Arrest scandal distinguished Russian theater makers

Theater makers who are put in prison by the government for a piece financed by the same government: it sounds absurd. The arrest in St. Petersburg, exactly one week ago, of the acclaimed theater director Yevgenia Berkovitsj (38) and screenwriter/dramaturge Svetlana Petrichyuk (43) has therefore led to great outrage within the Russian art world.

In 2021, the women performed the play written by Petrichuk in 2020 Finist the brave falcon about Russian IS women, who marry radicalized fighters, travel to the caliphate and are persecuted for it. According to the Russian prosecutor, the play would justify terrorism, a charge that carries a maximum sentence of seven years in prison and is often used against regime critics. In addition, the piece is said to have features of radical feminism and an attack on the ‘androcentric’ structure of Russian society. A search was carried out at the homes of Berkovitsj’s parents.

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Gold Mask

At their arraignment in court last week, where dozens of supporters came to show their support, Berkovitch and Petrichuk maintained their innocence and that their play exposes the dangers of radical Islamism. Berkovitsj’s lawyer pointed out in court that the play received funding from the Russian Ministry of Culture and last year was awarded a Golden Mask, Russia’s highest theater award. On the award website the piece, with explanation and eulogies, can still be found. Despite this defense and despite statements of support from numerous Russian artists, the judge decided to extend the pretrial detention of the two women for two months. “Evgenia, you are a star. You are Light. You are love. They, those monsters will die in oblivion, but you will stay,” director Kirill Serebrennikov wrote in a flaming speech on Telegram.

Dubious reputation

The defense strongly criticizes the fact that the indictment came about after an investigation by three ‘experts’, who judged the play to be a ‘glorification’ of IS ideology and found signs of ‘radical feminist ideology’ in the story. According to them, the theatrical production is a “horror film” that negatively affects the human psyche. The independent newspaper banned in Russia Novaya Gazeta, which delved into the background of the three, came to the conclusion that they had been involved in conspiracy theories for years and had previously allowed themselves to be used to lock activists in psychiatric institutions. Of the three, Roman Silantjev in particular has a dubious reputation as the self-proclaimed founder of ‘destructorology’, a method he devised himself, with which he, according to Novaya Gazeta detect “threats of a spiritual nature”. The newspaper started a petition for the release of the two theater makers, which has now been signed 12,000 times.

Cyrano de Bergerac

Russia’s science, education and arts sectors are deeply affected by the military censorship that was imposed after the Russian invasion of Ukraine and is taking on increasingly arbitrary and grotesque forms. Hundreds of artists, actors, writers, dancers and theater makers were persecuted last year, fled the country as a precaution, or stopped their activities in protest. In April, a performance of the 19th century play was held in Saint Petersburg Cyrano de Bergerac canceled after complaints from an onlooker that it would discredit the Russian army. That same month, the world-famous Bolshoi Theater staged Serebrennikov’s play Nureyev due to stricter LGBTI legislation in Russia.