This play about recent Russian politics is being staged at the Noel Coward theatre in London by the Almeida theatre production company. When the curtain rises, the actors (about 15 of them) are all sitting in office chairs around a huge table which occupies most of the stage.
The main man
Then the scene shifts to one man, Berezovsky, shouting into his office phones. He comes across as a loud-mouthed bully, too busy to be polite to his colleagues and underlings. Played by Tom Hollander, this man, his monologues and diatribes, is the main focus of this biographical drama.
We see his mother being informed by his teacher that he is a child prodigy, and we see how as a teenager he applies to study mathematics with a top professor, Professor Perelman, played by Ronald Guttman. This academic, in his exclusive concentration on mathematical research to the exclusion of emotional attachments or any social values, represents the path not taken by Berezovsky, who abandoned a thesis on the mathematics of decision-making, to get into business just as the Soviet Union was embarking on capitalism at the beginning of the 1990s.
Origins of oligarchy
Berezovsky was one of the earliest Russian oligarchs. He got enormously rich by taking over the car sales industry, at a time when many Russians wanted to own cars. He also realised that to maintain power it was necessary to be able to influence public opinion, so he acquired a major national TV station. But in those turbulent times, when Boris Yeltsin took over as the President of the newly independent Russian Federation, there were other aspiring capitalists keen to get a slice of the ex-Soviet pie.
One of these, looking a mere teenager, was Abramovich, who comes as a supplicant to Berezovsky for him to use his influence with Yeltsin to get a vertically integrated oil company. Berezovsky agrees to assist provided he gets a cut. So Sibneft was created. But the exact nature of the cut is not clear as a later scene shows Abramovich complaining of Berezovsky’s demands for all kinds of irregular payments.
Another supplicant to Berezovsky was Putin, then a softly spoken Mayor’s assistant in St Petersburg. The deal appears to be two-way – with Putin granting some lucrative access in that city in return for Berezovsky using his influence with the Yeltsins to recommend Putin for a job in Moscow. There is then a splendid scene, when Tatiana, Yeltsin’s daughter, played by Evelyn Miller, dominates the decision-making about Putin’s promotion (as recommended by Berezovsky).
Dangers of oligarchy
But life is getting dangerous for the top oligarch. There is an assassination attempt. He survives but decides he needs a more expert guard, preferably with experience in the FSB (the Russian Security police) and a patriot. So he recruits Sasha, the FSB officer who comes to investigate the bomb attack.
When Yeltsin resigns, Putin, who has enjoyed a quick promotion from head of security in Moscow to Prime Minister, is in prime position to get himself chosen as President.
He presents himself as a patriot determined to root out the corruption of the oligarchs. He calls them to a meeting (not shown on stage) which Berezovsky does not attend. After this, President Putin summons Berezovsky to a meeting to explain himself. Here we see how power has shifted from the older patron to the new President, but Berezovsky’s tragic flaw is that he does not yet recognise this.
There is shocking public news around this time – of Chechen violence, terrorism, and an accident on a nuclear submarine, that has killed all on board. These are announced on a screen projection, as if on Russian national news. Berezovsky is furious at the untruthful news report of the submarine accident and orders his own TV station to deliver this news putting the blame on Putin. Putin then wants to take over the TV news station but, rather than yield, Berezovsky flees into exile.
The interval comes around this time, just after the scenes of Berezovsky in his prime, and just before Putin shows his dictatorial tendencies. So the latter half of the play is really about Berezovksy’s decline and time of exile. Abramovich is still part of the plot, as a go-between for Putin. Indeed there is a splendid scene which shows Putin on a trip to the distant Siberian province where he had made Abramovich governor. Without any change of scenery, their acting creates the atmosphere of the frozen flatlands of Siberia, reindeer in the distance. One gets the sense of the vastness of Russia’s “11 time zones and 150 million people”.
Meanwhile Berezovsky has applied for asylum in England, shown as a rainy place by actors with open umbrellas. When he is granted asylum, he makes a speech against Putin, warning that this man will work against Western interests.
The next episode is the tragic poisoning of Litvinenko, “Sasha” the ex-FSB officer, who is also in London. The drama deals with this episode through the reports of his wife.
Berezovsky is not content with exile as a rich billionaire because most of the money is in someone else’s account, that of Abramovich. So he mounts a legal challenge, the most expensive ever put before the London courts. But the female judge incisively dismisses his claim to the millions held by Abramovich, finding that Berezovksy is an unreliable witness who sometimes lies. The audience will recall Abramovich’s complaints about those irregular payments, nothing properly documented. Was this disgraced billionaire really such a good pioneer capitalist?
Berezovsky is getting homesick for Russia. He remembers with longing the typical Russian pastimes, like picking fresh mushrooms in the forest. He phones his old professor, who again recommends his quiet academic life, away from the strains of business or politics. So Berezovsky writes to Putin requesting to return to Russia to lead a quiet life as a professor of mathematics. Putin composes a furious letter of refusal, but then tears it up and just declines the application. The final scene shows Berezovsky preparing to kill himself before the theatre blacks out.
I have given a full account of the plot above because, although it is based on news stories, many of us did not follow news of obscure Russians (that Russian who killed himself?) until the Ukraine invasion got us reading up on recent Russian history and books like Catherine Belton’s “Putin’s People” sheds light on who’s who. The scriptwriter, Peter Morgan, has done a brilliant job in projecting the drama of this clash of powerful individuals in the past two decades of turbulence in Russia.
It is a male-dominated contest. Where are the women? The brief role of Tatiana and later of the female judge, show that females can take the lead, both in thirst for power and in proclaiming justice: Lady Macbeth and Portia to give the Shakespearian originals.
Indeed, it is interesting to make comparisons with Shakespearian drama which also dealt with recent power-politics, linked with patriotic claims. But whereas the power-hungry characters in Shakespeare fight their way to the top “wading in blood” often visible on the stage, here in this modern drama the blood is off-stage. One is made aware of atrocities through news announcements, and hints of accusations.
The value system implied is deeply disturbing to a Western audience. There is an essay in the programme notes by Amy Mackinnon, written in 2020, which describes how the Soviet system gave way to gangsterism and protection rackets, which were, to some extent, reined in once Putin came to power. “Under Putin, Russia entered a period of long-craved stability and prosperity, and the lawlessness of the 1990s faded.”
Essays old and new
No mention here of the destabilisation and then invasion of Ukraine, or of Georgia, and Moldova or in Syria. Even the mention of Navalny precedes his imprisonment. I wonder why the producers included such an out-of-date essay?
However, another essay in the programme explores the ideas of Misha Glenny on Putin the patriot. He points out that Putin uses Russian history selectively to praise the most expansionist rulers. Reading this suggests that basically Putin is a nostalgic imperialist with dangerous plans to recover lost lands.
Is Berezovsky a better patriot? The play is, after all, called the Patriots. Although most of the script is Berezovsky’s, he emerges as a flawed character. He may have achieved his business pre-eminence in the 1990s by the rational decision-making he learned with mathematics, but one soon gets the sense that his decision-making is what suits his business, not the public good. Even if Putin had not ousted him, a nation steered by such gangster oligarchs would not have led to prosperous stability.
So Patriots is a play about two flawed patriots. It is certainly worth going to see, not only for some superb acting, good set and sounds, but also because it sheds light on recent Russian history that has led to the war in Ukraine. Also, knowing that there are many in London who earn their money servicing Russian oligarchs, it should cause us to fear how easily capitalism and even democracy can be subverted by power-hungry individuals.