Anti-Kremlin Director Evgenia Berkovitch Sentenced to Six Years in Prison

Director Yevgenia Berkovich (right) and writer Svetlana Petriychuk before their trial in Moscow, July 8, 2024. ALEXANDER ZEMLIANICHENKO / AP

For hours, sitting in her glass cage, Evgenia Berkovitch takes notes in her black notebook. With a keen eye and a mocking smile throughout the hearings, the 39-year-old Russian director has found herself reduced for a month and a half to the role of spectator of her trial that resembles a theater of the absurd. Arrested on May 5, 2023, this renowned figure of the new artistic wave of liberal Moscow was tried for “apology for terrorism” in a military court in the capital. On Monday, July 8, early in the evening, the show ended. The judge, who had ordered the final hearings to be held in camera, suddenly accelerated the proceedings, giving Yevgenia Berkovitch and her fellow prisoner, the playwright Svetlana Petriychuk, 44, twenty minutes to prepare their final statements. Then he delivered his verdict. In a country where judges almost systematically take up the prosecution’s accusations, the two women knew they were convicted, but as a mother, Yevgenia Berkovitch was counting on a fine and not a prison sentence. In vain. Each was sentenced to six years in a penal colony.

This harsh sentence confirms the intensification of the repression against any voice critical of Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin. More than two years after the launch of the “special operation” In Ukraine, this iron fist is hitting theatres and cultural circles. From the beginning, Evgenia Berkovitch, a former student of Kirill Serebrennikov, a director forced into exile, had criticised the military offensive. “I will stay in Russia until the day when the risk of prison arises”she told us in December 2022, five months before her sudden arrest. She had then taken the habit of adding poems to her various shows. “Anti-war verses!”she enthused. In particular, she mocked the authorities who had claimed that the smell in the Mariupol theater came from fish remains and not from the bodies of people who died in the bombings, which were officially denied.

“Every theater has a lot of fish”Yevgenia Berkovitch joked. Her poems were aimed at the authorities: “On the surface wander the decorated and the popular. Cold. Mute. They swim in deep waters.” Her shows used to end with a minute of silence in tribute to the victims of the conflict. Today, in the small Moscow theatre where her plays are still performed, the performances are sold out. On this rare independent stage in Moscow, located not far from the military tribunal where the director was tried, the evenings now end with an appeal in support of the two fellow prisoners. “We have become underground pacifists”actors and spectators breathe.

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