Award-winning Russian stage director Yevgenia (Zhenya) Berkovich and playwright Svetlana Petriychuk were remanded this week to pre-trial detention, after eight months already spent in jail, accused of ‘justifying terrorism’ in their acclaimed anti-terrorist play. At this week’s hearing, which refused them bail for another two months, Berkovich gave her witness statement in verse.
The play, Finist the Bright Falcon, written by Petriychuk and staged by Berkovich and the all-female theatre group Soso’s Daughters won two national Golden Mask awards in 2021. It explores the real-life experiences of Russian women who had converted to Islam and were lured to the so-called Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria by promises of romance and marriage.
Sharing its title with a Russian folk tale of a girl enduring hardship in search of her lost love, Finist retells real-life testimonies of hardship, hope and deception. Most of its script quotes directly from the cross-examination and evidence given by the women, who have since been prosecuted under anti-terrorism laws for their involvement with IS.
Mixing real-life testimony with fairytale motifs and staging, the play touches on the frustrations faced by the women in Russia (where rights have gone backwards and most domestic violence was decriminalised in 2017) that had left them open to IS’s promises of fairytale romance and a radically different social status. And it traces these women’s journey from the frying pan into the fire.
Far from being condemned for extremism, Finist met with critical acclaim for both its script and its folk-inspired costumes. Unexpectedly beautiful, humane and haunting, it is very much a cautionary tale. It has been – and, amid its authors’ prosecution, continues to be – praised by the Russian Muftis Council, a body representing the country’s Muslim community and religious institutions, as a powerful anti-radicalisation drama.
Despite this, in May 2023, Berkovich and Petriychuk found themselves accused of a criminal offence of ‘justifying extremism’ on the basis of a complaint by the far-right National Liberation Movement (NLM). NLM is a socially conservative, pro-Kremlin, anti-western organisation that campaigns for Russian annexation of ex-Soviet territories and supports the war in Ukraine. If you could imagine an antithesis to that, it would be Berkovich, an outspoken feminist from a family of women writers and a poet known for her anti-war views.
Notably today, as in Vladimir Putin’s first war in Chechnya some 25 years ago, the most powerful and persistent voices in Russia against the so-called ‘special operation’ in Ukraine are those of women: often soldiers’ mothers and wives. As case after case piles up of Russians prosecuted for any expression of anti-war sentiment, even sharing social media posts, it is these women who are keeping vigils and pestering politicians, undaunted, around the country. The arrest of the prominent female dramatists last May came amid a fresh military recruitment drive. It also came a few weeks after the increasingly conservative Russian parliament voiced calls to designate feminism as extremism.
The only evidence that the prosecution in the Berkovich and Petriychuk case has been able to produce since May 2023 has been from a small team of expert witnesses led by Roman Silantyev, a religious studies professor. His area of expertise, designed and promoted by himself since 2018, is a pseudo-linguistic analysis he terms ‘destructology’.
Used primarily to justify censorship, Silantyev’s methods are ostensibly aimed at uncovering ‘extremist tendencies’ in the use of language. Their lack of scientific credibility did not stop the court accepting Silantyev and a couple of his fellow destructologists as expert witnesses to support the extremism charge against the play. In direct response, in June 2023, more than 200 leading Russian academics published an open letter condemning destructology as pseudo-science. In July 2023 the Russian Federal Centre for Forensic Expertise, an arm of the Ministry of Justice, rejected destructology as unscientific.
The prosecution has not progressed an inch since, but the accused, Berkovich and Petriychuk, are stuck in limbo. They have not been convicted, but they have been held in isolation at a pre-trial detention facility since May 2023. Every couple of months, as the legal limit for detention ran out, the court has met only to deny bail, most recently this week.
The judges have accepted the prosecutors’ argument that the two women might abscond – ignoring the defence’s plea for them to be allowed to wait for their as yet unknown trial date under house arrest with electronic tags. Berkovich says she is not in any position to leave Russia, or even Moscow. She has two adopted teenage daughters with special needs. The girls are not allowed to see their mother and are being looked after by Berkovich’s family and friends.
Berkovich’s grandmother, Nina Katerli, a renowned writer, publicist and human rights activist, died on 20 November 2023 while her granddaughter was still imprisoned. Berkovich was allowed to attend her grandmother’s funeral under guard, but not to interact freely with her family.
Appearing at the bail hearing in Moscow on 9 January 2024 Berkovich said:
“We are still in court, where the question is being discussed of choosing, extending or appealing the terms of our custody. And each time we hear a phrase that simply baffles me. It is roughly this: ‘The court sees no grounds to change the preventative custody terms because the circumstances in which they had been chosen have not changed’.”
Berkovich continued her statement to the court in verse. You can read it in translation here:
“Your Honour! I have to state it thus: It's just that, nothing more. Nothing there to discuss. And our defence is always repeating, Because prosecution, time after time, Gives us the same set of phrases without meaning, So naturally, our response stays the same. Everything repeats, over and over I don't even know where to start, To fight, why should I even bother. Should I sing my speech? In what language? Buryat? Should I put ads in the middle of that? Every time we are brought here, Sveta and I We hope. But so far we've been hoping in vain. As citizens we expect to get a fair trial, But each time time we get Groundhog Day. The one question has only the one answer ever! And we give it, by video link or face to face. About our chance to abscond, we don't have it, Or to pressure witnesses, of whom there's no trace. And how, with an ankle tag, I won't run away, I am here to the end, I cannot run And continue criminal activity Anyway Because it had never begun! I am in Russia, under investigation. And from its net, Even if I wished to escape I never could. I still have two sick children, and yet They are being deprived of their childhood. 16 years of children's homes between these two. Then at last they got to have safety, a mum and a home. Can't you stop tormenting me and tormenting them too? Just stop tormenting us, we do not need much more. I still live at the same Moscow address, Where I'm registered, it rolls off the tongue nicely. Except my grandmas: I had two before my arrest. Now there's only one. Next month she turns ninety. I hope she does... The prosecution has dug up nothing, no leads to chase, Despite having resources aplenty. And still no one is rushing to close our case, This Case of Special Complexity. This case is dead in the water. You cannot expect it By expertise or questioning to be saved. After nine months you could have given birth to an expert. An expert witness, all ready-made! Maybe it's time for us to stop being publicly whipped? This is not the eighties, this is not some dodgy establishment. There is a difference between ordering an investigation and a hit. Between proof of guilt and punishment. But the prosecution rests, having stitched it up here. So easy: the case goes nowhere, but we sit in jail. This is a strategy for some really super heroes. The enemy won't turn up for the battle, so we can't prevail. Your Honour! We did not choose this path as the most suitable, And no one can say that treading it isn't tedium. And you see, when the subject is immutable, All the artist can ever reshape is the medium. The subject won't ever change — it's the only one there. Any child can tell you this — yours or mine. As citizens we expect our judges to be fair. It's a little too early for executioners at this time. And I still believe that you are not one of those. And that for you this is a meaningful, honest choice. And if that choice is here, yet to be realised, Then perhaps we too can expect to be surprised. I am going to finish now, I don't have four volumes to write, I don't even have the notebooks to scribble my words on, But if there is no hope for getting the words right, All I can hope for is to put them in the right order. And at last, the New Year has come flying along The year of the dragon — not a spider, a worm, a dumb fish. I am begging you, remember the miracle, and the law, They are almost synonymous. Thank you. That's all I could wish..”
In response, the court sitting on 9 January ruled to remand Berkovich and Petriychuk in pre-trial detention until 10 March 2024. The court said it “saw no grounds to change” the form of the two women’s detention because, as it had been quoted saying, the circumstances of the case have not changed.