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    From blurred lines to legal loop holes: how McMafia presents globalised entrepreneurship

    By Natasha Downes, on 15 February 2018

    Written by Natasha Downes, Media Relations Manager, UCL

    The BBC drama McMafia has been the talk of the moment. So much so, that Security Minister Ben Wallace recently admitted to exploiting the success of the programme to raise public awareness of transnational crime, and announce that oligarchs would have to explain the sources of their income.

    When government officials jump on a fictional TV drama to announce a crackdown on Russian oligarchs, the implication is that Russian’s really are at the heart of organised crime. A message further reinforced by media headlines such as ‘McMafia is a documentary, not a drama’.

     

    But is McMafia really art imitating life?

    On Wednesday 7 February at the Darwin Lecture Theatre of UCL, I attended McMafia: The Reality, chaired and organised by Dr Ben Noble (UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies), to hear four academics he brought together discuss the scope of whether McMafia is a work of fiction or a work of reality.

    Dr Mark Galeotti (Institute of International Relations, Prague) opened up the session by discussing the origins of the emblematic Russia mafia narrative. He talked of the ‘original gangster’ which many associate with the Chechens due to the successful scaling of their franchise of fear.

    With the break-up of the Soviet Union in the late 1990s many newly rich oligarchs moved their money somewhere safe, and this is more or less, when the boundaries between business, crime and politics became imperceptible.

    But this narrative of mafia is not so simple, because organised crime is essentially transnational. It may happen in Russia, but it also takes place all over the world. Businessmen and businesswomen, gangsters and corrupt state representatives operate within their own districts and national networks, and link up to form an international system of organised crime. Dr Alexander Kupatadze (Kings, Russia Institute) calls this the continuous loop of transnational trade.

    In McMafia, Russians are depicted as the wholesalers; the one-stop-shop for criminality. They are the service providers blending upper world legal forces. According to Dr Philippa Hetherington (UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies) this is a narrative that exploits negative stereotypes. Speaking on the panel she called for a more critical viewer. She highlighted how easily McMafia slips into worn stereotypes of Slavic women being trafficked by Russian men of Jewish descent to the ‘Middle East’. When in fact sex trafficking is a global problem, affecting women of all nationalities.

    Dr Hetherington warns of the dangers of allowing these stereotypes to prevail. These are what she calls cultural and radicalised stereotypes, which feed into the notion of otherness about Russia and the Middle East. It negatively reinforces the trope that foreigners bring us problems.

    Professor Alena Ledeneva (UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies) attributed this to the media’s difficulty in communicating complexity.  Speaking on the panel, she carefully peeled away the narrative; exploring what McMafia alludes to rather than explicitly portrays.

    Professor Ledeneva discussed how McMafia arouses the tensions of globalisation. Alex, McMafia’s central character, handles global transactions from his almost clinical London office, but he also travels and has a lot of international partners. So, she asks, why do we refer to Russians?

    McMafia is a series that highlights what Professor Ledeneva calls the political roof of organised crime. The monopoly of legitimate violence. The blurred lines of globalised entrepreneurship – where what we see may be unethical and immoral but is in fact ‘legal’. Here we see that organised crime has surpassed the capability and capacity of law enforcement, and it’s a difficult message for audiences to swallow.

    Professor Ledeneva seemed to suggest that modern capitalism depicted in McMafia, and the real world City of London which we associate Alex with, doesn’t provide a view on morality.

    The McMafia event helped the audience to think more critically about the grey areas. The line between formal and informal, family and business, strategies of survival vs strategies of the system. In McMafia Alex says he is a broker for survival, but he is also about competitive advantage and creating a level playing field.  Strategy is essential for the successful operation of McMafia.

    We travel between a set of standards which are fluid, and choice is a central motif of the McMafia narrative.  Arguably Alex has a choice, many choices in fact, but as Professor Ledeneva highlights these are complex choices, and ones in which social structures and cultures may come into play.

    These attempts to contextualise McMafia help us to better understand individuals but also the system of organised crime. Professor Galeotti importantly emphasised that we mustn’t conflate organised crime with corruption; the people at the top moving money don’t sit down with gangsters despite what McMafia portrays.

    McMafia is gripping television at its finest, and academic insight helps to remind us that we should be careful blurring fiction with reality, because the reality is always more complex.

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    Legacy 110 awards ceremony blog

    By James L Russell, on 11 December 2016

    The Legacy 110 programme is an initiative built around the UCL Institute of Education (IOE)’s First World War Centenary Battlefields Tour Programme, which aims to encourage pupils and schools that take part in the tours to share what they have learned with others in their schools and communities in order to help maintain the legacy of the Great War.

    Legacy162

    This comprehensive education programme, which allows every secondary school in England to send two pupils and one teacher to the Ypres and the Somme to witness first-hand battlefields sites, is now half way through its scheduled five years. The second annual awards ceremony, recognising some of the most outstanding projects that have taken place as part of Legacy 110, was held at the House of Lords on Thursday 8th December – featuring presentations from each of the winning schools.

    The diverse and impressive range of projects that received awards showcased how the programme is about much more than simply learning about WW1 or history, and that it actually cuts across subject areas – from English, drama, music through to art, and helps encourage children to work with different groups of people.

    As the programme leader, Jerome Freeman from the IOE said in his address: “this is much more than just a battlefield tour – it is a comprehensive educational programme. It goes well beyond the 1 Plus 2 on the tour – it impacts hundreds of students in every school”. He added that the Legacy projects encourage children to work with many different groups – “their communities, other schools, different generations” and encourages them to “build connections across these”.

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    Lunch Hour Lecture: The state, science and Humphry Davy

    By Thomas Hughes, on 4 February 2016

    “Science, gentlemen, is of infinitely more importance to a state than may at first sight appear possible”. While few scientists would disagree with this today, it was the 19th-century chemist Humphry Davy who made the observation. In a recent Lunch Hour Lecture Professor Frank James (UCL Science & Technology Studies) took us on a whistle stop tour of Davy’s colourful life, his science and his relationship with the state. Humphry Davy. From: Sarah K. Bolton: Famous Men of Science. (New York, 1889)

    A poet of Penzance

    Born in Penzance on December 17, 1778, Davy initially showed a passion for poetry. This was largely descriptive poetry, such as this extract about St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall: “Beat by the storms of ages, stands unmov’d, Amidst the wreck of things—the change of time.”

    However after his schooling, his godfather apprenticed him to a surgeon and it was in the apothecary there where he discovered what would become a life-long interest in chemistry.

    While living in Penzance he met distinguished natural philosophers including the engineer Davies Giddy who encouraged Davy and offered him the use of his library.

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    Translation in History lecture series: Roman Jakobson and the translation of poetic language

    By Guest Blogger, on 11 January 2016

    pencil-iconWritten by Tania Castro Rodea (UCL Translation Studies)

    Roman Jakobson

    On Thursday 26 November, we welcomed Professor Jean Boase-Beier (University of East Anglia) to UCL as part of the Translation in History lecture series. Her talk, ‘Roman Jakobson and the Translation of Poetic Language’, focused on the key ideas of this influential linguist and some of their implications for translation.

    Professor Boase-Beier emphasised that Jakobson did not propose any particular way of translating; he did not give a set of instructions. But what he did say is of use because it can help us “think around translation, think about practice, and what consequences that has.” Boase-Beier also pointed out that, among Jakobson’s articles that are important for translation, some do not even mention translation, and so it is advisable to be aware of the wider context of his thinking, to know how he developed his ideas, particularly if we want to understand what already well-known quotes really mean.

    In this regard, Boase-Beier posits that many people do not understand the most famous statement of Jakobson, that “the poetic function projects the principle of equivalence from the axis of selection into the axis of combination.” To explain this statement, she used an example where the words cat, kitten and feline were offered as options. When we select, she said, we choose from words that designate similar things. But once the word ‘cat’ is selected, this is transferred to the axis of combination, where the choice is not based on things, but on the word selected and its similarities with other words. We say “the cat sat on the mat,” not because the cat has similarities with the mat, but because of the similarities between the words: they rhyme.

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