“In the West, you have no idea,” says Tom Hollander’s Boris Berezovsky in the first line of Patriots. “You think of Russia as a cold, bleak place full of hardship and cruelty. But ask any Russian what would bring tears to their eyes if they were denied it…” and he croons over the wonders of the banya and the songs and picking mushrooms. A patriot, after all, loves their country although they may despair at it.
Peter Morgan’s play, which opened at the Noel Coward Theatre on Friday, races through the two post-Soviet decades of Berezovsky’s power playing. Boris levers Vladimir Putin into the presidency, then sees his protégé drive him out of Russia and destroy him. The play’s brilliance is in its challenging depiction of Putin’s rise. Will Keen takes him slowly from naïve failure to supreme leader, initially amazed at his presidential desk and uncertain of his powers until his aide reminds him he’s president. His pause and reply are chilling: “So I am.”
I saw the play with a Russian who left the country in 1991. She focused on two scenes – one where Berezovsky is mocked by a judge in an English court and one where Roman Abramovich describes Putin’s failed attempt to join Nato in 2000.
“He does the unthinkable,” Abramovich explains. “He renounces two generations of Soviet orthodoxy, gets on his knees, and begs to join Nato. And instead of recognising the momentousness of the gesture, they tell him to get in line.”
So what? “Russians have it in their DNA that they are rejected and ridiculed by the west,” my companion explained. “From the moment Peter the Great forced the shaving of beards, Russians have tried to be European and were not taken seriously. Those scenes play out a generational trauma. Putin and Berezovsky trying to gain respect. Both men are rejected and humiliated. One descends into depression. The other ascends into psychotic despotism. This is not an excuse, it’s an explanation.”
The people vs Putin. It’s a mistake to analyse a nation’s geopolitics through its leader’s psychology. But Belgium based Russian expert Lien Verpoest’s 2022 paper The Securitisation of Humiliation in Russia describes the country’s relationship with the West as centuries of “humiliation discourse” in “a dynamic layer of attraction and rejection.” In December John Kampfner wrote that after decades of military and economic brutality “Putin was treated as nothing more than a cyber-hacker and a bully, not like Xi Jinping who is taken seriously by the West.”
Oppressor v victim. Masha Gessen, the outspoken Russian Putin critic who resigned from the board of American PEN last week when Russian writers were banned from its festival, says Russia’s “victim culture” is being imposed on Ukraine in this brutal imperial war.
What is Peter Morgan saying? Google “Putin humiliation” and you’ll find “Why Vladimir Putin must be humiliated”, “Putin’s coming humiliation”, “Why are we so scared of humiliating Putin?” Morgan’s power struggles are already playing on repeat in the Kremlin. As the war enters this next, brutal phase, the best way to understand what might come next is to feel what happened before.
Patriots is at the Noel Coward Theatre until 19 August
Photograph Marc Brenner