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On May 5, the playwright Svetlana Petriychuk was arrested by the Russian authorities just before boarding a flight from Moscow’s Vnukovo Airport. Shortly afterwards, she and director Zhenya Berkovich, who produced her play Finist the Bright Falcon in 2021, were both charged with “justifying” terrorist propaganda. In her play, Petriychuk told the story of hundreds of Russian women who had been recruited by the Islamic State, married members of the extremist group via Skype, and moved to Syria to join them in the jihad. When they ultimately returned to Russia, many of them were convicted of terrorism and sentenced to years in prison, in spite of the trauma they’d endured. In 2022, Zhenya Berkovich’s production of Finist the Bright Falcon won two prestigious Golden Mask theatrical awards in Russia. One of them was for best costume design; the other honored Svetlana Petriychuk and her play. Petriychuk’s longtime colleague, the dramatist Mikhail Durnenkov, told Meduza about Svetlana, her swift rise as one of Russia’s most promising new playwrights, and what her plays are really all about.
In 2017, screenwriter and film director Svetlana Petriychuk flew back to Moscow from a work trip. She took a cab from the airport. The driver turned out to be Alexey Zhiryakov, a young director from the Moscow-based documentary theater, Teatr.doc.
Alexey would occasionally drive a cab for extra money: theater isn’t lucrative in the best of times, but working at the beleaguered Teatr.doc, a dissident theater company constantly harassed by vigilante activist groups, was even less of a business proposition. (The theater’s artistic director Mikhail Ugarov sometimes jokingly called Zhiryakov a “cabby-director.”)
By that time, Teatr.doc had already moved twice, under pressure from the Moscow authorities. There were rumors that Mayor Sergey Sobyanin himself had given an order to drive the theater company out of Moscow. The established fact, though, is that the company’s troubles began immediately after its screening of “Stronger than Arms,” a documentary about the Maidan Revolution in Ukraine. The screening drew the authorities’ wrath.
Alexey told all this to Svetlana as they drove, also filling her in on the playwriting seminar Ugarov would soon teach. The seminar aimed to raise money for the half-strangled theater company, and also to bring in some new people and kindred spirits.
Sveta had a degree in international journalism. By that time, though, she was already attending the directors’ workshop taught by Kama Ginkas at the Konstantin Raikin theater school. It was there that she realized she liked writing far more than directing. She also attended the Gogol School theater lab.
A couple of weeks after the fateful cab ride, Sveta came to Teatr.doc and joined Mikhail Ugarov’s seminar. His forte was to teach playwrights to tap into their personal trauma and use it to grab hold of reality.
Time and again, I saw playwrights starting out at Teatr.doc and the indie theater festival Lyubimovka turn into screenwriters and directors in film and television. In those two communities, it happened to every other member. Commercial film professionals who know the market well rarely trade their comfort for the thorny path in the theater arts. Sveta was an exception though. She was drawn to theater because of its creative freedom, and because it let her write on any subject and tell stories that mattered to her personally. And Ugarov was just the kind of teacher who gets you to tap into personal experience.
Ugarov liked to say that making mistakes is the only way to learn. He’d also say “there are no trivial events; a trip to the store can be a source of observation and insight just as well as a trip abroad.” I don’t know how exactly Sveta got her impetus from the things Ugarov taught, but she herself said that all of her early plays had been conceived at Teatr.doc.
Her first text, Tuesday Is a Short Day, was written during the seminar. It read like something written by a mature dramatist who knows exactly what she wants to say, but also understands how theatrical conventions work. The play told the story of a Tanya, a middle-aged everywoman from Blagoveshchensk who crosses the Chinese border every week because her failure of a son needs her help with transporting some kind of “fertilizer.” The fertilizer turns out to be a drug called “spice,” but neither Tanya nor the audience realize this until the end of the play.
In Tuesday Is a Short Day, a chorus of self-sacrificing mothers from Russian literary classics underscores just how typical Tanya’s life situation is. We hear the voices of Rodion Raskolnikov’s mother Pulkheria Alexandrovna, Denis Fonvizin’s character Madame Prostakova, and Pelageya Vlasovaб the protagonist from Gorky’s novel Mother. All of them try to shield their children, excusing the unseemly and sometimes ridiculous things they do. This treatment of love that “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” in Tuesday is exactly the same as what we see right at the center of Finist the Bright Falcon. This is clearly something that engages Sveta as a playwright very much.
Tanya’s simple and powerful story becomes all the more poignant when she finds a second son in the Chinese young man she calls by the Russian nickname Andryusha, for whom she brings stuffed pirozhki from Russia every week. Unlike her real son, this newfound son is always kind to her. He doesn’t beat her or get into trouble.
In the end, Tanya’s real son turns her in to the police. She takes complete responsibility for trafficking drugs and ends up in a penal colony, where she works as a librarian. As she sits there repairing the tattered prison library books, the voices of the literary mother characters we heard before once again take off from the pages. We’ve come full circle.
A year after Sveta wrote this first play, everyone at the Lyubimovka theater festival (where I worked as one of the artistic directors) knew that there was a strong new playwright on the Russian theatrical scene. The shortlist of more than 700 plays sent to our festival from around the world contained not one, but two plays by Svetlana: Tuesday Is a Short Day and It Was All Weinstein’s Fault.
Svetlana’s new play told a very frightening tale of a teenage girl who, on a wager, accuses a middle-aged schoolteacher of sex abuse, ultimately driving him to suicide. (In the play, he hangs himself from a door handle in his own apartment.) The play’s sympathies are not only with the harmless teacher, but also with the girl, whose world is filled with violence, deceit, and rage against her missing father, whose absence from the family cries out for revenge. The man who teaches the [required but marginal] “industrial safety” classes at the school becomes, in the student’s mind, the embodiment of the masculine world she must bring down.
When this play appeared, right at the cusp of the #MeToo moment, it struck me as rather bold. This says something about the poetics of Sveta Petriychuk’s plays in general. They are all, in one way or another, feminist plays. Their lead characters are usually women, while the author herself maintains a broad perspective on their situation. Instead of identifying with their struggle, she lets all her characters speak themselves, without letting her own position distort their reality.
In our world of social revolutions, where every moment we have an opportunity to write someone off as collateral in some social-justice struggle (just like in the Russian proverb, “woods are cut, wood chips fly”), Svetlana Petriychuk is always concerned with those proverbial wood chips and their fate. This is what makes her texts humane and what gives them their depth and breadth of expression.
Svetlana’s collaboration with the director Victor Ryzhakov started at Lyubimovka too, where he directed her Tuesday. Later, Svetlana adapted W. Somerset Maugham’s Theater for Ryzhakov’s Sovremennik theater company, and he invited her to teach at the MKhAT studio school, together with Olzhas Zhanaidarov. Back at Lyubimovka, Sveta would later meet her husband, Yury Shekhvatov, who would go on to become the festival’s artistic director.
Sveta is a calm, judicious person with a quiet warm sense of humor. As a writer, she has always been free of revolutionary extremes. What she is drawn to isn’t the flame of revolution, but the everyday prose of human nature. The only play where she permits herself a more outspoken authorial position is The Tuareg, the story of a rebellion started by some rural Russian women who get inspired by the Berber Tuareg people’s customs, overthrow the dominance of men in their village, and declare a matriarchate.
Tuareg legends woven into the play make it even more fantastical, taking it beyond a feminist polemic and turning it into a meditation on the enduring clash between men and women. When the narrator’s voice in the play asks, “Tell us, o Desert, can we be together without growing to hate one another?” that question gets no answer. A playwright’s job is not to supply readymade answers, but to put the viewers before a question, which they must try to answer on their own.
After her stellar debut at Lyubimovka, Sveta was in demand. She continued to hone her approach to her material, one play after another. She loves adapting literary classics for the contemporary stage, which lets her test them and see which ones still work for us today and which may have become obsolete.
When she was adapting The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas for the Kazakhstan-based ARTiSHOCK theater, the director Galina Pyanova discovered, to her surprise, that in her play Sveta didn’t kill Milady de Winter. The director objected that Milady is “evil incarnate, and evil must get punished,” to which Sveta replied: “Galya, we cannot have four men kill one woman on the stage. The viewers won’t take the musketeers’s side, and we need them to be heroes. We cannot have them kill a woman. This is the 21st century, not the 17th.”
Svetlana Petriychuk’s collaboration with Zhenya Berkovich doesn’t strike me as incidental. In Zhenya’s production of Finist the Bright Falcon, they complemented one another, with Sveta’s panoramic views and Zhenya’s passion for social debate. What brings them together is their shared interest in the fate of the contemporary woman, caught in a world riven by male conflicts.
I don’t want to conclude by saying that their imprisonment brings us full circle, back to the matter of Svetlana’s plays. I very much hope that Svetlana Petriychuk will be released, returning into the ranks of working authors and producing many more excellent plays for all of us to enjoy.
I can only agree with those who consider the “expert report” on Finist the Bright Falcon to be one of the most ludicrous documents of our ludicrous epoch. The logic of the prosecution could easily have charged Dostoyevsky with justifying premeditated murder, Pushkin with promoting arson and robbery, or Tolstoy with instigating a war.
A playwright who shows such an immense and tender humanity in telling a tale of unbelievable, rapturous love can only be accused of spreading “hate” for one reason: to force all of us into silence, to keep us cowed before the ruthless state embroiled in lawless warfare.
Freedom to Svetlana Petriychuk and Zhenya Berkovich!
Adapted for Meduza in English by Anna Razumnaya
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