Patriots by Peter Morgan on Broadway

Putin and the Oligarchs Explored

By: - Apr 24, 2024

Patriots is a compelling drama, written by Peter Morgan, who is not only a talented dramatist.  He is a man who can grasp the politics of any situation he undertakes to put on stage. This production is a plain set (Miriam Buther) decorated by shifting lights (Jack Knowles)  and composed sound (Adam Cork).  You can’t take either mind or ears off it. Rupert Goold directs.

The play is about Boris Berezovsky. (Michael Stuhlbarg). It comes to the Broadway stage at the very moment when the debate about the "dashing" 1990s among the Russian liberal community (which I am a part of) has heated up with renewed vigor. But Russian audiences will perceive it quite differently from Americans. That is, quite, quite differently.  

Berezovsky is a talented Jewish boy, fascinated by math, and the idea of infinity. But theorems and formulas cannot satisfy him, and so, thanks to Perestroika, he discovers a world of infinite possibilities – business. He makes money literally out of thin air and becomes rich. Or rather, an oligarch. 

He is not just a money bag, he is the engine of life. Events, people, politicians, markets revolve around him. He juggles them with telephone handsets, charm and numbers. Everyone who comes to Berekovsky gets what they are looking for - new money and new opportunities. There it is, infinity in action!

But... some people are not ready to do anything for money. Into Berezovsky’s office enters a seemingly modest man in a gray Soviet-style suit: V. V. Putin (Will Keen). He has just lost his job as deputy mayor of St. Petersburg and has to earn money by driving an old Zaporozhets inherited from his parents. He doesn't take bribes. Berezovky spoke with him once before and tried to bribe him with a Mercedes. For Putin, loyalty is key to success. As well as his homeland. Loyalty and homeland are one and the same for him.  

We have two different patriots.  The play is bracketed by Berezovsky speaking lovingly of the songs of Vysotsky, eating ice creme on very cold days, wrapped in a shapka ushanka.  Russian culture and Western capitalism drive him. He loves his homeland so much so that he dreams of saving it. He says: "If you don't leave Russia, there's only one thing left for you to do: save it." And he quotes his father as saying, "What a happiness it is to be born in Russia! But the greatest happiness is to be born a Jew in Russia!" 

They are a natural fit, Berezovsky needs Putin - an incorruptible, loyal, humble patriot unemployed enough to have the courage to come to his office for help. And he moves him upstairs by making him Director of the F.S.B. What, you don't like it, you're sick of the epaulets and of giving the orders? Good! And then he makes him President.

Berezovsky is sure he has the new Russian president in his pocket, but no such luck. Putin, now dressed in a new suit, refuses to fulfill the wishes of his "creator". He gathers all the oligarchs (except Berezovsky, who is fishing somewhere in the Caribbean) and announces that from now on business is separate from politics and they no longer have any influence on the Kremlin. The enraged oligarch Berezovky jumps off his yacht and bursts into Putin's office, demanding an answer: You owe me, I made you president! Self-confident Putin objects: Not you, but the Russian people. In the future, first make an appointment, then we'll talk.

Berezovsky's departs  to London. He loses a lawsuit against Roman Abramovich (another of Berezovsky's  oligarch "creatures”)  It is Abramovich who informs his new patron Putin that Berezovsky has been found hanged in his apartment. He reminds him who made him President. And Putin, for the first time, loses his temper and almost screams: the people, the people elected me! The people are tired of injustice and disrespect, that's why they elected me! 

So, in this play, we have a dyad: an arrogant oligarch who thinks he is the master of life and a reasonable statesman who puts an end to lawlessness. Does that ring true? It does. Only it's not the truth, but a semblance of the truth. And this semblance is at the heart of Putin's propaganda - an incorruptible, honest patriot politician who has established order and justice in the country.

Any Russian viewer of this performance (I am one) will sarcastically snicker: Putin is a selfless man, isn't he?...? Putin has established justice...? Putin respects the people?...? Well, well, well. However, the American viewer can easily take this at face value..... And that's a shame.

In the last scene of the play, Vladimir Vysotsky's famous song from the movie Vertical is played, and the ghost of Boris Berezovsky appears, with the words:

The West doesn't understand Russia.....

This drama may be important.  It is also terrific theater.