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Is McMafia about me?

Should Russian expat Semyon Dovzhik feel alarmed by way the BBC's thriller portrays his community?

    The Godman family in McMafia
    The Godman family in McMafia (Photo: BBC)

    No one likes to have a mirror thrust in their face, especially as it might reflect some uncomfortable and difficult facts. Then along comes the BBC series, McMafia and thrusts another fact at us, apparently there are also Jewish crooks, Russians, living in London. Do they mean me?

    David Ben Gurion memorably said: “When Israel has its own prostitutes and thieves, it will be state like any other.” But, actually, Jewish crooks have been around for ever and will continue to be in the future. Isaac Babel told stories of Jewish gangsters in his Tales of Odessa; the exploits of the Kosher Nostra are a part of New York history; and present-day accounts of Israeli swindlers resound beyond the confines of the Middle East.

    Now it is the turn of London where — according to McMafia — shady types with Russian origins buy extravagant mansions and luxury cars, dine on Beluga caviar and also sport a black kipah on their head when the occasion arises. And that occasion is likely to be a funeral.

    It would be rather naive to imagine that the script of McMafia, written by the brilliant journalist, Misha Glenny, would not be embellished by some wild additional figments of someone’s imagination. Sophisticated viewers should be warned that some scenes had Jewish Russians in fits of laughter, such as when Alex Godman, the leading character, educated at a British private school, undergoes some form of Russian martial arts training . There is no such thing and if there were, he wouldn’t do it.

    We raised eyebrows when a formerly Russian member of the Knesset lobbies for a casino in Eilat. Gambling is illegal in Israel, except for the state lottery, and lawmakers cannot own any private business.

    The official responsible for social media at the Embassy of the Russian Federation in London, feeling that he needed to justify his salary, rushed on to Twitter to condemn McMafia for demonising the Russian community in the United Kingdom. But he should relax; the Russian mafia has been a hot topic for decades and it cannot possibly be stereotyped more than it already is. Every Russian speaker in Western Europe — London included — will recognise the suspicious look when he or she opens a bank account and registers a company or share in a business partnership.

    We have learned to live with it. When I went to live in Israel in the early ’90s, every Russian-speaking man was a potential thief and alcoholic and every Russian woman a potential hooker. Being called an international gangster is definitely an upgrade.

    But, irony of ironies: there is a 180-degree shift when it comes to cash. No more suspicious looks or second thoughts, Russian-Jewish businessmen in London are bombarded with appeals for donations from Jewish and non-Jewish charities, art institutions and humanitarian causes. To quote the short-lived Uncle Boris from McMafia, “When a Russian gives to charity, they call him an oligarch, not a crook.” It is a pity that British business schools do not study hypocrisy — this would make a splendid case study.

    There are 10,000 Russian-speaking Jews in London. I hope that the British public is wise enough and sophisticated enough not to demonise us all. We would all be better off addressing very real problems of corruption and crime and to appreciate and value the contribution to the city’s culture and economy by international businessmen — even if they are Russian.


    Semyon Dovzhik is a Russian-Jewish journalist, living in London


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