Russia arrests anti-war poet, claims terrorism charges for a theatre play

Screenshot of YouTube video from the trial of Evgeniya Berkovich

Zhenya Berkovich, a director known for her independent theatre projects, and playwright Svetlana Petriychuk were detained in Moscow on May 4th  under suspicion of justifying terrorism in relation to their theatre show, “Finist Yasnyi Sokol.” The name refers to a fairy tale in Russian, Финист Ясный Сокол (Finist, the crystal falcon), which tells the story of a girl has to go through hardship to save her wonderful fiancé and live happily ever after.

The play is about the lives of Russian women who had met ISIS militants looking for wives online and ran away to marry them.  It is based on th interrogation of those who came back, and also includes monologues based on documents, interviews, texts, and personal experience, portraying these women and the Russian judicial system. 

There are a few examples of such girls who ran away and were sentenced to years in prison in Russia.  The well-known case is that of Varvara Karaulova, who was sentenced to 4.5 years in a general colony by a Russian court in 2016. In May 2015, Karaulova tried to get into IS-controlled territory in Syria, but was detained in Turkey and sent to Russia. 

The play describes the everyday violence and sexism girls encounter before meeting recruiters online, horrors that those who were not caught before getting to ISIS experienced, and the violence they encountered when they were either caught or run back to Russia, in its judicial system.

Screenshot of the YouTube video of the reading of the play “Finish Yasnyi Sokol”during the Lyubimovka independent theatre festival.

One critic wrote in the Saint Petersburg Theatre Journal about the play:

То, что заставило этих девушек бежать в ИГИЛ (организация, запрещенная на территории РФ), то, что выталкивает их из одного круга в другой — инертное стагнирующее равномерно распределенное ординарное насилие…

По сути, это подлинный и очень подробный рассказ о том, как боевики вербуют в интернете. Как находят и ведут жертву, как выстраивают схожесть судеб и травм, как демонстрируют мужественность и романтичность и обещают безопасность. Насилие и правда о насилии ловко прячутся в тени говорящих о нем…

Каждая из девушек, о чем бы ни была ее история, насколько страшной или отвратительной, светится изнутри чувством собственного достоинства. Даже совершенно изувеченная последняя Марьюшка (ужас нарастает по восходящей) рассказывать о том, как погиб ребенок, как бежала со вторым и понимала, что в спину стреляют, будет твердо, хоть и тихо, жестко, хоть и сбиваясь. Юлия Скирина, самая маленькая из актрис, стоит напротив суда, говорит ровно, тихо, да теребит кончик косички, да трудно сглатывает боль, — в этих паузах и молчит ужас. Эта Марьюшка добрела до своего Финиста. В две сценические минуты скупо уложены резня и бомбежки, изнасилования и избиения, страх потерять детей, пояс шахидки и побег прямо в российскую тюрьму.

 What made these girls flee to ISIS (an organization banned on the territory of the Russian Federation), what pushes them from one circle to another is an inert, stagnant, evenly distributed ordinary violence.  In fact, this is a genuine and very detailed account of how militants recruit online. How they find and lead the girls, how they build the similarity of fates and injuries, how they demonstrate masculinity and romance and promise safety. Violence and the truth about violence are cleverly hidden in the shadows of those who talk about it.  Each of the girls [in the play], no matter what her story is about, no matter how terrible or disgusting, glows from the inside with self-esteem. Even the completely mutilated last character (the horror grows in ascending order) will tell how the child died, how she ran with the second and understood that they were shooting in the back. Even she looks  firm, albeit quiet, harsh, albeit straying. Yulia Skirina, the smallest of the actresses, stands in front of the court, speaks evenly, quietly, and pulls at the tip of her pigtail, and swallows the pain with difficulty – in these pauses, horror is silent. This actress plays a girl who got to her Finist. Massacres and bombings, rapes and beatings, the fear of losing children, the belt of a suicide bomber and an escape straight to a Russian prison are sparingly packed into two scenic minutes. 

The production received two awards at the Golden Mask Russian national theater awards in 2022, for costume design and playwriting. It has been running since 2021. Media outlet Meduza refers to online media Cherta discovering that, in the same year, a report criticizing the performance appeared on the website of the National Course, the official media outlet of the ultra-conservative National Liberation Movement of Russia (NOD). 
The authors of the report claimed that “Finist Yasny Sokol” was an “anti-Russian” performance that spoke of Orthodoxy exclusively in a negative light, justified terrorism and extremism, and glorified ISIS militants. However, independent human rights defenders argue that Berkovich's play is actually “anti-terrorist.” Meduza published the text of the play in Russian.

In addition to directing, Berkovich is also a poet. She has been vocally anti-war since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. 

Zhenya Berkovich published her poems on Facebook (her page is now deleted). Last May she wrote a  viral poem about a veteran grandfather who visited his grandson (in a dream) in 2022, requesting that he not wear his portrait to the WWII parade and not cover his own doings with his memory. It refers to the fact that the Russian state official propaganda has been successful in glorifying the USSR's victory in WWII, and comparing it with the brutal Russian invasion of Ukraine. Global Voices has a very rough translation of her viral poem. 

То ли новостей перебрал,
То ли вина в обед,
Только ночью к Сергею пришёл его воевавший дед.
Сел на икеевскую табуретку, спиной заслоняя двор
За окном. У меня, говорит, к тебе,
Серёженька, разговор.
Не мог бы ты, дорогой мой, любимый внук,
Никогда, ничего не писать обо мне в фейсбук?
Ни в каком контексте, ни с буквой зэт, ни без буквы зэт,
Просто возьми и не делай этого, просит дед.
Никаких побед моим именем,
Вообще никаких побед.
Так же, он продолжает, я был бы рад,
Если бы ты не носил меня на парад,
Я прошу тебя очень – и делает так рукой –
Мне не нужен полк,
Ни бессмертный, ни смертный, Серёженька, никакой.
Отпусти меня на покой, Серёжа,
Я заслужил покой.
Да, я знаю, что ты трудяга, умница, либерал,
Ты всё это не выбирал,
Но ведь я-то тоже не выбирал!
Мы прожили жизнь,
Тяжёлую, но одну.
Можно мы больше не будем
Иллюстрировать вам войну?
Мы уже всё, ребята,
Нас забрала земля.
Можно вы как-то сами?
Как-то уже с нуля?
Не нужна нам ни ваша гордость,
Ни ваш потаённый стыд.
Я прошу тебя, сделай так,
Чтоб я был наконец забыт.
- Но ведь я забуду, как в русском музее
Мы ловили девятый вал,
Как я проснулся мокрый,
А ты меня одевал,
Как читали Пришвина,
Как искали в атласе полюса,
Как ты мне объяснял, почему на небе
Такая белая полоса
За любым самолетом,
Как подарил мне
Увеличительное стекло…
- Ничего, отвечает дед,
Тебе ведь и это не помогло.

Maybe there were too much news, or too much wine at lunch,

Only at night did his grandfather, who had fought in WWII, come to Sergei.

He sat down on an Ikea stool, blocking the yard with his back

Outside the window.  I, he says, want to talk,  to you, Seryozhenka.

Could you, my dear, beloved grandson,

Never post anything about me on Facebook?

Under no context, neither with the letter z, nor without the letter z,

Just don't do it, the grandfather asks.

No victories in my name

No victories at all.

Likewise, he continues, I would be glad

If you didn't carry me to the parade

I ask you, please, I don't need a regiment

Neither immortal nor mortal, Seryozhenka, none.

Let me go to rest, Seryozha,

I deserve peace.

Yes, I know that you are a hard worker, smart, liberal,

You didn't choose this.

But I didn't choose either!

We've lived our lives, they were difficult but whole.

Can we no longer

Illustrate you war?

We're done here,

The earth has taken us.

Can you somehow do it yourself?

Somehow from scratch?

We don't need your pride

Nor your hidden shame.

I ask you to do so

To finally forget me.

- But I'll forget, as in the Russian museum

We caught the ninth shaft,

How I woke up wet

And you dressed me

How we read Prishvin,

How we searched for the poles in the atlas,

How you explained to me why in the sky

There was such a white line

Behind any aircraft

How you gave me

Magnifying glass…

- That's ok, the grandfather answers,


It didn't help you either.

Berkovich  continued publishing anti-war poems, and in July 2022 she wrote another one titled “Do you love the theater the way the fish love it?” This work was inspired by propaganda reports that the pungent odor emanating from the Mariupol Drama Theater was caused by a fish warehouse in the basement, when, in fact, the theater was shelled by Russia, killing hundreds of people, including children.

According to online media Fontanka, the court mandated expert evaluation of the performance “Finist Yasny Sokol,” found indications of not only Islamism and jihadism, but also of “radical feminism” and opposition to the “androcentric social structure” in Russia. The examination was conducted by Roman Silantyev, a controversial religious scholar who was accused in 2005 by the Council of Muftis of Russia of distorting facts about Islam. As Meduza writes, Silantyev, who supports the invasion of Ukraine, claims to have founded the field of “destructology.”  Silantiev compares non-profit and human rights organizations with terrorists and believes that the “support of opposition forces and minorities” by the West is aimed at “destabilizing the situation” in the same way as the radicalization of the Middle East.

The two women, Berkovich and Petreichuk, were kept under detention until July 2023, in spite of a letter of support of that many Russian theater directors, artists and other famous people in Russia, have signed. This is the first case of detention for a play in today's Russia. Prison sentences on charges for “publicly justifying terrorism” involve five to seven years in prison. 

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