There is a recurring image in Once Upon a Time in Londongrad (Sky Documentaries/Now): a shot taken in 2014 in central London, outside an old block of serenely expensive flats nestling between the Swedish and Swiss embassies. A section of the beautiful iron railings separating the property from the pavement is missing, replaced by a garish mass of carelessly applied police incident tape.
The railings have been removed because the British property speculator Scot Young has recently fallen from his fourth-floor window and impaled himself. This death is then investigated by Heidi Blake and her team of journalists at BuzzFeed, a trail that leads to a Pulitzer nomination, Blake’s book From Russia With Blood and now this punchy six-parter.
Not that it matters much when each instalment is a snackish half-hour and the whole thing is available as a streaming box set, but Once Upon a Time in Londongrad rather takes its time to show its hand. Episode one introduces us to Young, a driven money-maker who, chasing ever bigger profits, ended up shifting funds for Russian tycoons. Episode two tells us where some of those Russians came from, outlining how the fall of the Soviet Union created a new wave of billionaires when public assets were flogged, for a fraction of their value, to whoever had the fattest brown envelopes.
Then Vladimir Putin turned out not to be the feeble stooge the oligarchs had hoped for, exit plans were made, and chunks of dirty cash landed in the city where questions were least likely to be asked: London. The most charismatic exile was Boris Berezovsky, whose plotting against Putin included a cheeky attempt to invest anonymously in a Moscow property development by funnelling his stake through one of the project’s lead investors – Scot Young.
Ah, so it’s a documentary about why Young died, and Berezovsky is the answer? Sort of. Berezovsky kills himself at his Surrey home in 2013, sustaining a broken rib and head wound in the process. Then, at about the halfway point in Once Upon a Time in Londongrad, the real story hits. BuzzFeed identifies not one, not two, but 14 deaths on British soil between 2003 and 2016 of individuals who might have angered the Putin regime. Two fall in front of tube trains; one dies in a helicopter crash. A man in his 40s collapses while jogging. Another stabs himself many times using two knives. In 2010, the MI6 analyst Gareth Williams is found crammed into a holdall that is zipped, padlocked and placed in the bath in his Pimlico flat.
In every case, the official verdict is suicide or natural causes and, in statements given to the programme-makers by police and the British government, it is reiterated that no direct proof of Russian involvement has been found. Yet BuzzFeed repeatedly uncovers instances of missing, lost or withheld evidence, or basic inquiries apparently not carried out. If such things are incompetence or coincidence, they’re incompetence or coincidence that always happens to point towards there being nothing to see. You do not need a paranoid mindset to feel like Jack Nicholson in Chinatown, powerlessly observing a shady, malign system at work.
It’s only at the very end of the series that Once Upon a Time in Londongrad explicitly discusses the core problem: that allowing London to become a murky reservoir of Russian money is likely to involve a reluctance to act on any unseemly fallout, and that this weakness of governance seriously threatens both the rule of law and our democratic integrity.
This wider issue is, however, sufficiently hinted at by the specific story of the 14 deaths. BuzzFeed’s inquisitive young journalists are the dominant interviewees and if, at times, Once Upon a Time in Londongrad is just some people who wrote some articles telling you what was in them, that’s not a bad thing when the content is such a blazing true-crime/conspiracy fireball. Given BuzzFeed’s status as a fleeting disruption within the media industry, which turned to investigative journalism, having previously majored in memes for bored twentysomethings, there is extra spice in the way one of the team, Tom Warren, like, literally doesn’t talk with any of the careful formality one expects in this genre, y’know? But what he’s saying is, like, profoundly consequential nonetheless?
In the wake of the Salisbury poisonings, which were too obviously a Russian op to be ignored, Young and the others were included in parliament’s intelligence and security committee’s Russia report in 2020 … but the pertinent sections were heavily redacted. The controversy became merely a blip, a gap in some railings that could be walked past easily. This series tugs on our sleeve and demands we look again.