Londongrad: Putin’s Billionaires – ‘They knew where the money was coming from’

TV review: This Virgin Media One film tells us little of Russian oligarchs’ Irish interests

With Russian television having just suggested obliterating Ireland via the tried and trusted method of thermonuclear tsunami – and, worse yet, referred to us as part of the “B*****h I***s”– Londongrad: Putin’s Billionaires (Virgin Media One, Monday) is undoubtedly newsworthy.

It is also very, very Virgin Media One: brisk and breezy and seemingly designed for those with microscopic attention spans. It’s almost enough to make you miss the depth and expansiveness of Prime Time – even with that horrific new colour-clashing studio that makes it look as if Fran McNulty and Sarah McInerney have been trapped in a Pac-Man bonus level.

London is one of the chief boltholes for oligarchs trying to stash their money overseas. And Richard Chambers sketches a stark portrait of a city that has come to depend on hot Russian cash. The film Chelsea FC, which, with its oligarch patron, has become caught up in the conflict between Moscow and the West.

The Russian elite's knowledge of the UK seems to have been gleaned from Harry Potter, Paddington 2 and Downton Abbey

Outside Stamford Bridge fans seem split about Roman Abramovich and the investment that has elevated Chelsea from creaky also-rans into one of those NFL-style plastic franchises that dominate the top of English soccer.

“He’s a good person who brought a lot of good things to the club,” says one. “Mourinho, the special one. Now Chelsea, the broke one,” comments another, referring to Chelsea’s former manager, José Mourinho. “They knew where the money was coming from.”

When not hanging outside Premier League grounds, Chambers sits down with some formidable interviewees. Marina Litvinenko speaks about her husband, former Russian security services agent Alexander Litvinenko, murdered on British soil by Russia.

And with Bill Browder, the American-born British financier who ran the largest hedge fund in Russia before falling foul of the Kremlin. “If I get sent back to Russia I’ll be killed,” he says. “Vladimir Putin is a very vindictive, paranoid, small man. He cannot ever forgive a slight.”

Londongrad also lays bare the pitiable Anglophilia of the Russian elite, whose knowledge of the UK seems to have been gleaned from Harry Potter, Paddington 2 and Downton Abbey.

If Londongrad is an effective overview of Russian investment in London, it tells us too much of what we know already

“All of these oligarchs, they love this idea of being a English gentleman,” says Jason Corcoran, an Irish journalist who has worked in Russia. “Wearing the suits, sauntering around with a bowler hat and tweed.” These tragic billionaires are cosplaying at being characters from Agatha Christie.

The problem is that Chelsea’s iffy legacy as the plaything of a Putin associate and the murder of Litvinenko are very old news. Rather than raking over these fading headlines it might have been more productive to delve into Russian investment in Ireland.

Limerick's Aughinish Alumina plant is, we learn, owned by Oleg Deripaska, the alleged custodian of a Belgravia mansion occupied by pro-Ukraine protestors in March. Alas, this is mentioned briefly and then it's off to Stamford Bridge for a chinwag with the punters.

Later, Browder refers to plans to beef up the Criminal Assets Bureau so that it can pursue dodgy Russian money – but no further details are provided outside the context of his interview. And so, if Londongrad is an effective overview of Russian investment in London, it tells us too much of what we know already – and far too little about how Moscow’s long, chilling reach has spread all the way to Ireland.

Ed Power

Ed Power

Ed Power, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about television and other cultural topics

READ MORE