The writer and director of an award-winning Russian play that’s been performed in Moscow for the past two years have been arrested and accused of terrorism. It’s the first time criminal charges have been filed over a theatre production in post-Soviet Russia.

Svetlana Petriichuk’s drama ‘Finist – The Brave Falcon’, which premiered in the Russian capital in 2021, tells the story of women who corresponded online with ISIS fighters, fell in love with them and left for Syria where they became their wives, or slaves in ISIS cells. When they returned to Russia, they were imprisoned. While a work of fiction, it draws on a number of real women’s stories.

The play has been acclaimed for making one of the most influential feminist statements in Russian theatre. In 2022, it even won two Golden Mask awards – the country’s top theatre prize – for best playwright and best costume design.

But on 5 May, Petriichuk and the play’s director, Yevgenia (‘Zhenia’) Berkovich, were taken into custody for two months of pre-trial detention on charges of ‘justifying terrorism’, which is punishable by up to seven years in prison. Moscow law enforcement claims the play contains terrorist propaganda.

I first met Petriichuk three weeks ago in Berlin, at the Echo of Lubimovka festival of new, Russian anti-war playwriting, which I co-curated. Prior to that we had only communicated online, so we were glad to meet in real life and agreed to stay in touch. Alas, that is now impossible.

Moscow law enforcement claims the play contains terrorist propaganda.

It is not known why these arrests have been made now, more than two years after the play’s first performance. It’s possible that authorities view theatre’s typically urban middle class audiences a base for potential protests, or that they are searching for ‘enemies’ to blame amid a lack of military success in Ukraine.

Whatever the supposed rationale, Russian thespians have been deeply shocked by the arrests. Journalists and commentators have called it a “new theatre case”, but it’s not a ‘new’ case, it’s the first. For the first time in post-Soviet Russia, criminal charges have been levelled at a publicly available and publicly acclaimed artistic statement.

Is there terrorist propaganda in this play? Of course not. Exactly the opposite. But the perverted minds of those who denounced Berkovich and Petriichuk, and those who judge them, will find anything in anything.

This is a work about how very naive young women, who were not deemed of any worth in their homeland, were preyed upon by a network of sophisticated recruiters and became slaves to terrorists.

But it’s not only about the danger of ISIS, it’s also about the social trap in which women find themselves, caught between two patriarchies: of the post-Soviet world and of radical Islam. As Berkovich said while discussing the play at one of its first stage readings: “They can choose between a scarf and a scarf.”

‘Finist’ juxtaposes several interrogations of the women by the Russian law enforcement with ‘instructions’ for newly converted Muslim women – on how to wear a hijab or how to cook halal food, for instance. But sometimes the characters launch into monologues that reference the well-known Russian folk tale of Finist the Brave Falcon, which was collected in the 19th century. The tale’s main protagonist, looking for her lover, “wore out three pairs of iron shoes, rubbed three iron staffs on the grass and gnawed three stone loaves”. This typical folklore hyperbole is comparable with the suffering of young women who left for the Middle East in search of a lover they met online.

Increasing Repression

As part of the police investigation prior to Petriichuk and Berkovich’s arrests – and unbeknownst to the theatre community – experts working for the prosecution examined the performance and found that it contains both terrorist ideologies and feminism that contradicts Russia’s ‘male-centred’ “way of life”.

The Russian government has attacked members of the country’s performing arts scene before, but this is different – the first time the charges have directly related to a person’s art.

In 2020 director Kirill Serebrennikov was handed a suspended three-year sentence in the Seventh Studio case, a high-profile trial into Russian theatre-makers accused of economic crimes, which international rights groups widely considered a political show trial. And last year, separate charges were brought against playwright Mikhail Durnenkov, critic Marina Davydova and director Sergei Levitsky for expressing anti-war views, under a 2022 law that makes it illegal to discredit the Russian army.

Even back in 2012, members of the feminist punk band Pussy Riot received two years in prison for a performance in an Orthodox cathedral that was aborted when they were escorted out by security guards. And in 2015, the director of the Novosibirsk Opera House, which staged a production of Wagner’s opera ‘Tannhäuser’ deemed offensive to the Russian Orthodox Church, was sacked by Russia’s culture minister, not prosecuted for any crime.

For the first time in post-Soviet Russia, criminal charges have been levelled at a publicly available and publicly acclaimed artistic statement.

Now, with the arrests of Petriichuk and Berkovich, the Russian government is demonstrating a fundamentally new nature of repression. And this should not surprise anyone. Their case is a logical development of the state’s repressive policy, under which any form of artistic expression can be perceived as subversive.

This didn’t happen in one day. I have known Berkovich for a long time – she performed for two years in ‘Second Act. Grandchildren’, a play that I wrote and directed with Alexandra Polivanova – and in 2014, along playwright Valery Pecheikin, she invited me to participate in a small educational project entitled ‘Why is Shakespeare dangerous?’.

My role was to determine whether it is possible to stage ‘Romeo and Juliet’ in accordance with modern Russian legislation. Unfortunately, this task turned out to be very simple – even back in the summer of 2014, the authorities, if they so desired, could have seen violations of several Russian laws in Shakespeare’s play.

But it all started much earlier. Back in 2000, a criminal case was opened against artist Oleg Mavromati on charges of inciting ethnic and religious hatred over a scene in one of his films that involved a crucifixion. Mavromati was sentenced to prison, but fled the country and has been living in exile ever since. Four years later, creators of the exhibition ‘Caution, religion!’ at the Sakharov Museum were arrested under the same charges as Mavromati. The museum’s director and deputy director were found guilty and fined.

Article 29 of the Russian constitution guarantees the absence of censorship. Yet new laws that de facto ensure the real and effective functioning of censorship have only increased since the start of the full-scale war that Russia is waging in Ukraine.

Until February 2022, the authorities’ main tools to combat dissent were charges of “insulting religion”, “dissemination of LGBT propaganda” and “distortion of historical truth”. With the outbreak of the war, “spreading lies about the Russian army” has been added to this list.

Petriichuk and Berkovich’s arrests for aiding terrorism are tragic symptoms of the new times. All these laws and criminal articles, written in a language convenient for specific judicial interpretations, are applied selectively and differently for different citizens, including cultural figures.

Even as we were preparing to publish this piece, it was reported that a Moscow court had arrested in absentia Ukrainian film producer Alexander Rodnyansky and Polish Russian-born playwright Ivan Vyrypaev (known for his 2006 film ‘Euphoria’) for spreading fake information about the Russian military. Both have long been outside of Russia.

A state waging war needs new internal enemies. Not just dissenters, but also terrorists, anyone can be appointed – from little-known activists to the recipient of a national theatre award.

But would you expect anything else from a state that bombed Mariupol’s theatre?

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