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‘Bright Falcon’ behind bars A new political trial targets theater director Zhenya Berkovich and prize-winning playwright Svetlana Petriychuk
A Moscow court has remanded theater director Zhenya Berkovich and playwright Svetlana Petriychuk, extending their pretrial detention to two months in response to a request from investigators. Both artists were arrested on Thursday, May 4. Initially, they figured as “witnesses” in a terrorist propaganda case, in which the prosecution alleges that Berkovich’s production of Petriychuk’s play, Finist the Bright Falcon, contained signs of “justifying terrorism.”
Finist the Bright Falcon is a documentary play about a group of Russian women who start long-distance relationships with radicalized Muslim men, marry them, move to Syria, and later run into trouble with the law in Russia. Hundreds of criminal cases had been launched in Russia in recent years, involving female defendants with similar stories. Finist the Bright Falcon is a play about these women and what drew them to the cause of radical Islam.
Berkovich and her theater company, SOSO Daughters, produced the play with grant support from Russia’s Theater Workers’ Union and Culture Ministry. In 2022, the production won two prestigious Golden Mask awards, for best play and best costume design.
On May 4, investigators raided the St. Petersburg home of Berkovich’s mother, journalist Elena Efros, and grandmother, writer Nina Katerli.
The same day, Berkovich and Petriychuk were delivered to the Investigative Committee’s Moscow office, where detectives questioned them all day. Both of them pleaded not guilty. Another member of the SOSO Daughters troupe, Alexander Andriyevich, was also questioned and later released. The two suspects spent the night at the pretrial detention center.
OVD-Info attorneys who have joined the case explain that it was launched based on the results of a preliminary inquiry conducted last January. The defense lawyers were not allowed to review the preliminary documents. The investigators are citing an “expert report” on signs of terrorist propaganda in the play as the grounds for prosecution.
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Russian media have noticed that the Russian publication The National Course denounced Finist the Bright Falcon back in May 2021, describing the production as a “tool of informational warfare against Russia’s security.” Another complaint about the show came from the ultraconservative National Liberation Movement (NOD), whose members wrote that the play adopts a negative attitude towards Orthodox Christianity, justifies terrorism and extremism, and glorifies the Islamic State and its combatants. Last October, NOD again appealed to the authorities, in connection with Finist coming to Nizhny Novgorod.
The St. Petersburg news outlet Fontanka reports that the criminal case rests on the testimonies of “expert witnesses” from January 27, 2023, when they allegedly discovered signs of “justifying terrorism” in a reading of the play recorded at a 2019 theater festival, as well as in a 2022 production.
Another “expert testimony” admitted to the case has an expressly pseudoscientific character. This is a report on the results of a “complex destructological examination” of the play, submitted by Roman Silantyev, a lead researcher at Moscow State Linguistic University (MGLU). Civil liberties activists have long condemned Silantyev as an “odious pseudo-geographer and religiographer.” He and his colleague Galina Khizrieyva (director of MGLU’s Center for Linguistic Expertise) co-authored the 125-page report, signing it on May 3, 2023.
“Destructology” is a pseudoscientific discipline that “studies” extremist and terrorist organizations, sects and cults, totalitarian associations, suicidal and other dangerous youth subcultures, magic as a consumer service sector, and similarly heterodox social phenomena.
Novaya Gazeta has launched a petition in support of Zhenya Berkovich and Svetlana Petriychuk, asserting that, far from justifying terrorism and extremism, Finist the Bright Falcon is an “absolutely coherent anti-terrorist proclamation.” More than 1,300 people have already joined the petition. Readers who would like to add their own signatures can do so here.
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