The real history behind 'Patriots' on Broadway

The Emmy-winning creator of The Crown moves from British to Russian politics in this hit drama from London — brush up on the show's key players and events.

Billy McEntee
Billy McEntee

Russia regularly makes headlines in the news, and one key player is in all of them. Russian president Vladimir Putin is the country's most powerful figure, but he first had a meteoric ascent to power. Now playing on Broadway, Peter Morgan's new play Patriots dramatizes Putin’s power-hungry rise to the top, strategically orchestrated by billionaire oligarch Boris Berezovsky, and its consequences.

Morgan, the creator of the Emmy Award-winning series The Crown, is a master of turning great history into compelling entertainment. He now brings Patriots, an Olivier Award nominee for Best New Play in London, to New York starring Tony Award winner and Academy Award nominee Michael Stuhlbarg as Berezovsky and Will Keen reprising his Olivier Award-winning performance as Putin.

Morgan knows that to understand our future, we must first look back. In Patriots, he centers on a pivotal point in Russia’s history: 1991, just after the fall of the Soviet Union. Discover the backstory (and backstabbing) of the real-life people and events that shaped Morgan's buzzy play, running at the Barrymore Theatre for a limited time.

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Post-Soviet Union Russia

The Soviet Union, a Eurasian country from 1922 to 1991, succeeded the Russian Empire and was a Communist state. Political upheaval both formed and dissolved the union: During the October Revolution of 1917, the rebel Bolsheviks overthrew the Russian Provisional Government, paving the way for a new leader to emerge: Vladimir Lenin. Lenin instituted a socialist state, which intensified under his successor, Joseph Stalin, the country’s longest-serving leader.

Under Stalin, whose reign started in 1924, the economy boomed but public health waned during famine and the introduction of forced labor camps. Stalin served until 1953; a string of shorter-serving leaders followed and increased tensions with the West via the Cuban Missile Crisis and threats of the spread of communism. The Soviet Union’s final leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, endured a coup as the Union’s three mightiest republics, Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus, seceded.

Faith in the Soviet Union was lost, and it dissolved, ushering in a new era of uncertainty — and an opportunistic one for the growing Russian elite at the end of the 20th century.

Historical figures featured in Patriots

That unstable environment sets the stage for the events of Patriots, in which a new leader once again has the chance to arise from chaos. Here are some of the key players who made that happen and how they factor into the action of Morgan's play.


Boris Berezovsky

Vladimir Putin may be a household name, but he would not have gained such popularity (or notoriety) without Boris Berezovsky. As the Soviet Union was in decline, he and other oligarchs took control and looked to enlist puppets as leaders. In 1999, when Russian president Borits Yeltsin met his term limit, Berezovsky handpicked Putin, the unknown deputy mayor of St. Petersburg, as his replacement.

A mathematician-turned-businessman and Putin’s friend-turned-foe, Berezovsky was born in Moscow in 1946. As Patriots shows, political conflict would come to shape his life and death.

Berezovsky formed Unity, the political party that later gave Putin his first parliamentary base. Berezovsky owned the country’s main television channel, Channel One, and used it to damage Putin’s rivals and elevate his status. This helped lead to Putin’s victory in a 1999 prime minister election.

Shortly afterward, Putin became an autocrat. His constitutional reform would give the Kremlin, the seat of the Russian government, the ability to denounce elected Russian governors. Berezovsky then turned against Putin, stepping down from power in 2000 and using his media clout to attack Putin on TV.

Knowing that Putin's enemies often meet dire ends, Berezovsky fled Russia and sought exile in Great Britain. He was granted refugee status in 2003 and became a critic of Putin up until his death in 2013. After leaving his homeland, there were multiple alleged attempts on his life.

A real-life friend of Berezovsky's wrote in The Guardian in 2022 that the play, and original cast member Tom Hollander, faithfully portrayed Berezovsky these events.


Vladimir Putin

Russia’s current president, Vladimir Putin, is Russia’s (and the Soviet Union’s) longest-serving leader since Joseph Stalin. He has held the role of president or prime minister of the country since 1999.

Born in 1952 in Leningrad (modern-day St. Petersburg), Putin worked as a KGB officer for 16 years before working under President Boris Yeltsin in 1996. After befriending Berezovsky throughout the 1990s, Putin was elected as prime minister in 1999.

The country’s constitution barred presidents from serving more than two four-year terms. To work around that limitation, Putin would alternate running as president and prime minister, effectively keeping him in control by manipulating the rule of the land.

Putin’s years in power have been marked by economic development and political upheaval. He has invaded neighboring areas, including Crimea and Ukraine, to annex more land and power for Russia. Throughout his rise to power, criticism against Putin has only grown, but he squashes it just as quickly.

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Roman Abramovich

Roman Abramovich is a Russian oligarch born in 1966. He rose to power during the fall of the Soviet Union by purchasing state-owned assets at prices far below market value due to the period’s economic volatility.

In the 1990s, Abramovich befriended Yeltsin, moved into the Kremlin, and was elected, at age 33, governor of the Russian province of Chukotka. Abramovich, played by Luke Thallon in Patriots, suggested to Yeltsin that Vladimir Putin replace him.

Today, some believe Abramovich acts as Putin’s financial middleman. He has been embroiled in a number of financial controversies himself, including bribery for political gain. He maintains a fleet of luxury yachts that some have called Abramovich’s Navy.

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Alexander Litvinenko

Alexander Litvinenko (1962–2006) criticized Putin’s leadership and fled to the U.K. Litvinenko claimed that the Kremlin was behind an assassination attempt on Boris Berezovsky, raising his profile and making him a target. Alex Hurt plays the character on Broadway, and Stella Baker plays his wife, Marina Litvinenko.

A vocal Putin critic, Litvinenko named modern Russia a mafia state, noting that it has participated in organized crime to achieve political ends. He was the alleged victim of the exact crimes he warned of: he was poisoned in London. Many believed Putin was behind the attack; the Russian leader repeatedly denied the charges.

On his deathbed, Litvinenko said, “You may succeed in silencing one man but the howl of protest from around the world, Mr. Putin, will reverberate in your ears for the rest of your life.”

In Patriots, Litvinenko is portrayed in a more positive light than most characters for being an unwavering Putin opponent. Patriots may center on Berezovsky and Putin's power struggle, but the cast of over 20 characters together show how people on all sides of history shaped — and continue to shape — the outcome.

Get Patriots tickets now.

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Photo credit: Patriots in London. (Patriots photos by Marc Brenner)

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