Russia’s new Red Guards. Why the trial of theatre director Yevgenia Berkovich and playwright Svetlana Petriychuk is as alarming as it is historic — Novaya Gazeta Europe
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Russia’s new Red Guards

Why the trial of theatre director Yevgenia Berkovich and playwright Svetlana Petriychuk is as alarming as it is historic

Russia’s new Red Guards

Yevgenia Berkovich and Svetlana Petriychuk in court in Moscow on 20 May 2024. Photo: Alexander Nemenov / AFP / Scanpix / Leta

When theatre director Yevgenia Berkovich staged a production of her longtime collaborator Svetlana Petriychuk’s new play, Finist, The Brave Falcon, in Moscow four years ago, neither could possibly have imagined the havoc the project would eventually wreak on both their lives.

The play was based on police files from the criminal cases brought against a number of Russia’s so-called ISIS brides — women who had suddenly given up everything to travel to Syria at the height of that country’s civil war, seemingly love-struck, to marry virtual strangers they’d previously only spoken to online.

ISIS brides were big news at the time, with journalists and academics alike attempting to fathom why women of all ages and means and from such diverse backgrounds, would suddenly give up their comfortable lives to travel to Syria to live under a brutal caliphate.

The play captivated audiences in the Russian capital, winning critical acclaim and numerous awards, including a best playwright Golden Mask, Russia’s most prestigious theatre prize, for Petriychuk in 2022.

Observers can only marvel at just what is going on. How could a play that is so fundamentally anti-terrorist in nature be designated jihadist? How could Berkovich’s production be accused of “promoting aggressive forms of radical Islam”?

However, at that point, as the full-scale invasion of Ukraine began, Finist, The Brave Falcon, once seen as a groundbreaking and unflinchingly honest play, became a subversive and even seditious one overnight. Berkovich and Petriychuk’s once celebrated production was condemned for “justifying terrorism”, a legal case was brought against them, both women were placed on the government’s list of “extremists and terrorists”, and were placed in pretrial detention. In a tragic irony, their case is currently being held in the same military court that heard the case of Varvara Karaulova, whose case formed the basis of the play.

Observers can only marvel at just what is going on. How could a play that is so fundamentally anti-terrorist in nature be designated jihadist? How could Berkovich’s production be accused of “promoting aggressive forms of radical Islam”?

Yevgenia Berkovich on a screen at an appeal hearing against her arrest at the Moscow City Court, 30 May 2023. Photo: Maxim Shipenkov / EPA-EFE

Yevgenia Berkovich on a screen at an appeal hearing against her arrest at the Moscow City Court, 30 May 2023. Photo: Maxim Shipenkov / EPA-EFE

Courtroom transcripts being released by independent news outlet Mediazona have revealed the trial to be the kind of tragi-comic drama that would make most directors and playwrights proud. Less so perhaps, that the entire farce is laced with utter absurdity.

At the end of the fourth day of the hearing, a new — both long-awaited and unexpected — character suddenly made his debut on the witness stand.

“It was October 2022 and Finist, the Brave Falcon was due to be performed as part of the theatre festival in Nizhny Novgorod,” actor Vladimir Karpuk, who has his own theatre in Russia’s sixth largest city, told the court. “We put on plays. They vary — some are in support of the special military operation, for the country, for culture, for our statehood.”

“I’d been to Mariupol that year for a film shoot, and I talked to people there, and I just got so into the subject matter,” Karpuk told the court. “And then on 7 October, the president’s birthday, [the Ukrainians] blew up the Crimean Bridge, meanwhile here we were about to stage a play about terrorists. It was a subversion of values.”

Karpuk denounced the play, which he said had “tarred all Russian men with the same brush” to the authorities, and the show was cancelled at the last moment.

Vladimir Karpuk. Photo: social media, VK

Vladimir Karpuk. Photo: social media, VK

Of course, Karpuk is by no means the principal villain of the piece. In more normal times, he would be nobody, but by a twist of political fate, he suddenly finds himself a somebody and represents a whole new archetype: the Russian Red Guard.

The task of these cultural commissars is to sieve Russian art for ideological impurity; illiterate, uneducated and uncultured they may be, but they’re now reclaiming control of Russian culture from the effete liberals whose lack of commitment to Russia’s imperial ideals has disqualified them from the role.

But, let’s not forget that these new Russian Red Guards are no self-starters. You need to create — or rather, pollute — the environment for them to appear. You need to connect the Red Guards lower down with the ones at the top.

Other than the unfortunate audiences who are more often than not forced to go and see their performances glorifying war, the only people familiar with the work produced by Karpuk and others like him are the officials doling out the funding that ensures such propaganda can be produced.

Nevertheless these people pose a real danger. Fanatical and insane as they often are, they can launch personal crusades against anyone who displeases them, and given the security forces control the judicial system in contemporary Russia, once these people launch a campaign against somebody, they can normally reach their objectives.

But, let’s not forget that these new Russian Red Guards are no self-starters. You need to create — or rather, pollute — the environment for them to appear. You need to connect the Red Guards lower down with the ones at the top.

Berkovich and Petriychuk are obviously not being prosecuted because some loser from Nizhny Novgorod wrote to denounce them. The denunciation may have been another excuse, but not the actual reason. Even if there weren’t orders from above, the security forces would still want to go ahead with it. And even if there was actually an order put out from on high to go get Berkovich and Petriychuk, the thinking of some general or Presidential Administration employee isn’t all that different from the thinking of Karpuk.

For lack of anything better to think, a high-up Red Guard, a law enforcement officer and Karpuk really might believe that Berkovich and Petriychuk are terrorists. No facts or expert opinions will convince them otherwise. After all, in their echo chambers, where they continue to deaden their brains with ideas of a Nazi Ukraine, this is far from the most insane narrative.

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