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‘Justifying terrorism’ through theater The award-winning play that led to the arrest of two prominent Russian artists

Source: Meduza

On May 4, theater director Zhenya Berkovich and playwright Svetlana Petriychuk were detained in Moscow and brought to the headquarters of Russia’s Investigative Committee, where they were interrogated in connection with a case on “justifying terrorism.” Both women were named suspects, and the authorities raided Berkovich’s mother’s home in St. Petersburg the same day. The case was sparked by “Finist the Bright Falcon,” a play about Russian women recruited by the Islamic State that Berkovich’s independent theater company, SOSO Daughters, produced. Authorities also detained the company’s director, Alexander Andriyevich, in connection with the charges, though he was released after questioning. Theater critic Anton Khitrov explains the topics and themes explored in “Finist the Bright Falcon” and outlines Berkovich’s career more broadly.

A critical lens on Russian society

In 2019, Svetlana Petriychuk’s play Finist the Bright Falcon was read before an audience at the Lubimovka Young Russian Playwrights Festival, the oldest and most prominent drama festival in Russia. The play is based on true stories of Russian women recruited online by the Islamic State. In the play, they go to Syria, to terrorist-controlled territories, to become wives of fighters. “According to some reports, up to 2,000 people [have left in this way] in the last few years,” the play states (according to other estimates, there were about seven thousand Russian women in Syria in 2018).

This is a piece about why recruitment works — or rather, what it is about Russian society that allows it to work. Petriychuk relies on numerous analogies between the women’s stories and the Russian folk tale from which the play takes its name to emphasize how social norms adopted in Russia — and the culture that holds these norms together — make women vulnerable to manipulation by terrorists.

In the folk tale, the peasant’s daughter, Maryushka, summons her lover three times with a magic feather and then travels to a faraway land to rescue him from his imprisonment. The play combines folkloric vocabulary with the dry language of the court record and folkloric motifs with real-life biographies, as though they’re different versions of the same tale.

Lubimovka Independent Festival

Online dating. A caring, attentive man with the most archetypal male occupation: the military. Tales of a “woman’s destiny” that can only be fulfilled in a Sharia community. The image, familiar to many women since childhood, of a happy homemaker, wife, and mother, which is not so easy to realize in Russia, comes to life in dreams of Syria. A Skype wedding. Tickets, contacts, constantly changing vehicles, an illegal border crossing, humiliating and life-threatening domestic slavery.

Finist isn’t framed as a traditional play. The accused women’s interrogation in a Russian court is interrupted by instructions — how to tie a hijab, how to bake a halal cake — and consultations with an imam on a forum.

Zhenya Berkovich’s production

Berkovich staged Finist the Bright Falcon in 2021 with her theater company, SOSO Daughters. The SOSO Daughters version is longer than the original text: we learn more about the heroines’ lives in Russia from which they are fleeing (here, there’s disdain for women, while in Syria, the recruiters assure them, they’ll be met with respect) and about their compatriots’ reactions to their marrying militants (predictable condemnation).

Russia and the Islamic State

Jihadi brides, ISIL charities, and online propaganda The anatomy of the Islamic State’s activities in Russia

Russia and the Islamic State

Jihadi brides, ISIL charities, and online propaganda The anatomy of the Islamic State’s activities in Russia

The theatrical setting of Finist is based on the outward beauty of tradition and its hidden danger. Berkovich and her artistic team created a universal space of patriarchal culture on stage, where Slavic elements — such as kichkas (traditional headdresses worn by married women), kokoshniks (traditional women’s headdresses), and braids — are mixed with Middle Eastern robes and carpets. The production team used real women’s hair for costumes and decorations, emphasizing how in any patriarchal society, women become expendable material. 

This anti-patriarchal and unquestionably anti-terrorist play was performed and created almost exclusively by women — the only man in the Finist team is producer Alexander Andriyevich. In 2022, the project was nominated for the national theater Golden Mask award in four categories, two of which — Best Playwright and Best Costume Designer — it won.

Berkovich’s other work

Zhenya Berkovich studied directing under Kirill Serebrennikov at the Moscow Art Theater School. After graduating with degrees in acting, her classmates formed the Seventh Studio theater project, which was in residence at the Gogol Center for a while. Berkovich also collaborated with Serebrennikov’s theater where, in 2013, she staged the play Russian Beauty, based on the novel by Viktor Yerofeyev.

In 2018, Berkovich produced Counting Out, a play based on Tamta Melashvili’s novella about girls from a front-line village who grew up during the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict. The individual as a victim of social and historical circumstances is an essential theme for Berkovich, and she works with this both in the theater and in poetry. Counting Out was the beginning of SOSO Daughters, an independent company that tries to exist outside of usual theatrical hierarchies in which the entire team, in practice, serves the creative ambitions of the director.

Currently, as a matter of principle, Berkovich doesn’t stage productions at state venues, focusing instead on SOSO Daughters. In addition to Counting Out and Finist, the company has produced a poetic performance-concert, Blue Rice Dog, based on poems by Fyodor Svarovsky and other contemporary poets, and Our Treasure, a Christmas fairy tale written by Berkovich herself.

Berkovich also works with other independent companies. In 2020, she directed We’re Breaking Up, an audio play about Marina Tsvetaeva, for the Mobile Art Theater; in 2021, she directed Esther’s Black Book for the Brusnikin Studio, in which the story of the Jewish holiday Purim is interwoven with Holocaust testimonies.

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Berkovich writes poetry that’s popular on Russian-language Facebook, including anti-war and anti-militarist poetry. In the theater community, she’s also known as a translator and librettist. For instance, she created the libretto for Olga Shaydullina’s opera Antigone, written for Perm’s Theater-Theater (the production, directed by Roman Feodori, won the Golden Mask last year for best operetta or musical).

Berkovich is a social activist and one of the most public feminists in the Russian theater scene. Her grandmother is the famous writer and human-rights activist Nina Katerli. Since February 24, 2022, Berkovich has consistently opposed the Russian invasion of Ukraine; that morning, she was arrested and detained for 11 days after holding a solitary picket protest.

The play’s author

Before she mastered dramaturgy, Svetlana Petriychuk studied international journalism and documentary filmmaking. She studied cinematography in Los Angeles and theater in Moscow under the renowned directors Kama Ginkas and Mikhail Ugarov.

Petriychuk’s first play, Tuesday is a Short Day — about a woman from the Far East who is forced by her son to carry drugs from China to Russia — was read at the 2018 Lubimovka festival. Viktor Ryzhakov, one of Russia’s most well-known theater directors and, at the time, head of the Moscow Meyerhold Center, directed the reading — a rare and telling collaboration for a new playwright.

Two years later, in 2021, Petriychuk’s play The Tuareg was a top-three finalist in the Culmination competition. The Tuareg is about a women’s revolution in a remote village which begins with the demand to remove vodka from the store and continues with the establishment of a “women's council” that takes control of the entire village.

Her socially critical plays regularly appear not only on the shortlists of drama contests and festivals but also on the playbills of the Moscow Sovremennik Theater, the Chekhov Center in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, and the Almaty ARTiSHOCK Theater.

Russian ballet in wartime

‘“Nureyev” will live on, in freedom’ Stage director Kirill Serebrennikov on the Bolshoi-banished ballet and why Rudolf Nureyev’s story matters today

Russian ballet in wartime

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Story by Anton Khitrov

Translation by Emily ShawRuss

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