As the Kremlin’s influence seeps further into Russia’s cultural world, one of the few outlets left for free expression – theatre – is fighting to survive.

A trial is currently under way against renowned director Yevgeniya Berkovich and playwright Svetlana Petriychuk, both of whom produced critically acclaimed work before their arrest in May 2023.

They face up to seven years in prison for “justifying terrorism” over a show they staged in 2020 about Russian women marrying fighters from the Islamic State group online and joining them in Syria.

But many believe Berkovich’s opposition to the conflict in Ukraine was the real reason for her arrest.

On the sidelines of the trial, theatre critic Irina Kuzmina told AFP the charges against the pair were designed to set “an example” to other dissenting artists.

In the past two years at least 30 directors, including industry figureheads Dmitry Krymov and Kirill Serebrennikov, have left Russia or been sacked.

At least 60 shows have been cancelled, according to drama magazine Teatr, the paper version of which has been banned.

To keep working, theatres are performing classical plays.

But even classics can be “denounced”, especially by nationalist and conservative audiences.

One audience member lodged a complaint against the Alexandrinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg over its production of The Raven by 18th-century Italian author Carlo Gozzi.

A few lines in the play were delivered in the original Italian instead of Russian, which the audience member considered “Russophobic”, a theatre critic told AFP on condition of anonymity.

In May 2023, the same theatre had to cancel an adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac over accusations it “discredited the Russian army”.

Ideological weapon

The theatre is an important ideological tool in Russia, where one in four people go to watch plays on a regular basis, according to a February survey by the VCIOM institute.

Six months after Berkovich and Petriychuk were arrested, Kremlin-linked theatre director Vladimir Mashkov was appointed head of Russia’s prestigious Golden Mask drama festival.

On the facade of the Tabakov Theatre in Moscow, which Mashkov manages, hangs a giant ribbon in the shape of a “Z”, a symbol of support for the Russian army in Ukraine.

Mashkov was appointed president of Russia’s theatre worker union in December 2023, a sign of the conservatives’ creeping influence over culture.

Yevgeniya Berkovich and Svetlana Petriychuk accused of ‘justifying terrorism’ appear in a Moscow court. Video: Andrey Borodulin/AFPTV/AFP

And on Friday, he was appointed director of Sovremennik, a pioneering theatre founded during the post-Stalinist thaw and symbol of the relative liberalism of the 1960s.

Some playwrights who actively support Russia’s offensive have argued for greater patriotism in the theatre world.

Oleg Roy’s play Shadows of Donbas tells the story of three Russians on the Ukrainian front, featuring explosions and bloodshed.

The audience “must understand that it is thanks to our soldiers that they are able to lead a peaceful life here”, Roy told AFP after a recent performance attended by around 300 people, many of them pensioners and military cadets let in free of charge.

For Roy, arresting artists who criticise the conflict is “right and just”.

“In times of war, you have to choose sides: either you’re with your country or you’re against it,” he said.

‘Escape real life’

At the Prostranstvo Vnutri art centre, which staged Berkovich’s play, director Anton Fyodorov said the theatre was a place for people to “hide and think”.

“It’s a kind of therapy,” said Fyodorov, famed for his absurdist writing.

So far, his work has not been too affected, he said.

“For me, the world has always been a nightmare,” he told AFP with a sad smile. “My only censor is myself.”

But faced with the prospect of “denunciations” from pro-Kremlin theatregoers, he admitted to being more cautious when speaking with actors.

“I have to co-exist with people who think differently. It’s always been like that, but it’s even stronger at the moment,” he said.

His latest hit play, an adaptation of Madame Bovary, is a metaphor for the recurring Russian need to “escape real life”.

“Metaphors, euphemisms and a return to the classics are a breath of fresh air for audiences and artists alike,” Kuzmina said.


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