Russian director and playwright go on trial over play ‘justifying terrorism’

20 May 2024, 13:24

Accused pair
Russia Crackdown. Picture: PA

The case centres on the play Finist, The Brave Falcon.

A Russian court has opened the trial of a theatre director and a playwright accused of advocating terrorism in a play.

The case is the latest step in an unrelenting crackdown on dissent in Russia that has reached new heights since Moscow sent troops into Ukraine.

Zhenya Berkovich, a prominent independent theatre director, and playwright Svetlana Petriychuk have been detained for more than a year in the run-up to their trial.

Authorities claim their play Finist, The Brave Falcon justifies terrorism, which is a criminal offence in Russia punishable by up to seven years in prison.

Berkovich and Petriychuk have both repeatedly rejected the accusations against them.

The director told the court that she staged the play in order to prevent terrorism. Petriychuk echoed her sentiment, saying that she wrote the play in order to prevent the kind of events it dramatises.

Accused pair in court
The case has caused outrage in Russia (AP)

The women’s lawyers have 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 theatre accolade.

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.

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, has been 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.

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 criminalised 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 sacked from state-run theatres, and musicians were blacklisted from performing in the country.

Some were slapped with label “foreign agent”, which carries additional government scrutiny and strong negative connotations. Many have left Russia.

Berkovich, who is raising two adopted daughters, has refused to leave Russia and continued working with her independent theatre 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.

By Press Association

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