Russia imprisons artists while suppressing dissent

A Russian court on Friday mandated pretrial custody for a theater director and a playwright accused of defending terrorism. This was the latest step in a campaign to crush dissent in Russia, which has reached previously unheard-of heights since the start of the war in Ukraine.

To┬áconduct an investigation and prepare for a trial, the Zamoskvoretsky District Court in Moscow imprisoned writer Svetlana Petriychuk and well-known independent theater director Zhenya Berkovich for two months. The play “Finist, the Brave Falcon,” which Petriychuk penned and Berkovich produced, led to the two being jailed in the Russian capital on Thursday. The homes of Berkovich’s grandmother and dad in St. Petersburg were also searched by police.

The drama, which takes its title from a Russian fairy tale, is about Russian women who were prosecuted after being seduced by radical Islamists into marriage and a life in Syria.

Authorities claim that the play condones terrorism, however, both Berkovich and Petriychuk have refuted this claim and maintained their innocence.

In court on Friday, Yulia Tregubova, the attorney for Berkovich, noted that the play had received funding from the Russian Ministry of Culture and had won the Golden Mask Award, the country’s highest honor in national theater. The drama was read to inmates of a women’s jail in Siberia in 2019, according to Petriychuk’s attorney Sergei Badamshin, who also claimed that Russia’s official correctional service had applauded the play on its website.

Russia has laws against justifying terrorism, which carries a maximum seven-year prison sentence.

Russia was horrified by the allegations made against Berkovich and Petriychuk. The independent Novaya Gazeta newspaper started an open letter in support of the two artists, and by Friday night, more than 3,400 individuals had signed it. The play, according to the letter, “carries an absolutely clear anti-terrorist sentiment.”

Additional declarations were signed by dozens of Russian actors, filmmakers, and journalists pleading with the court to release Berkovich while an investigation and trial are ongoing.

The Kremlin unleashed a massive campaign of repression unmatched since the Soviet era as soon as Russia began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. It has virtually made any criticism of the war illegal, with the government targeting anybody who spoke out against it, whether publicly or privately, in addition to well-known opposition activists who later earned harsh prison sentences.

Additionally, there was increasing pressure on Russian critics. State-run theaters sacked actors and directors, and musicians were prohibited from playing there. Some were given the “foreign agent” moniker, which attracts more government scrutiny and has very bad connotations. Many departed Russia.

Berkovich, the mother of two adoptive daughters, has resisted leaving Russia and has continued to work on her Soso’s Daughters independent theater performance in Moscow. She organized an anti-war picket shortly after the conflict in Ukraine began, for which she received an 11-day sentence.

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