accused her of fraternising too much with members of a rival American team.
And so (in Chapter 12), Going Up Is Easy gets back to the matter of her Everest climb in October 1988. In more detail we are told of her summiting alone on Everest, of the controversy when Rob Hall denied her achievement and when she was not supported in her claim by the New Zealand Alpine Club, and then of her vindication by other climbers who were on Everest at the time. Bradey strongly suggests (without stating in so many words) that Rob Hall was suffering from sour grapes in that his team was the only one of many teams that failed to summit on Everest in that climbing season.
So, having given you my dry outline of this book’s contents, I revert to the question suggested by the opening paragraph of this review.
What makes mountaineers and other such adventurers tick?
Nearly everything in Lydia Bradey’s narrative suggests that her success is underpinned by a single-minded, tightly-focused determination bordering on obsession. There are light-hearted and funny anecdotes in this book. (The most delightfully silly is the one about a team Bradey was in having only Lord of the Rings as reading matter on one climbing expedition – and so ripping up the bulky book and sharing it out for the separate parts to be read in rotation by the individual climbers.) There are accounts of many affairs with male colleagues and companions over the years, but none seems to supplant Bradey’s first priority, which is climbing itself. In one of Laurence Fearnley’s asides (in Chapter 7), we are told that when Bradey once fell pregnant she immediately had an abortion and then had herself sterilised, family and children not being on her radar. One goad to her determination was the feminism of a woman who sometimes found climbing culture dominated by men who tended to regard women as auxiliaries only to “real” climbers.
If this sounds rather severe, though, there is another side to Bradey’s obsession. It is expressed most eloquently when she gives her account of vertical rock-climbing in Yosemite park:
“Spending several days on walls is very much like encapsulating a short part of your life in a vertical world of total commitment, concentration – and fun. I can think of no other pursuit that is so otherworldly, in that you’re still in contact with a solid, hard surface – unlike flying or swimming for example – but the ‘ground’ is no longer beneath your feet so much as in front of your nose. The overall sensation is of being in the landscape, becoming part of it, because everything is so close, and detailed – almost as if you are looking at the earth through a magnifying glass. Every feature is condensed into its smallest elements and this makes the transitions from one rockscape to another remarkable because you’re aware of every fine line, crack, fissure, bump or texture in the rock. Climbing is completely absorbing. That’s what it’s like – being absorbed in the landscape while, behind you, at your back, is unlimited open sky and space.” (pp.71-73)
The obsession is not cold-blooded. It has this aesthetic side to it, this fascination with the physical world and the obstacles it presents.
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I’m a bit tardy in reviewing Bill Browder’s Red Notice, which was released internationally earlier this year, and I have to begin by stating the obvious. If I were to review Red Notice as a piece of literary prose, I would award it a very low grade. It is written with the tricks – and often the verbal clichés – of average journalism. Further, if I were to consider the author as a human being, I might have some negative things to say about him. And yet I still think this is an important book, for all its shortcomings. It tells a wrenching and horrible story of how oligarchical terror now controls post-Soviet Russia – Vladimir Putin’s Russia – and how human rights are routinely violated there with the full approval of the highest authorities.
Let’s consider these statements in more detail, starting with the author.
One has to accept that Bill Browder himself is something of a buccaneer and not guiltless of the faults of which all determined investment capitalists can be accused. By his own account he, the scion of a left-wing American family (his grandfather Earl Browder was the secretary of the American Communist Party), deliberately immersed himself as deeply as possible in capitalism as a form of rebellion from his background. He had a shaky start, first being sent (after time at a business school) to just-post-Communist Poland (described miserably) to advise on privatising a run-down bus company. This wasn’t much of a success. He got a job at Robert Maxwell’s firm, just before it went bottom-up with Maxwell’s suicide and the exposure of multi-million-pound fraud. Unable to get a job anywhere else, he was then taken on by Salomon Brothers, the dodgiest finance company on Wall Street, already crippled by repeated investigations into its practices. They had a policy with newcomers. In your first year, you make five-times the worth of your salary for the company or you get fired.
For a tiny retainer, Browder was sent to former Soviet Union to advise on the privatisation of a fishing fleet. But it was here he got his brainwave. He seems to have been the first Western venture capitalist to realize how huge bucks could be made trading in Russian stocks before the emerging oligarchs got the hang of capitalism. Not to put it too crudely, then, Browder himself, in the prologue to how he clashed with Putin, is revealed as an enterprising exploiter.
But (and this is the crucial point in understanding what follows), however dodgy Browder’s business practices might appear to you and me, he always played within the law.
Browder notes some crucial things about Putin’s domain, such as:
“Instead of 150 million Russians sharing the spoils of mass privatisation, Russia wound up with 22 oligarchs owning 39 per cent of the economy and everybody else living in poverty. To make ends meet, professors had to become taxi drivers, nurses became prostitutes and art museums sold paintings right off their walls.” (Chapter 9)
He finds it hard at first to recruit efficient Russian staff:
“Once I had the office, I needed people to help me run it. While tens of millions of Russians were desperate to make a living, hiring a good English-speaking employee in Moscow was almost impossible. Seventy years of communism had destroyed the work ethic of an entire nation. Millions of Russians had been sent to the gulags for showing the slightest hint of personal initiative. The Soviets severely penalised independent thinkers, so the natural self-preservation was to do as little as possible and hope nobody would notice you. This had been fed into the psyches of ordinary Russians from the moment they were on their mother’s breast. To run a Western-style business, therefore, you had to either completely brainwash a fresh young Russian about the virtues of efficiency and clear thinking or find some miraculous person whose natural psychology had somehow defied the pressures of communism.” (Chapter 10)
He also notes how much the country is now controlled by the super-rich:
“I had stumbled upon one of the most important cultural phenomena of post-Soviet Russia – the exploding wealth gap. In Soviet times, the richest person in Russia was about six times richer than the poorest. Members of the Politburo might have had a bigger apartment, a car and a nice dacha, but not much more than that. However, by the year 2000 the richest person had become 250,000 times richer than the poorest person. This wealth disparity was created in such a short period of time that it poisoned the psychology of the nation.” (Chapter 17)
Becoming CEO of the Hermitage Fund, he made a huge fortune for himself and his backers by buying shares in Russian companies for the knockdown prices that were offered only to the privileged. In the process, he managed to face down some of the oligarchs controlling such companies when they resorted to “diluting” the value of shares by artificially increasing the number of shares available for sale after shares had already been purchased (i.e. you buy, say, 20% of shares available, the shares are “diluted”, and you find you now own only 5% of shares, rendering your investment comparatively worthless.) As Browder explains in Chapter 16, “asset stripping, dilutions, transfer pricing and embezzlement”, as well as the use of security forces and police for thuggery, and a suborned and bribed judiciary, are the preferred methods of Russian oligarchs when they wish to control, take over, or destroy companies which others have made profitable.
In his Russian dealings, the crisis came for Browder when he publicly exposed a massive fraud involving the huge Gazprom company, where powerful Russian insiders were stealing profits with the full knowledge of Putin and of the FSB (Russia’s Federal Security Bureau, which acts much like the old KGB and has much the same staff). Browder had his visa revoked for exposing this fraud.
When he publicly reapplied for his visa, the FSB and its oligarch controllers, got really rough. They proceeded to raid, smash up the offices of, steal all the available assets of, and terrorise the staffs of, all companies in which Browder was involved and all that had had dealings with him. Says Browder:
“We had become victims of something called a ‘Russian raider attack’. These typically involved corrupt police officers fabricating criminal cases, corrupt judges approving the seizure of assets, and organized criminals hurting anyone who stood in the way. The practice was so common that ‘Vedomosti’, the independent Russian newspaper, had even published a menu of ‘Raider’ services with prices: freezing assets - $50,000; opening a criminal case - $50,000; securing a court order - $300,000; etc.” (Chapter 24)
Having shown that oligarch-controlled companies were committing massive tax fraud, Browder was, in retaliation, himself accused (on fabricated evidence) of tax fraud. To defend himself, he hired a number of Russian lawyers. The lawyers were threatened by the FSB and its operatives. Browder too was threatened. Three of his lawyers managed to get out of the country while they still had passports. Browder did the same. But one of the lawyers stayed behind. This was the 35-year-old attorney Sergei Magnitsky, who was arrested and imprisoned simply because he had agreed to act for Browder. Magnitsky was beaten, starved and tortured over a long period as attempts were made to get him to agree to testify against Browder. Magnitsky refused to give false testimony. He was beaten and tortured some more, and eventually was killed.
From England and America, Browder made sure that he kept the case in the public eye. In a long process, in conjunction first with human rights campaigners and then with American legislators, he managed to have framed what became known as the Magnitsky Act.
“The language of the act was simple and direct – anyone involved in the false arrest, torture or death of Sergei Magnitsky, or the crimes he uncovered, would be publicly named, banned from entering the United States and have any of their US assets frozen.” (Chapter 37)
It took some persuading to get this act passed by the US Congress and signed by President Obama, but finally it was passed, with its terms expanded to include others who had been so mistreated.
The story Browder tells has by now been verified in many reliable sources. It is commonplace for apologists for Putin to claim that he has won popularity by reining in the oligarchs. This is complete nonsense. The only oligarchs with whom Putin has clashed have been those who refused to give him a substantial part of their take. His reaction to the passage of the Magnitsky Act was rage and predictably retaliatory acts.
This book is not gracefully written. But it is a good chronicle of dealings in a country that lurched from communism to kleptocracy.