After winning two awards at the Russian Golden Masks festival in 2022 for their play “Finist the Brave Falcon,” theater director Yevgenia Berkovich and playwright Svetlana Petriychuk did not expect to receive six-year prison sentences for their award-winning play. According to activists and international organizations, this trial has been the epitome of the authoritarianism and repression that has been installed under the government of in .

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Yevgenia Berkovich, 39, is a renowned Russian theatre director, playwright and poet. A member of Kirill Serebrennikov’s ‘Seventh Studio’ collective, she has been a prominent figure in her country’s theatre scene. On the other hand, Svetlana Petriychuk, 44, is a playwright, theatre director and screenwriter, also with a distinguished career in the theatre world.

In 2020, Berkovich and Petriychuk co-created the play “Finist the Brave Falcon,” directed by Berkovich and written by Petriychuk. Based on the true stories of Russian women who married radical Islamists and moved to Syria, the play was acclaimed by critics and audiences alike. The play received two “Golden Masks” in 2022, Russia’s top award for the performing arts.

Despite public acclaim, in May 2023, the artists were arrested after being accused of “apologia for terrorism” for their work. During the trial, “expert witnesses” appointed by the Russian state testified that the work contains “signs of radical feminist ideology” and glorifies terrorists, making them appear “interesting and attractive to girls and women.”

Berkovich and Petriychuk said the work was a warning about what drives Russian women to become radical Islamists. On Monday, after a gruelling trial, the two artists were sentenced to six years in prison.

Public outrage

Several Russian artists, peace activists and human rights organisations have publicly defended the artists, including Human Rights Watch, which denounced the “totally absurd accusations, in the context of an unfair trial that constitutes blatant retaliation.” Dmitri Muratov, the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize winner, called for the charges against the playwrights to be dropped.

According to the artists’ defenders, this complaint is yet another example of the authoritarianism and lack of freedom of expression that Putin has established.

Since the start of the war in Ukraine, the Russian authorities have only increased their repression of any form of opposition in the country, imposing fines and prison sentences.

Zhenya Berkovich and Svetlana Petriychuk during their trial in Moscow.  (Photo: AP)

Zhenya Berkovich and Svetlana Petriychuk during their trial in Moscow. (Photo: AP)

Other cases

A similar case occurred in April 2022, when the Russian justice system requested eight years in prison for the artist Sasha Skochilenko, who was arrested in St. Petersburg for protesting against the war in Ukraine.

Skochilenko was accused of spreading false information about the military after replacing supermarket price tags with pacifist slogans.

Berkovich herself had already been sentenced to 11 days in prison for protesting against the Russian offensive in Ukraine in February 2022. Berkovich had taken to the streets with a poster saying “no to war” and had also published poetry against the conflict initiated by Russia.

The arrests of Skochilenko and Berkovich in 2022, among others, occurred around the time that authorities had adopted a law criminalizing any public expression, including artistic expression, about the war in Ukraine that contradicted messages propagated by the Kremlin.

This repression has not only taken the form of arrests. In March this year, The Moscow Times reported that Russian authorities had questioned more than 30 Russian artists and activists after raiding their homes on the eve of the presidential election.

In St. Petersburg, the homes of political activist Katrin Nenasheva were raided, as well as the homes of artists Natasha Chetverio and Sasha Blot. In Moscow, police raided the apartment of Margarita Konovalova, also known as Rita Flores, who is a member of the famous protest punk group Pussy Riot.

Referring to the Russian government’s actions against artists, the spokesperson for the European External Action Service (EEAS) said that the decision in the trial of Berkovich and Petriychuk “is yet another example of increasing state control over cultural institutions and attempts by the Russian authorities to limit fundamental freedoms. It is yet another confirmation of Russia’s descent into unbridled authoritarianism under Putin’s rule.”

This statement is in line with the European Union’s statement that the sentencing of the artists for allegedly glorifying terrorism merely exemplifies Russia’s “unbridled authoritarianism.”