Two Russian theater workers — a director and playwright — have been arrested in Moscow, the first time since the Soviet era that a high-profile criminal case has been opened over the contents of a theater play.
Director Evgeniya Berkovich was brought to a Russian courtroom in handcuffs on Friday, accused of “justifying terrorism” in a play first staged several years ago about Russian women who joined Isis, with state-appointed experts also decrying “radical feminism” in the text. The play’s author Svetlana Petriichuk was also detained.
Purges and persecution have torn through Russia’s cultural scene since the start of its full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year and the corresponding domestic crackdown on dissent. Many cultural workers who have spoken out critically against the war have found themselves purged from their jobs, while a handful have had cases opened against them over their speech.
But the arrest of the two women over the themes in a play, rather than over protests or anti-war speech, marks another sharp step up in the repressive measures taken to control Russia’s cultural scene.
The play, Finist, the brave Falconbased on the transcripts of real-life police interviews with Russian women who entered into online relationships with Isis fighters and traveled to Syria, came out in 2021 and won two Golden Mask awards, Russia’s equivalent of the Oscars for the stage.
Marina Davydova, editor-in-chief of Teatr, an industry magazine, said the persecution of individuals over the contents of a respected play was intended to send a warning to everyone.
Targeting a Golden Mask play specifically is “an attempt to destroy Russia’s most important theatrical institution”, Davydova wrote.
To all theater workers who stayed in Russia and attempted to continue producing freethinking work, Davydova added, the case sends “a clear signal: no one is safe”.
The deputy head of the Duma lower house of parliament’s committee on culture, Alexander Sholokhov, defended the idea that the contents of a work of fiction could be cause for launching criminal investigations into its author’s political views.
“Any work of culture expresses the point of view of its author,” Sholokhov said, according to Russian media outlet Lenta.
The arrests followed denunciations penned by members of the public, local media reported. Denunciations have become widespread in Russia since the start of the full-scale invasion, and informers have become a key pillar of support for the Kremlin and tool of control.
Berkovich is a member of the avant-garde studio team of renowned Russian director Kirill Serebrennikov, who spent more than a year under house arrest on trumped-up corruption charges, and is also the single mother of two adopted daughters.
Berkovich and Petriichuk each face up to seven years in prison on the charge.
Statements of support were presented in court and included letters from Russia’s top theater directors who are still in the country, as well as Nobel laureate and Novaya Gazeta newspaper editor Dmitry Muratov.
In a Moscow court hearing on Friday, the judge ruled to keep Berkovich in pre-trial detention for two months.
Petriichuk’s husband, Yury Shekhvatov, a playwright and theater festival director who spent 15 days in jail after protesting against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last spring, addressed his wife in a social media post on Friday.
“You one of my favorite plays, and for it they now want to put you in jail,” Shekhvatov wrote.