Russian Playwright and Theater Director Sentenced for Play Accused of Justifying Terrorism

A Russian court on Monday found a theater director and a playwright guilty of terrorism charges and sentenced them to six years in prison, highlighting the ongoing crackdown on dissent in Russia that has intensified since the invasion of Ukraine.

Zhenya Berkovich, a prominent independent theater director, and playwright Svetlana Petriychuk have been in detention for over a year awaiting trial.

Authorities alleged that their play “Finist, the Brave Falcon” promotes terrorism, which is a crime in Russia with a maximum sentence of seven years. Both Berkovich and Petriychuk have consistently denied these accusations.

In one court hearing, Berkovich stated she staged the play to prevent terrorism, and Petriychuk echoed this, saying she wrote it to prevent events like those portrayed in the play.

The women’s lawyers argued during court hearings before the trial that the play was endorsed by the Russian Culture Ministry and received the Golden Mask award, Russia’s most prestigious national theater award. In 2019, the play was performed for inmates at a women’s prison in Siberia, and Russia’s state penitentiary service commended it on their website, according to Petriychuk’s lawyer.

The case against Berkovich and Petriychuk has sparked outrage in Russia. An open letter in support of the two artists, initiated by the independent Novaya Gazeta newspaper, has garnered over 16,000 signatures since their arrest.

The letter contends that the play “conveys an unequivocally anti-terrorist sentiment.”

Dozens of Russian actors, directors, and journalists have also submitted affidavits urging the court to release the two from custody pending investigation and trial.

Following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlin has implemented a widespread campaign of repression, unprecedented since the Soviet era. Criticism of the war has been effectively criminalized, with authorities targeting not only prominent opposition figures who have received severe prison sentences, but anyone who has voiced dissent against the war, publicly or otherwise.

Critical artists in Russia have also faced pressure. Actors and directors have been dismissed from state-run theaters, and musicians have been banned from performing in the country. Some have been labeled “foreign agents,” which carries additional government scrutiny and negative connotations. Many have left Russia.

Berkovich, who is raising two adopted daughters, 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 participated in an anti-war protest and was incarcerated for 11 days.