Art Is Now a Crime in Russia

Zhenya Berkovich has directed more than a dozen plays. Last year, her production of a play co-written with her now co-defendant won top honors at Russia’s leading theatre festival.

The arrests of a director and a playwright in Moscow signal a new chapter in the Putin regime’s eradication of dissent.

On May 5th, a Moscow court placed two women, the thirty-eight-year-old Zhenya Berkovich and the forty-three-year-old Svetlana Petriychuk, under arrest for an initial term of two months.

About a year earlier, I was startled to realize that Berkovich was still in Russia. Most of my extended circle had left in the days and weeks following the beginning of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, in February, 2022. Russian authorities had brutally disbanded protests, passed a set of laws banning antiwar speech, hounded independent media out of the country under threat of arrest, and banned Facebook. Those who stayed took a newly standard set of precautions, including “locking” their Facebook accounts so that only their “friends” could see their activity. Berkovich spent ten days in jail for protesting the invasion and then kept posting openly, publishing poems, and writing about her reactions to the war and her frustrations with her teen-age daughters, both of whom she had recently adopted.

I didn’t know her well. We met perhaps a decade ago, when I was still living in Moscow, and Berkovich, freshly graduated from the famed Moscow Art Theatre School, was involved in the production of a play based on interviews with people whose grandparents had been Stalin’s henchmen. The play was staged at the Sakharov Center, which was shuttered by the government last week. I had also seen one of the first plays that Berkovich directed, “The Man Who Didn’t Work,” which was based on an activist’s notes of the courtroom proceedings in the trial of the poet Joseph Brodsky. Soviet citizens were required by law to be engaged in productive work. Brodsky was found guilty of “malicious parasitism” and sentenced to internal exile and mandatory labor. (The play was staged at Memorial, a human-rights and history organization that was shut down by the government last year.)

In the play, a judge demands of Brodsky, “What did you ever do to benefit the motherland?”

“I wrote poetry,” Brodsky responds. “That is my work. I am certain that every word I’ve written will benefit many generations of people.”

. . . . “Tell the court why you didn’t work.”

“I worked. I wrote poetry.”

“Answer the question. Why didn’t you labor?”

“But I labored. I wrote poetry.”

“Why didn’t you study that at an institution of higher learning?”

“I thought . . . I thought it was a gift from God.”

I took my older kids to see both plays. For years afterward, Yolka, who was ten or eleven when she first watched them, would return to the one about Brodsky. When I was writing this column, I asked what had stuck with them, and Yolka texted back, “I remember it seemed a little too related to how it was in Moscow at the time.” Back then, this response would have sounded hyperbolic. Russia was cracking down on dissent, but poets weren’t going to jail for writing poetry.

Berkovich directed roughly a dozen more plays. Last year, her production of a play written by Petriychuk—now her co-defendant—won top honors at the Golden Mask, Russia’s leading theatre festival. The name of the play, probably best translated as “Finist, the Brave Falcon,” is a reference to a Russian fairy tale about an elusive male love object who has the ability to turn into a bird or a feather. The play is based on the stories of young Russian women who met isis fighters online, converted to Islam, married the men in virtual ceremonies, and went, or tried to go, to Syria to join the fight with their husbands. Many of the women were later arrested and prosecuted in Russia, and the play made use of the transcripts of their police interviews. It was a subtle, tender, and slightly absurdist portrayal of loneliness and the longing for love. The production opened with the cast singing, in English, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”

Before the Russo-Ukrainian war, I didn’t know that Berkovich wrote poetry. The first poem that caught my attention went viral in the Russian blogosphere about a year ago, as Russia was staging its annual grand celebration of victory in the Second World War. In the poem, the ghost of a man who fought in the war visits his grandson in present-day Russia and asks him not to make use of his image or legacy. “We don’t need you to be proud of us / Nor to be secretly ashamed of us. / All I ask is that you / Make it so I am finally forgotten,” the grandfather pleads.

But then I’ll forget how we looked for that painting
In the Russian Museum
How I woke up wet
And you dressed me
How we read Prishvin together
And looked for the North and South Poles in the atlas
How you explained why planes
Leave a white stripe in the sky.
How you gave me
A magnifying glass.
That’s all right, the grandfather says
As he disappears.
None of that did you any good.

In times of crisis, Russians write poetry, and this was one of many poems making the rounds. Gradually, though, I realized that Berkovich was probably the poetic voice of this period. One after another, her poems, posted on Facebook, put words to the agony of wartime. Many of them had the form of litanies.

Needed: clothes for a woman
Age seventy-nine
From a city that no longer exists.
A T-shirt, size M, for Mariupol,
A jacket, size L, for Lysychans’k.
A bra with a B cup,
For Bucha and Borodyanka.

So began one poem. Another listed imaginary—but typical—cases of Russians getting arrested.
Andrey Alexandrovich Lozhkin
63 years old
A dentist

He raises a blindingly white sheet of paper overhead
His beard is flying in the wind
Everyone will be looking for him until morning
By then he no longer has a poster or a beard or any hope of getting out . . .
Daniil Yegorovich Milkis
24 years old
A student, a nerd

He “likes” a joke on someone else’s Instagram
He has a girlfriend named Sonya and an inarticulate beard
He will send the ring with his lawyer
Sonya will say yes
He will talk about god and won’t be allowed to sit down in court
He’ll get four years and eight months
Thank god for that
The prosecutor asked for six years.

Like many people, I came to depend on Berkovich’s poems as a release for my own feelings. I nearly stopped marvelling at her decision to post openly. It helped that she interspersed the poetry with some decidedly prosaic rants, some about everyday life and some about politics. It was as though, in a way, she was the last person still living in prewar Moscow, where it was possible to use social media to say what you thought, if only to stay sane.

On May 4th, police searched the St. Petersburg apartment of Berkovich’s mother and grandmother (both women are well-known writers and human-rights activists) and detained Berkovich in Moscow. Petriychuk was detained at a Moscow airport. The following day, they appeared in court, where investigators asked that they be placed in pretrial detention. They are being charged with “justifying terrorism.” The charges are based on the play “Finist, the Brave Falcon.”

Meduza, an independent Russian news outlet working in exile, obtained a copy of the expert opinion that formed the basis for the charges against the two women. It says that the play contains elements of isis ideology and, simultaneously, “the ideology of radical feminism,” including “images of the denigration of women in an androcentric world in any space where a woman encounters men, which gives her the right to fight against this state of affairs.” Both perceived ideologies are seen as evidence of support for terrorist tactics. The charge can carry a penalty of up to seven years behind bars.

I have found it hard to write about the ongoing crackdown in Russia. After a while, it seemed that there was nothing left to say—even when, last month, the journalist and politician Vladimir Kara-Murza was sentenced to twenty-five years in prison for “high treason.” The sentence should have been shocking, but, just days earlier, the Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich had been arrested on analogous charges. The arrests of Berkovich and Petriychuk, though, do signal a new chapter. For the first time in the post-Soviet era, Russia has explicitly arrested people for creating art. They are not charged with high treason, like Kara-Murza, or espionage, like Gershkovich, or “discrediting the armed forces” or “spreading false information about the special military operation”—the charges created to punish journalists for covering the war—or for “hooliganism,” as the protest group Pussy Riot was, but for the content of a play they wrote and staged. And also, of course, in Berkovich’s case, for acting as though she could keep expressing her thoughts and feelings out in the open. On the other hand, even as I write this, I understand that the novelty is subtle, if it exists at all: parsing the distinctions in how the Putin regime eradicates difference is a fool’s errand.

Last Friday, as the two women were being charged, several dozen people gathered outside the courthouse in Moscow. After the hearing, one of Berkovich’s friends wrote on Facebook, in a post visible only to “friends,” “I wanted to write what I think, but then I remembered that I live in Russia and decided not to. You know anyway.” Berkovich’s own Facebook account has vanished. 

Masha Gessen