This is a depressing book. It’s a reminder of everything that is sick, broken and generally maledicted about the human condition. It’s also a book based on a podcast, which brings difficulties of its own.
To cut a very long story short, The Missing Cryptoqueen tells the true story of a Bulgarian crook named Ruja Ignatova, the self-styled cryptoqueen of the book’s title. In 2014, she set up a pyramid scheme-cum-multi-level-marketing scam based on a fake cryptocurrency called OneCoin. In 2017, having swindled people out of billions of pounds, dollars, euros and just about every other currency on the planet, and with the authorities closing in, Ignatova suddenly went missing. Her whereabouts remain unknown.
It’s a great story and a spectacular con. Jamie Bartlett’s unenviable task is to try to make sense of the entire enterprise, explaining the mysteries and complexities of cryptocurrency and blockchains, investigating the use of complex company structures and the function of foreign exchange platforms, as well as sketching in the involvement of a cast of hundreds of supporting characters. These include Ignatova’s business partner and all-round slimebag Sebastian Greenwood; the notorious sleazeball salesman Igor Alberts; and Igantova’s dupe of a brother, Konstantin. The names of the disreputable mount up almost as quickly as their ill-gotten gains, with thousands, then millions and billions extracted by OneCoin from legions of the gullible attending bizarre sales conferences and corporate events in hotels and exhibition centres all over the world.
So how on earth did Ignatova do it? Bartlett calls her a genius business-woman, but it’s pretty clear she was also just an everyday narcissistic predator, exploiting the hopes and fears of people she referred to as ‘monkeys’, the sort who fail to read the small print and who feel shortchanged in the great 21st-century tech rush to riches. We all know someone who knows someone who’s made a fortune buying Bitcoin, or day-trading, or investing in tech start-ups, or otherwise side-hustling, so why not you and me? Well, the age-old lesson, if it really needs spelling out again, is simple: just like your grandmother probably told you, if something seems like it’s too good to be true, it’s too good to be true.
The incredible story of OneCoin was first told by Bartlett in 2019 in a BBC podcast. (It seems possible, given the exponential growth of podcasting, that eventually there will be no novels, no non-fiction, no memoirs and no original writing of any kind. There will be only books based on podcasts and social media posts and YouTube channels and TV celebrity spin-offs. Dread future.) The Cryptoqueen podcast, it should be said, is excellent. Like the pioneering American podcast Serial, it’s a personality – a driven, binge-worthy work of investigative journalism, combining good old-fashioned radio documentary values with a bit of funky editing, and featuring Bartlett front and centre as a kind of bold, non-nebbishy Louis Theroux or Jon Ronson. You can download it from wherever you download things and then listen to it in the car while getting the shopping or picking up the kids.
Turning a podcast into a book clearly presents some challenges. Prose isn’t just audio transcribed. Bartlett has done his best, but some problems remain, the sprawling nature of the material being perhaps the most obvious. With Ignatova and her grand scheming we are deep in 19th-century novel territory and parts of the book are indeed written as if it were fiction: ‘Sitting in front of two large monitors filled with updating charts and numbers as she sipped on a Diet Coke, 28-year-old Ruja Ignatova was frustrated.’
Other parts read like a textbook intro to fintech. And yet others like a feature article in a newspaper weekend supplement. There are jump cuts and segues which would make perfect sense in a podcast episode but which in a book are merely confusing. And there are weird, frustrating glimpses throughout of Bartlett’s charmingly idiomatic, conversational style which don’t quite work on the page: ‘There had been a bun fight over the sponsorship slots’; ‘economic crises produce victims and losses, but, for the fleet of foot, the fissures are opportunities.’
It’s important not to lose sight of the real heroes and villains here. Bartlett pays tribute to the work of the brave campaigners against scammers on the Behind MLM website who first revealed the truth about OneCoin. And he’s a brave man himself to take on these appalling individuals who wreak havoc in so many lives. Ignatova, remember, remains at large. Indeed, just a few weeks ago, she was added to Europol’s ‘Most Wanted’ list. The Europol appeal for information ends with the words: ‘Caution! The wanted person or possible persons accompanying her might be armed.’