Svetlana Petriychuk and Evgenia Berkovich were arrested in May 2023 and prosecuted in Moscow over a play about jihadists’ brides they staged in 2020

Russian theatre director Yevgenia Berkovich (39) and playwright Svetlana Petriychuk (44) were sentenced to six years in prison on Monday (July 8) on charges of “justifying terrorism” over an award-winning play. The verdict by a Russian military court is the latest in a series of targeted attacks on outspoken cultural figures. Berkovich and Petriychuk were arrested in May 2023 and prosecuted behind closed doors in Moscow over a critically acclaimed play they staged in 2020 that that “justified terrorism.” The duo’s defense team promised to appeal the verdict, which was announced after a closed hearing.

In 2020, Petriychuk published the play Finist, the Brave Falcon’, which tells the stories of the “ISIS brides” — fictional Russian women who stand trial for deciding to travel to Syria in order to marry members of the jihadist group, Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS) they had met online. The play is loosely based on real interrogation transcripts and court verdicts involving women with ties to Islamists. Berkovich directed the performance based on Petriychuk’s script. However, the play didn’t catch the attention of the Russian law-enforcement agencies at the time.

‘A cautionary tale’

According to the playwright, the play explores what pushes Russian women to convert to radical Islam. However, during the trial, the state-appointed “expert witnesses” testified that the work contains “signs of radical feminist ideology.” They also claimed that the play glorifies terrorists, making them appear “interesting and attractive to girls and women” while discriminating against Russian men. During a hearing last year, Berkovich said the play envisioned “a very simple and transparent idea that dozens of women in our time become random victims of evil.” When it premiered in late 2020, the play, which received funding from the Russian Culture Ministry, was awarded two Golden Mask awards — Russia’s top theatre accolade — and an award from Russia’s Theatre Critics Association. Petriychuk received a Golden Mask as the best playwright of 2022 for her work on Finist...

According to reports, the two women were unexpectedly arrested in May 2023 and charged under Article 205.2 of the Russian Criminal Code, which bans “public calls to terrorist activities, public justification of terrorism and propaganda of terrorism. The prosecution argued that the play reflects Petriychuk’s sympathy for “extremely aggressive ideologies of Islam” and contains “elements of the justification of terrorism,” insisting that Berkovich directed the play with an intent to make “public statements about the recognition of the ideology of terrorism as a correct one.”

Berkovich and Petriychuk, however, have denied justifying terrorism, arguing that the play was intended as a cautionary tale about women who fall victim to radicalisation. “I did nothing wrong. I directed this performance with the goal of preventing terrorism. I feel nothing except condemnation and disgust towards terrorists,” Berkovich, who has also written anti-war poems since Russia began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, told the court in May. Her supporters said her poems might be the reason behind the persecution. Soon after the war started, Berkovich staged an anti-war demonstration and was jailed for 11 days.

First high-profile criminal case over play since Soviet era

Lawyer Ksenia Karpinskaya told Russian media after the trial that the defense plans to appeal the verdict. “We will, of course, appeal this decision, although there is little hope. But I want you to know that these women are absolutely innocent,” Karpinskaya said. She added on Russian channel TV Rain that Berkovich is raising two adopted children and has elderly family members whom she fears she’ll never see again. “She said that she would never see her grandmother again because she would not live another six years at 90. She might not see her adopted children; we don’t know what will happen to them tomorrow,” Karpinskaya said. “And she probably won’t be able to give birth to new children because of her age. And both the judge and the prosecutor knew about all of this.”

Berkovich and Petriychuk’s trial is the first high-profile criminal case related to a play since the Soviet era. It is also part of a broader campaign of repression by the Kremlin against critics of the war and President Vladimir Putin’s policies. Many artists who opposed the invasion were fired from state-funded cultural institutions, such as theatres and film studios, or blacklisted from performing. Authorities pressured venue owners to revoke show permits, effectively silencing opposing voices. In contrast, those who publicly supported the war received lucrative ad deals, features on state television, and preferential treatment from the Culture Ministry, which funds the country’s major artistic projects.

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