Patriots by Peter Morgan: a review

Posted by Paul Samael on Tuesday, August 23, 2022 Under: Random thoughts

Patriots by Peter Morgan (author of Netflix series The Crown) depicts the rise and fall from grace of Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky.  I saw it at the Almeida Theatre where it’s just finished its run, but it's now transferring to the West End.  It’s an interesting play with excellent performances from Tom Hollander as Berezovksy, Luke Thallon as Roman Abramovich and Will Keen - who is well worth seeing for his uncannily accurate and rather chilling impersonation of Putin (especially his peculiarly stiff body language).

Rise and fall

In the first half, Berezovsky is shown rising almost effortlessly through the gangster capitalism of post-Soviet economy to become an influential adviser to the court of President Boris Yeltsin.   Meanwhile, his growing power and influence allow him to attract courtiers of his own.  Roman Abramovich (referred to as “the Kid”) seeks his help and influence in acquiring oil company Sibneft.  And a certain Vladimir Putin — having fallen on hard times - requests Berezovsky’s help in becoming a politician.  This ultimately leads to Berezovsky’s fatal mistake - encouraging Yeltsin’s inner circle to make Putin his successor in the belief that the latter would just do as he was told by Berezovsky and others.  

In the second half, the tables are turned as Putin decides that he needs to bring Berezovsky and the other oligarchs to heel.  Abramovich doesn’t exactly turn against Berezovsky but realises that the latter can no longer protect him and, somewhat reluctantly, switches his allegiance to Putin.

Berezovsky and Putin - different, yet the same?

Obviously Berezovsky wasn’t the only oligarch to fall foul of Putin - and the play rather glosses over others, like Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who attempted to stand up to him (and unlike Berezovsky, spent time in prison for doing so - whereas Berezovsky escaped to London and obtained asylum in the UK).  But some degree of simplification and loss of historical nuance is probably inevitable when turning something like this into a two and half hour play.

The most interesting aspect for me was the parallel drawn between Berezovsky and Putin, despite their ultimately antagonistic relationship.  Both feel they are men of destiny, responding to a call to “save Russia” (and both believe that only they can save it) - but both are also manipulative sociopaths and hypocrites.  In Berezovsky’s defence, though, he never comes across as someone who would have shared the grandiose, backward-looking vision of imperial Russia that seems to have prompted Putin to invade Ukraine.  

But there is definitely a further parallel in terms of hubris.  At the height of his powers, Berezovsky seems to have felt that he could almost control the future - hence his belief that Putin would do as he was told by the oligarchs.  Similarly, after 20 years in power, Putin seems to have believed that his own power was such that crushing Ukraine would be swift and that its population could easily be brought to heel.

The court case  

The play also briefly covers the 2012 judgment of the English High Court in the dispute between Berezovsky and Abramovich over who owned Sibneft - which prompted me to take a look at the judgment.    I’ve only dipped into it (it’s a massive document, over 1200 paragraphs long - although there's a summary of it here), but parts of it are a fascinating read - see for example paragraphs 51-57 on the need that most businessmen had for a “krysha”, or Godfather type protector figure, which also surfaces in the play.  Berezovsky was initially both Abramovich’s and Putin’s krysha - but it’s pretty clear who’s the big krysha now.  The really depressing thing is that you suspect that the most likely way for Putin’s reign to end is when some person for whom Putin was initially a krysha decides that it’s time to turn the tables and become the big krysha himself - and so it goes on.

Why was a Russian dispute heard in an English court?

If you are wondering how a dispute over an alleged Russian law agreement could be considered by an English court, it seems that Abramovich chose not to dispute the jurisdiction of the English court - although as the judge remarked, “[i]n circumstances where Mr Berezovsky was unable to return to Russia without facing arrest, and.. the difficulties facing [him] in obtaining a fair trial… that was no doubt a realistic decision”.  This implies that the court would have accepted jurisdiction even if Abramovich had disputed it.  It might also seem odd that the court was asked to rule on Russian law.  But it’s not uncommon for agreements governed by foreign law to come before the English courts;   usually expert evidence is provided on the relevant principles of foreign law and that’s what happened here (see paragraph 527).  

Berezovsky claimed ownership of 50% of Sibneft but this was never reduced to writing and the judge clearly felt that he was a seriously unreliable witness, constantly changing the facts to suit his own objectives - so it’s perhaps not too surprising that he lost.  His unreliability as a narrator of his own life isn’t really explored in the play - but perhaps that would be asking too much of the form.  Maybe it’s better suited to a novel, where the reader would have more time to consider inconsistencies between different accounts.  At any rate, good though it is as a play, I don’t think Patriots is going to be the last word on the post-Soviet oligarchs and the rise of Putin.

In : Random thoughts 

Tags: patriots "almeida theatre" "peter morgan" "boris berezovsky" "vladimir putin" 
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About Me

Paul Samael Welcome to my blog, "Publishing Waste" which will either (a) chronicle my heroic efforts to self-publish my own fiction; or (b) demonstrate beyond a scintilla of doubt the utter futility of (a). And along the way, I will also be doing some reviews of other people's books and occasionally blogging about other stuff.
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