Monday, November 14, 2022

Once Upon a Time in Londongrad, on Peacock

London needs to lose its suffixes. In 2006, Melanie Phillips described the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in her expose, Londonistan. Since then, the term “Londongrad” was coined to describe the London financial sector’s role as a safe haven for dirty Russian oligarchs’ money. Neither is a good look for the capitol of a major Western democracy. Unfortunately, that influx of dubious Russian money also led to a number of Russian state-sanctioned assassinations on British soil. The Buzzfeed journalists who broke the story connect the dots in the six-part Once Upon a Time in Londongrad, which premieres tomorrow on Peacock.

According to the Metropolitan Police, Scot (with one “t”) Young killed himself by leaping from his fashionable townhouse window, just like his associate, Boris Berezovsky also committed suicide. Anyone who knows anything about contemporary Russian politics finds the latter contention laughable. As a dissident, the former oligarch Berezovsky was one of Putin’s most prominent critics. He helped facilitate the defection of former FSB agent Alexander Litvinenko, whom even New Scotland Yard agrees was poisoned with polonium.

For journalist Heidi Blake, the story started with the strange circumstances surrounding Young’s death. She and her colleagues were not even thinking of Russia, until they found multiple connections to Berezovsky in Young’s records. From there, they followed leads, the way the Metropolitan police should have.

Eventually, the team explains how they linked fourteen mysterious deaths to Russia, including Young, Berezovsky, and Litvinenko. Perhaps the weirdest case is that of Gareth Williams, a MI6 code-breaker, whom the London cops concluded committed suicide, by stuffing himself in a gym bag and locking it from the outside. Seriously, they stand by that farcical position.

Obviously, something is rotten in London, starting with the Metropolitan force. Yet, Blake and her colleagues were largely dismissed as alarmists and conspiracy theorists, until Russian defector Sergei Skripal, his daughter, and a police officer were poisoned with a Russian Novichuk nerve agent, which also murdered an innocent bystander.

Jed Rothstein (director of all six episodes) and the investigating journalists lay out their case in clear, compelling detail. Viewers can see exactly how they reached point B from point A. They also gave the UK government, the various local police agencies, and the Kremlin ample opportunity for rebuttal. They even include critics of Blake’s story in the concluding sixth episode. However, it is hard to take their denials seriously, given the established facts of the Litvinenko and Skripal cases. (A brief appearance from Christopher Steele, of the Steele dossier infamy represents the only misstep, because he adds little and needlessly costs the mini-series credibility.)

Obviously, coverage of Russian assassinations on foreign soil takes on greater urgency after Putin’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, but the time for the free world to protest was back when they happened. Instead, British authorities ignored their crimes (possibly even covering them up). So, how has that worked out for global stability? Blake and company remind us what Putin’s regime is willing to do inside our own homeland. It is chilling stuff, but presented with methodical authority. Highly recommended,
Once Upon a Time in Londongrad starts streaming tomorrow (11/15) on Peacock.