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'These people use extreme violence': McMafia writer heads to Norwich to talk about organised crime

PUBLISHED: 10:22 05 May 2018

James Norton playing Alex Godman and Maria Shukshina playing his mother Oksana in McMafia. Photo: Nick Wall/Cuba Pictures/BBC

James Norton playing Alex Godman and Maria Shukshina playing his mother Oksana in McMafia. Photo: Nick Wall/Cuba Pictures/BBC

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It gripped Sunday night audiences with its chilling portrait of global crime, now Misha Glenny, the journalist and author behind McMafia is coming to the region to share his story and the real stories that inspired it. Simon Parkin spoke to him.

Misha Glenny, author of McMafia. Photo: Roberto Ricciuti/Getty ImagesMisha Glenny, author of McMafia. Photo: Roberto Ricciuti/Getty Images

Organised crime is part of all our worlds - often without us even knowing. Misha Glenny knows because he has investigated some of the most dangerous crime networks in the world.

The former BBC foreign correspondent’s bestseller McMafia: Seriously Organised Crime, on which the BBC1 series starring James Norton as the British-raised son of a Russian mafia boss was based, was both a riveting account of international crime and a brilliant critique of globalisation’s dark side.

He is heading to Norwich and Bury St Edmunds this month with his talk that sheds light on the activities of the Russian mafia, giant drug cartels, corrupt intelligence agencies, and the increasing threat posed by cyber-hackers.

The cast of teh successful BBC adaptation of McMafia. Photo: Todd Antony/BBCThe cast of teh successful BBC adaptation of McMafia. Photo: Todd Antony/BBC

McMafia was first published a decade ago, but the TV series could hardly have been more timely with Russia and money laundering in the news?

We could not have dreamt that it would coincide with so much attention on money laundering, but also then the whole Skripal business it just highlighted the fact that London had become a marketplace for all manner of dirty dealing, whether criminal or money laundering or espionage.

What made you want to investigation global organised crime in the first place?

Misha Glenny true crime book on which McMafia was based. Photo: PenguinMisha Glenny true crime book on which McMafia was based. Photo: Penguin

I thought that this is an important way to talk about politics. Really I think my books are all about politics but I refract them through the prism of crime because you see capitalism at its most extreme. Also, to be perfectly honest, readers like crime. I could be writing books about geo-politics, that’s what I originally did, but there is something that readers find a fascinating about crime as a way to learn about how the world works.

Did the collapse of Soviet Union, the rise of oligarchs and Russian links to London lead you to concentrate on Russia?

I was observing that but for me more immediate and personal was the role of organised crime in the wars in Yugoslavia. How paramilitary organisations that did all the ethnically motivated killings were inextricably involved with organised criminal activity and with also the various presidents and prime ministers of the new republics in the Balkans. Then in March 2003 the very progressive president of Serbia, Zoran Đinđić, was assassinated. He had been a friend of mine for 15 years, so I started investigating his murder and the role of organised crime and intelligence agencies.

James Norton as Alex Godman in McMafia. Photo: BBC/Cuba/Nick WallJames Norton as Alex Godman in McMafia. Photo: BBC/Cuba/Nick Wall

The networks you detail extend right around the globe. Were you surprised by just how big organised crime was?

I saw how organised crime was cooperating both across the front lines and with people in Russia. Then found that there were links to Columbia and to Africa. I realised that what was going on was not just the teething pains of a new system post-communism, but that there was a new system of global organised crime that was mirroring licit commerce.

Misha Glenny, author of McMafia. Photo: Norwich Theatre RoyalMisha Glenny, author of McMafia. Photo: Norwich Theatre Royal

As we speak MPs are seeking to force Theresa May to take tougher action on money laundering. How can global organised crime be tackled?

I was very proud that the book that I came up has eventually ended up being debated in parliament; it was even being called the McMafia law, and possibly may help towards a very significant change in the way that we do business. This extends to other parts of the world too. For example the former president of Brasil as just been convicted, the former president of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, is under investigation, the former president of South Korea has been jailed. This is not just a problem for the UK. It’s a big international problem. The game is on. Corrupt politicians are out there but so are people who want to stand up for the way things ought to be done.

Were you surprised that the book was dramatised rather than being a documentary?

We had attempted to make it into a documentary series both for Channel 4 and the BBC. But for fictional purposes the book was optioned before it was published, however my agent and publisher assured me the chances of it ever being made were negligible. It went through three iterations before we finally found the right formula with the writer Hossein Amini and the director James Hopkins.

Were you happy with the success of the series?

Until the actual first episode went out I could barely believe that this was happening. Though a lot of it is that it’s a good thesis and a book with some good stories in, but with any TV series a lot of it is just good luck.

Were you worried the series might up glamorising criminals and their lavish lifestyles?

I don’t think we were concerned about glamorisation because all people involved in organised criminal activity are aware that ultimately there ability to function and project their power depends on their ability to use violence. But smart organisations and criminals use violence very sparingly. They use the threat of violence a lot. We made sure that people understood that however swarve, rich and swanky this was it was based on extreme violence on occasions. I think we got the balance just right.

Have you ever been worried for your safety?

You take risks doing this research but you also mitigate it as much as you can. That means before you go to meet anyone you spend months researching it and setting it up to reassure the person you’re not the police. It helps if you’re writing a book. People are much more wary if you barrel in with a TV camera. No-one believes people read books!

What have you learnt about the people behind organised crime?

Although the research is high stress, it is absolutely fascinating to come across people who are smart with a very clear understanding of what they do and why they do it. And why the moral constraints of governments or society are not ones that they will abide by. I once spoke to a Bulgarian gangster who argued that after the collapse of the Soviet Union the Mafia were the only people keeping things going and putting food on the table. You have to think hard about that, because there is probably some truth to it.

• Misha Glenny: McMafia is at Norwich Theatre Royal, May 18, 7.30pm, £18.50-£10, 01603 630000, theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk

• He will also be at The Apex, Bury St Edmunds, on June 5, 7.30pm, £18, 01284 758000, theapex.co.uk

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