London’s theaterland is not the world stage. But what happens there can shape perceptions and, thus, reality. The most talked-about play this summer is “Patriots,” which tells how the late Boris Berezovsky (played by Tom Hollander) plucks Vladimir Putin (Will Keen) from obscurity and puts him in the Kremlin. But Berezovsky wants business-friendly reform and close ties with the West, whereas Putin wants to rebuild the Russian state by taming the oligarchs. The supposed nonentity becomes a sinister tyrant, and turns on his creator. The once all-powerful Berezovsky ends up in exile, an irrelevant, gibbering wreck.

None of that is quite wrong. But it is not quite right either. Since I saw the play last week, my mind has been buzzing with annoyance and puzzlement. Why did this play, sizzlingly staged by director Rupert Goold, and playing to packed houses, annoy me so much? And not just me. My companion that evening, also a lifelong Russia-watcher, was so incensed that she wanted to walk out after ten minutes. 

Trivial inaccuracies do not help. The play’s title imagery lazily chases the atmosphere by writing the Russian “ya” (Я) letter as the R in Patriots. Careless abuse of Cyrillic, in my experience, is usually a bad sign. Berezovsky is supposedly a contender for a “Nobel Prize in Mathematics.” The top prize in that discipline is the Fields Medal, historical timelines are telescoped and concertinaed. Putin had good jobs by the mid-1990s; a stint as a taxi driver came earlier, if it happened at all. Speeches (such as Boris Yeltsin’s carefully phrased resignation from the presidency on December 31, 1999) are rewritten for dramatic effect. 

To be fair, that is not necessarily fatal. Many of Shakespeare’s plays use real events, countries, and people as scaffolding for some of the best stories ever told. But the play’s author, Peter Morgan, is no Shakespeare. (He previously wrote “The Crown,” a controversially fictionalized TV series about Britain’s royal family.)

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His play’s supposed real story is portrayed wrongly. The dispute between Putin and Berezovsky was not about different versions of patriotism. I knew Berezovsky quite well. He epitomized the chaotic Russia of the 1990s, with its swindles and chaos. But he had no interest in the country’s cultural, institutional, or social development and still less in European security architecture. He just wanted things to work in ways that allowed him to turn wealth into power and power back into wealth again. 

For his part, Putin’s worldview has been largely unchanged since his KGB days. He sees life as a bleak zero-sum game where only power matters. That is encapsulated in Lenin’s question, “кто кого?” (who does what to whom?) and is also well depicted in the American TV series about the New Jersey mafia, “The Sopranos.” 

A deeper problem is the sentimentalized, exoticized view of Russia that the play exemplifies. In the opening scene, the Berezovsky character tells the audience: “In the West, you have no idea. You think of Russia as a cold, bleak place full of hardship and cruelty,” only to follow it with a list of the more comforting features of the “real” Russia, ranging from Vysotsky’s ballads to pelmeni dumplings. 

Clichés are a dangerous self-indulgence when you are dealing with a nuclear-armed gangster state. The single most important fact about Russia right now is that it is waging unprovoked war on a neighbor. It would be ahistorical to include that fact directly in the script, which ends with Berezovsky’s purported suicide in 2013. But if I were staging a play about this monstrous regime, I would take a collection for Ukraine at every performance.

Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.

Europe's Edge
CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America.
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