Russian theater director and playwright go on trial over a play authorities say justifies terrorism


TALLINN, Estonia (AP) — A Russian court on Monday opened the trial of a theater director and a playwright accused of advocating terrorism in a play, 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 theater director, and playwright Svetlana Petriychuk have been jailed for over a year. Authorities claim their play “Finist, the Brave Falcon” justifies terrorism, which is a criminal offense in Russia punishable by up to seven years in prison. Berkovich and Petriychuk have both repeatedly rejected the accusations against them.

Berkovich told the court on Monday that she staged the play in order to prevent terrorism, and Petriychuk echoed her sentiment, saying that she wrote it in order to prevent events like those depicted in the play.

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 theater award. 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 has 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 criminalized 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 fired from state-run theaters, 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 theater 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.