Russian playwright, theater director sentenced to 6 years for play ‘justifying terrorism’

  • Independent theater director Zhenya Berkovich and playwright Svetlana Petriychuk have been in jail for over a year awaiting trial. A Russian court on Monday convicted them of terrorism charges and sentenced them to six years each in prison.
  • Authorities claimed their play “Finist, the Brave Falcon” justifies terrorism, which is a criminal offense in Russia. Berkovich, Petriychuk and their supporters claim the play clearly presents anti-terrorist sentiments.
  • Russia has intensified its crackdown on dissent since sending troops into Ukraine with severity not seen since the Soviet era.

A Russian court on Monday convicted a theater director and a playwright of terrorism charges and sentenced them to six years each in prison, the latest in an unrelenting crackdown on dissent across the country that has reached new heights since Moscow sent troops into Ukraine.

Zhenya Berkovich, a prominent independent theater director, and playwright Svetlana Petriychuk have already been in jail for over a year awaiting trial.

Authorities claimed their play “Finist, the Brave Falcon” justifies terrorism, which is a criminal offense in Russia punishable by up to seven years in prison. Berkovich and Petriychuk have both repeatedly rejected the accusations against them.

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In one hearing, Berkovich told the court that she staged the play in order to prevent terrorism, and Petriychuk echoed her sentiment, saying that she wrote it in order to prevent events like those depicted in the play.

The women’s lawyers pointed out at court hearings before the trial that the play was supported by the Russian Culture Ministry and won the Golden Mask award, Russia’s most prestigious national theater award. In 2019, the play was read to inmates of a women’s prison in Siberia, and Russia’s state penitentiary service praised it on its website, Petriychuk’s lawyer said.

Theater director Zhenya Berkovich, right, and playwright Svetlana Petriychuk are seen in a glass cage prior to a hearing in a court in Moscow.

Theater director Zhenya Berkovich, right, and playwright Svetlana Petriychuk are seen in a glass cage prior to a hearing in a court in Moscow, Russia, on July 8, 2024. The two have been behind bars since early May. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

The case against Berkovich and Petriychuk elicited outrage in Russia. An open letter in support of the two artists, started by the independent Novaya Gazeta newspaper, was signed by more than 16,000 people since their arrest.

The play, the letter argued, “carries an absolutely clear anti-terrorist sentiment.”

Dozens of Russian actors, directors and journalists also signed affidavits urging the court to release the two from custody pending investigation and trial.

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Immediately after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlin unleashed a sweeping campaign of repression, unparalleled since the Soviet era. It has effectively criminalized any criticism of the war, with the authorities targeting not only prominent opposition figures who eventually received draconian prison terms, but anyone who spoke out against it, publicly or otherwise.

Pressure mounted on critical artists in Russia, too. Actors and directors were fired from state-run theaters, and musicians were blacklisted from performing in the country. Some were slapped with the label “foreign agent,” which carries additional government scrutiny and strong negative connotations. Many have left Russia.

Berkovich, who is raising two adopted daughters, refused to leave Russia and continued working with her independent theater production in Moscow, called Soso’s Daughters. Shortly after the start of the war in Ukraine, she staged an anti-war picket and was jailed for 11 days.

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