REVIEW: Apple's new 'Pirate of Prague' podcast glamorizes a Czech fraudster

From Boston to the Bahamas, with a swindling stint in 90s Prague in between, Viktor Kožený's story makes for stylish, if somewhat superficial, listening.

Jules Eisenchteter

Written by Jules Eisenchteter Published on 30.11.2023 18:00:00 (updated on 01.12.2023) Reading time: 3 minutes

A new Apple Original podcast looks at the outrageous and extravagant life of Viktor Kožený, one of the most infamous Czech financial fraudsters of modern times.

Think The Great Gatsby meets The Wolf of Wall Street meets Bernie Madoff meets Catch Me If You Can. The life of Viktor Kožený is the stuff films are made of. Or at least podcasts.

Glitz and glamor

In a new Apple Original eight-episode series, host Joe Nocera and investigative journalist Peter Elkind retrace the steps of the infamous “Pirate of Prague” from his humble beginnings in communist Czechoslovakia to his current non-extradition retreat in the Bahamas.

“The thing about bad guys is you often can’t help but like them,” narrator Nocera announces from the get-go.

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An admission that rings almost too sincere throughout the series, which may have benefitted from a more thorough investigation of the crimes committed by the Czech "wunderkind," and a bit less at marveling goggle-eyed at the glitz of the ultra-rich’s eccentric lifestyle.

The glamorization of a man who spent decades swindling out of their money both the ultra-wealthy on the Aspen mountaintops and your everyday Joe in 1990s Czechoslovakia may be the most obvious pitfall of the podcast, of which five episodes have for now been released.

The over-the-top narration and occasional simplistic historical shortcuts, while intended to attract a wider audience, may also slightly sting listeners more familiar with 1990s Czechoslovakia and those better aware of the disastrous consequences of the savage voucher privatization program introduced throughout Central and Eastern Europe at the time.

Given the subject matter, the “Pirate of Prague” podcast nevertheless grips you from the start as Nocera and Elkind kick off their journey by visiting the ultra-rich gated communities of the Bahamas where now 60-year-old Kožený, facing charges in both the U.S. and the Czech Republic, has found refuge.

Ponzi-ing away

Thanks to the multiple testimonies of people who both revered and despised him, a clearer image slowly emerges of a man consistently described as unusually charismatic and lethally charming, a man of incredible intelligence, initiative, and ardor; a man, also, who wouldn’t hesitate for a second to manipulate, lie and cheat to get what he wants – which commonly involved greenbacks, and lots of them.

Some parts, like when he allegedly smooth-talked his way into Harvard University after having fled communist Czechoslovakia, may remind us of the cunning skills of a Frank Abagnale, Leonardo DiCaprio’s charmingly resourceful character in Catch Me If You Can.

But as episodes go by and money outrageously accumulates through successive dubious Ponzi schemes, we see Kožený join the 0.1 percent of the world’s elite and morph closer to an almost mythical figure throwing the most lavish, glamorous, and glitzy parties of the time.

Kožený's crimes

  • In 1992 Kožený capitalized on the Czechoslovak government's privatization voucher system by introducing Harvard Průmyslový Holding a.s. (HPH), unrelated to his alma mater, which offered citizens a tenfold return on voucher values if they cashed out after a year.
  • Through HPH, Kožený gained control of 15 percent of the Prague stock market, investing in 50 companies using the privatization vouchers.
  • In 1992, Czech Intelligence Service agent Václav Wallis was arrested for selling Kožený financial information and sensitive details about Czech politicians including Václav Havel and Václav Klaus.
  • He was charged in absentia, together with Boris Vostrý, for deliberately depressing the share value of Sklo Union Teplice, leading to the company's assets being sold for CZK 11.5 billion. He was sentenced in absentia to 10 years for criminal fraud in 1997.
  • Kožený faces bribery charges in the U.S. for his involvement in the privatization scheme of Azeri national assets.

And while those may have been Gatsby’s attempt to attract his long-lost Daisy, these were Kožený’s carefully set trap to rob the rich and powerful of their millions, most notably in the infamous oil-rich Azerbaijani privatization scheme.

The life of Viktor Kožený, with its strange blend of fantastical myth and cutthroat reality, is surely a topic worth exploring, especially for those seeking to better understand Czechoslovakia in the early 1990s.

But while providing a good introduction to the topic, “The Pirate of Prague” podcast, unfortunately, falls short of truly distinguishing between the man and the legend he so painstakingly and meticulously crafted over the last decades.

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