Russian theatre director and playwright go on trial in 'absurd' case over 2020 play

A theatre director and a playwright have appeared in court accused of justifying terrorism with a play they first staged in Moscow back in 2020.

The trial of Zhenya Berkovich and Svetlana Petriychuk is the first high-profile case since Soviet times to be based on the contents of a theatre production.

Their supporters believe the prosecution is part of a Kremlin-led cultural purge.

"It's absurd," Elena Efros, Zhenya's mother, told Sky News outside the military court in east Moscow.

"I am sure [the witnesses] will say everything necessary to prove, as far as possible, the absurdity of this accusation," she said.

The play, called Finist, The Brave Falcon, is about Russian women who became radicalised and travelled to Syria to marry Islamic State fighters. It is based on the transcripts of real police interviews.

To begin with, it was met with critical acclaim. It won two Golden Mask awards - Russia's answer to the Oliviers and Tonys.

It was even commended by the Russian prison service, according to Petriychuk's lawyer, who told a previous hearing it had been read to inmates at a penal colony in Siberia.

But then Russia invaded Ukraine.

Berkovich and Petriychuk were arrested in May 2023, despite the play no longer being staged. State-appointed experts had combed through the text and found "traces of Isis ideology" and "radical feminism".

At the time, friends said it was a smokescreen, believing they were detained for Berkovich's anti-war poetry and previous protests.

Natalya Livshits was among around a dozen supporters who were at this hearing. She didn't know the women before they were arrested but began sending them letters soon afterwards because of her "outrage" at their case.

"This shouldn't happen," she said. "That's why I come to every hearing."

Members of the media were allowed to briefly film inside the courtroom before the trial got under way.

Berkovich and Petrichyuk were locked inside the glass cage, known as "the aquarium", where defendants are always placed.

The pair appeared relaxed as they occasionally laughed and gestured to loved ones.

To her mother, Berkovich made a "cat" symbol - V-signs with the index and middle fingers on both hands, with one behind the other.

"They look well," Berkovich's mother said. "They are confident, courageous, cheerful."

She added: "This verdict doesn't depend on us, on what happens in court, but on how the stars align."