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‘We got married to visit each other in prison’ Svetlana Petriychuk has been jailed for her play about Russian women who convert to radical Islam. Her husband, theater director Yury Shekhvatov, spoke to Meduza the day after her arrest.

Source: Meduza

Svetlana Petriychuk’s documentary play, “Finist the Bright Falcon,” won a prestigious Golden Mask award in recognition of its powerful portrayal of a whole class of Russian women: “Maryushkas,” as they’re referred to in the play, are women who chose to convert to radical Islam and move to Syria, later finding themselves in trouble with the Russian law. Last week, Petriychuk was arrested while trying to leave the country, and is now being prosecuted for “justification of terrorism” in a play that, in reality, dissects radicalization as a social problem. On the same day, May 4, theater director Zhenya Berkovich, who directed an award-winning production of “Finist the Bright Falcon,” was also taken into custody in connection with the play, which the authorities present as a specimen of illegal terrorist propaganda. Petriychuk’s husband, theater director Yury Shekhvatov, spoke to Meduza about why Svetlana’s arrest did not come as a surprise — but still took the couple off guard.

How did you find out about your wife’s arrest?

She left for the airport in the morning [on May 4] and stopped responding to messages.

Where was she flying to, if you don’t mind sharing?

She was going abroad, leaving from the Vnukovo Airport. She and I always message each other right after the passport control, just to say something like “I’m boarding.” But she didn’t write, and I didn’t see her online. When her flight left, I started to get really anxious.

I opened the news, saw that Zhenya Berkovich had been detained for questioning, and it all became clear. Through Berkovich’s friends, I found out where Zhenya was. Then I got in touch with OVD-Info. They’d already helped me in the past, at the very beginning of the war, when I was arrested twice, for 15 days apiece, for protesting.

For a long time, the lawyers couldn’t figure out where Svetlana was, but then we managed to track her down at the Investigative Committee headquarters. This took maybe three or four hours. I have the sense that Sveta’s phone was taken away as soon as they arrested her, otherwise she would have texted me.

Are you in Moscow now?

No, I left Russia right after spending that month in custody.

Have you seen the production that led to Svetlana’s arrest? Did you expect that your wife would have problems because of it?

Look, you really don’t know what might lead to problems these days. This was one of the best shows I had ever seen. After I saw it, I fell even deeper in love with Sveta’s play. When I heard it being read for the first time, I didn’t quite grasp it. And Sveta and I weren’t yet together, either.

How did you get together?

We started dating in 2020 and got married a year later. We met at the Lyubimovka drama festival. I’m a director and she’s a playwright — we had this one shared big love for Lyubimovka.

Anyway, when I saw that show, it blew my mind. I try not to use weaponized metaphors in wartime, but it was a really powerful production. Unbelievable music, great set design, and action that grabbed hold of you completely. I don’t know how many times Sveta went to see it, but I went at least four times.

What kind of person is Svetlana?

She is the strongest and the most intelligent person I know, the same kind of person as Dmitry Muratov: she has the same unbelievable mental clarity and inner resilience. She doesn’t make rash decisions; she doesn’t give in to emotion. She is balanced, deliberate, and nothing can shake her coordinate system.

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How did you decide to get married?

The reason was completely trivial: we got married to be able to visit each other in hospital or in prison. I mean, we were two adults living together: what reason did we have to make this official? But during the pandemic we both got pneumonia. It didn’t come to hospitalization, but we were very close. Then protests began. When Navalny got arrested, we realized it was going to be a lottery: you really couldn’t predict if it would be you who got arrested or the next protester, if you’d land in jail for 24 hours or the next five years. Once we kind of had a laughing fit about this, and then we said, “Why don’t we just get married?” So we went ahead and got married. Our first anniversary is coming up just now, this May.

Did you know the play had been denounced two years ago?

Yeah, we heard something about it — not exactly about its being denounced, but we knew that something was going on.

But the thing is that I spent my formative years at Teatr.doc and Lyubimovka. There were fewer complaints about the latter, but Teatr.doc was constantly dealing with stuff. Either NOD and SERB activists, for example, threw shit bombs at the stage. When I apprenticed with Viktor Ryzhakov at the Sovremennik theater, the SERBs bothered us there, too. It had never been anything more than white noise. Okay, there are these dangerous, crazy people, but you just don’t have enough nerve cells to respond to them all the time. We thought, if there’s a criminal case, we’ll see.

And here it is.

That’s right.

What was your reaction yesterday?

I’m noticing that since February 24 it’s pretty hard for me to get emotional, even in connection to the person I love the most. You develop a resistance to emotion, to the point that you just do what you need to do, and that’s that. I just sat down at the computer and didn’t get up all evening. I printed documents, coordinated things, sent paperwork to the lawyers, collected testimonies from friends. You just do what you can, without thinking or hoping for anything.

But there’s always this pain in the background: this is my wife and, in theory, it might be years before I see her again. Besides, Svetlana has two elderly parents.

You might have seen yesterday’s discussion on the social media, whether to publicize this case or to keep quiet for now. What’s your position?

Yesterday, it was the lawyers’ preference not to draw attention to the arrests while Zhenya and Sveta still figured as witnesses in the case. No one had any illusions, of course, and everybody knows that once you are a witness, there’s a 99-percent chance that you’ll next become a suspect. But because Zhenya and Sveta are media personalities, the lawyers asked us not to raise the temperature until the prosecution pressed charges. Once this happened, everything became very clear.

I must ask you this question. If things start turning for the worse, will you come back to Russia?

Yesterday I promised Sveta through the lawyers that I won’t be coming back for now. With my two misdemeanor convictions for unsanctioned protest and resisting the police, the authorities would easily find a way to put me in prison.

The case against Svetlana Petriychuk and Zhenya Berkovich

‘Bright Falcon’ behind bars A new political trial targets theater director Zhenya Berkovich and prize-winning playwright Svetlana Petriychuk

The case against Svetlana Petriychuk and Zhenya Berkovich

‘Bright Falcon’ behind bars A new political trial targets theater director Zhenya Berkovich and prize-winning playwright Svetlana Petriychuk

Interview by Svetlana Reiter

Translated by Anna Razumnaya

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