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Anti-Terror Feminist Director Is in Russian Jail for “Justifying Terrorism”

Nina Katerli is a famous St. Petersburg writer and human rights activist. She is eighty-eight years old and the mother of Elena Efros, a human rights activist and the creator of the project Tales for Political Prisoners, through which volunteers write letters to people in jail. And Elena Efros is the mother of Zhenya Berkovich, a theatre director and poet. In 2021, Berkovich and her theatre company, Daughters of SOSO, staged the play Finist Yasniy Sokol (Finist the Brave Falcon); and in May of this year law enforcement conducted a search of her grandmother’s and mother’s home and then arrested Berkovich and the play’s author, Svetlana Petriychuk, on suspicion of “justifying terrorism.” By the time this text is published, Berkovich and Petriychuk will have been in pre-trial detention for a month and a half.

Finist the Brave Falcon is a distinctly feminist documentary play that tells the story of how ISIS fighters recruit women from regions of Russia via social media, promising them love and care. These women marry these fighters online, and then the fighters fly to them to Syria where the women find themselves in patriarchal hell. They live without internet or any communication with their families, under daily threat of beatings, forced to do their husbands’ laundry and cook and watch the war right in front of them.

Aiding and abetting terrorism, according to Russian courts, refers to the fact that the deceived women, once enslaved, cooked, washed, and bore children.

Svetlana Petriychuk wrote this play based on records of actual interrogations of such women by Russian law enforcement officials and their publicly available court records. As of 2018, about seven thousand women from Russia had left to join ISIS fighters in Syria. Many of them were then left as widows with up to five children in their arms, and they cannot return to Russia. Those who were able to return after paying about $2,000 to an intermediary in Russia are being tried for participation in an illegal terrorist formation and “aiding and abetting terrorism.” There are hundreds of such criminal cases. Aiding and abetting terrorism, according to Russian courts, refers to the fact that the deceived women, once enslaved, cooked, washed, and bore children.

The play is named after the folkloric Russian fairytale about Finist, a ploughman who defends his native land from enemy invaders and a sorcerer. As an independent play, it was performed on small stages using an ascetic documentary theatre aesthetic. Petriychuk’s play has strong folkloric motifs; the territory of Syria under the control of ISIS in the play is called “tricity state,” which is what the distant overseas land is called in Russian fairytales. Through an appeal to the fairytale on the level of text, metaphors, and visual elements, the author reveals an ancient myth—only it is not a myth of a heroic bogatyr, but a myth in which women have been oppressed for all time. It shows how ancient the roots of patriarchy are and how deeply it has grown into the social fabric.

A woman wearing a lacey crown stands alone on a carpeted floor with a hand extended in a "halt" gesture.

Marietta Tsigal-Polishchuk in Daughters of SOSO’s production of Finist Yasniy Sokol (Finist the Brave Falcon) by Svetlana Petriychuk. Directed by Zhenia Berkovich. Produced by Alexander Andrievich. Set and costume design by Ksenia Sorokina. Lighting design by Elena Perelman. Compositions by Olga Shaidullina. Photo byby Alexander Andrievich.

Ksenia Sorokina, the performance’s visual artist, combined Russian and Syrian folk motifs in the costumes and decorations she created: the actresses wore kokoshnik headdresses, and the action took place around a carpet specially made for the performance, which visually joined Syrian and Russian folklore motifs. The carpet and costumes used real women’s hair, a choice that emphasized the way that women become expendable material for the patriarchal world. And the music, specially written for the performance by Olga Shaidullina, also borrows motifs from folk songs and chants.

The contemporary impetus for writing and staging Finist the Brave Falcon was the high-profile case of Varvara Karaulova, who was sentenced to four-and-a-half years in prison in 2016 just for her intention to enter ISIS-controlled territory in Syria. She was detained in Turkey and did not even make it to her destination, and still she ended up in a Russian prison. Her story is a horrifying tale of victim blaming, which becomes high-quality documentary theatre in Finist the Brave Falcon. The authors researched sources and interviewed real-life heroines, muftis, and Russian security officials. All of this in an attempt to understand what motivates women from Russia—and especially the Caucasian region—to fall for the exhortations of the ISIS fighters and to go to Syria, crossing the borders illegally.

The heroine speaks of these women who, desperate under Russian patriarchy, need only words to embark on the most dangerous journey.

One of the reasons the authors offer is that Russia itself is a terribly patriarchal society. The play begins with a verbatim monologue by an actress who talks about her experience with Russian men, who are great at three things: “giving advice, criticizing, and guilt-tripping.” Her monologue contains a perfectly recognizable image of domestic abuse in Russian culture: Russian men, who can do “nothing at all,” reproduce patriarchal gender socialization and psychologically and physically abuse women, the only people over whom they have power.

But Islamic men are different, says the play’s heroine. They ask her how she slept, how she ate, whether she is staying warm in rainy weather. This care is so unusual to the Russian woman that she wonders if it is too good to be true, but it seems real. Gradually, she sinks into a web of this virtual love. Some of the heroines with whom the authors of the play spoke had never even seen their husbands before coming to Syria. They sent messages or even called each other on Skype, but they did not turn on the camera. The heroine speaks of these women who, desperate under Russian patriarchy, need only words to embark on the most dangerous journey, where upon arrival their passports are taken away and they are turned into sex workers for Islamic militants. From one patriarchal hell, they go to another.

These women’s actions reflect the pressure of the heteropatriarchal norm and the myth of romantic love, which assert that a woman should be in a monogamous marriage, and of the Russian Orthodox “culture of suffering,” which asserts that one must sacrifice oneself to live a good life. This is literally what some of the women who became characters in the play said to the authors: “I thought you had to suffer for some time for the sake of love.”

Five actresses hold the arms of another out while a seventh plays a stringed instrument.

The cast of Daughters of SOSO’s production of Finist Yasniy Sokol (Finist the Brave Falcon) by Svetlana Petriychuk. Directed by Zhenia Berkovich. Produced by Alexander Andrievich. Set and costume design by Ksenia Sorokina. Lighting design by Elena Perelman. Compositions by Olga Shaidullina.

The initial denunciation of the play was written back in 2021 by members of the National Patriotic Movement, a right wing organization that believes that Russia today is America’s vassal. The authors of the denunciation found in the play an element of information warfare against Russia and an insult to Orthodoxy. And now, two years later, investigators have also found justification for terrorism in the show.

In the criminal case, Roman Silyantev’s expert review ignored the artistic dimension of the work. Instead, it took the words of the heroines literally when they spoke about why they decided to go to Syria, believing the militants’ stories about how good it is there and how privileged the women are there. Silyantev is an Orthodox religious scholar and head of the “destructology” laboratory at Moscow State Linguistic University. “Destructology” is a pseudoscientific discipline invented by him and used only by him, dealing with the study of “destructive sects and movements” such as ISIS. But in Berkovich and Petriichuk’s performance, this destructologist also saw the propaganda of “radical feminism” and “the fight against the androcentric structure of Russian society.” According to Russian law, forensic examinations must be conducted by people within the framework of generally accepted scientific disciplines. It is not surprising at all that this expertise was included in the case, as it clearly demonstrates the state of the modern judicial system in Russia, where current "political spirit" motivates court decisions much more than the letter or spirit of the law.

Some people believe that her anti-war stance was the real reason for her prosecution.

Put simply, Berkovich’s play is not a justification for terrorism. It is a work with an obvious anti-terrorist message, showing the plight of women deceived by militants. But today’s Russia is uncomfortable with Zhenya Berkovich. She is an active feminist, and recently Russian deputies proposed that feminism should be recognized as an “extremist ideology.” Berkovich also made the decision not to leave the country after the war began. Instead, she went on a solitary picket on the first day of the war and was detained for eleven days, and the anti-war poetry she has been writing ever since is very popular online in Russia. Some people believe that her anti-war stance was the real reason for her prosecution.

After its premiere, Finist the Brave Falcon received two Golden Mask awards—Russia’s main theatre awards—for best work by a playwright and best work by a costume designer. Anyone now can watch that production with English subtitles and see just how humanistic the work really is. Ironically, in 2019, another production of this play was performed in a women’s penal colony with the participation of actors from the Tomsk Young Spectator Theatre. At the time, prison authorities spoke positively about the play and its role in preventing involvement in terrorist organizations.

An actress during a performance is bathed in strips of light.

Natalia Sapozhnikova in Daughters of SOSO’s production of Finist Yasniy Sokol (Finist the Brave Falcon) by Svetlana Petriychuk. Directed by Zhenia Berkovich. Produced by Alexander Andrievich. Set and costume design by Ksenia Sorokina. Lighting design by Elena Perelman. Compositions by Olga Shaidullina.

We do not know the true motives of the investigators who launched this criminal trial, but personally I doubt that law enforcement really saw a justification for terrorism in Berkovich and Petriichuk’s work. It is more likely that Russian law enforcement officials, as representatives of the convulsive dying patriarchy, were offended by the unflattering portrayal of them—Russian men—in this all-female work.

The whole story around the play is a story about the oppression of women and victim blaming. The authors made a work about women who were victims of deception and violence, and for this they are now facing several years in prison.

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