The BBC series McMafia is a gripping tale of deceit, revenge and international crime. It’s fiction — yet much of what happens is real and is happening in London today.
It charts the feud between former Russian mafia boss-in-exile Dimitri Godman and Georgian mobster Vadim. Their respective ‘business’ interests span the globe.
At the centre of it is Godman’s financier son, Alex (James Norton), who is trying to put his family’s crooked past behind him.
It shows the mortal rivalries that exist where business, politics and crime overlap. And it mirrors what I have seen of politicians and business people in Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan pursuing their opponents — throwing money, lawyers and spies at them to make a life in London for those who flee as difficult as possible.
Dimitri’s despair at his life, imprisoned in a city far away from home and unable to return, is a sadly common tale in real life. The tragedy of men and women who cannot return to Russia or Ukraine because the government and their enemies will never forgive them is something I see a lot. I’ve met many people who are not involved in criminal activities but are bankers and politicians, now hounded to prevent them speaking out against authoritarian regimes.
The panic button in Dimitri’s hotel suite in McMafia is also sadly realistic. The police have been known to issue warnings to people in danger of kidnapping and assassination in London. I’ve known of people who fled to the wilds of Scotland to avoid harm.
They were pursued and monitored by agents of a former Soviet state and after a few years returned to London, where extradition proceedings awaited them. Luckily, in these cases, the UK court saw through the charges and they were dismissed as politically motivated. But others less fortunate have been kidnapped from Italy and Turkey, often with the help of sympathetic local politicians. Murder and assassinations are rare — the killing of Alexander Litvinenko, by all accounts at the hands of the Russian state, is one of the most chillingly audacious examples — but the threat is ever present to those who cross the wrong people.
Early in my career, a member of the Georgian mafia, a key witness in a UK court case, committed suicide unexpectedly before the hearing started, allowing the defendant to blame the dead man for what had happened. His death seemed extremely convenient for the wealthy Russian defendant, who was allowed to go to Moscow to visit a sick relative and, unsurprisingly, never returned.
London is a magnet for business people and politicians fleeing persecution or threats. In Russia, successful businessmen and women gain enormous power because of their wealth. But rivals will inevitably seek a piece of the action and it’s common for families to be targeted with threats and violence as well as torture and financial ruin. McMafia may be a work of fiction but it rings terrifyingly true.
This article was first published by the Metro on 30 January 2018. Cick here to view the article on the Metro's website.
Ben Keith is a barrister specialising in Extradition, Immigration, Serious Fraud, Human Rights and Public law. Ben is ranked in Chambers and Partners as a band 1 leader in the field of Extradition at the London Bar.