In response to today’s sentencing by a Moscow court of theater director Zhenya Berkovich and playwright Svetlana Petriychuk to six years in a maximum-security penal colony on charges of “justifying terrorism,” PEN America and the Artists at Risk Connection (ARC) released the following statement: 

“Today’s sentencing of Berkovich and Petriychuk will go down in history as a blatant attack on artistic freedom by Russian authorities who have targeted them as part of a broader campaign of suppression of any public dissent against government policies,” said Polina Sadovskaya, PEN America director for Advocacy and Eurasia.

“Berkovich and Petriychuk used theater to highlight the dangers and consequences of terrorism. It is a terrible, tragic irony that they have now been found guilty of terrorism charges themselves. Unfortunately, this comes as little surprise in Putin’s Russia where the government regularly distorts reality through propagandist media by pushing fake news on international platforms, and, as we see here, by manipulating the reality in government-run courtrooms.”

“The unjust sentencing of Berkovich and Petriychuk is a stark warning to Russian artists. Putin and his government understand the power of art to inspire citizens to imagine better futures and to think critically in the current moment. Artists respond truthfully to the moment, and labeling these artists as terrorists or extremists is a grave injustice. ARC calls for the immediate release of Berkovich and Petriychuk and for all charges to be dropped,” said Julie Trébault, managing director of ARC.

The charges relate to Berkovich’s award-winning production of Petriychuk’s play, “Finist, the Bright Falcon,” which depicts the experiences of Russian women who moved to Syria to join ISIS after being recruited online. State witnesses claimed the play contained “signs of radical feminist ideology” and romanticized terrorism.

The play was initially supported by the Russian Culture Ministry and won the Golden Mask Award, Russia’s most prestigious National Theater Award.

Berkovich and Petriychuk have been detained since their initial arrest in May 2023. The hearing began on May 20, 2024, and by June 13, the judge closed it to the public. Journalists and relatives of Berkovich and Petriychuk were barred from entering the courtroom, while lawyers were forced to remain silent. 

According to PEN America’s 2023 Freedom to Write Index, Russia ranked as the world’s sixth-largest jailer of writers, tied with Belarus. 2023 marked Russia’s first appearance in the Index’s top ten jailers, highlighting the impact of war and conflict on free expression. Eleven out of 16 writers imprisoned in Russia last year were targeted for their anti-war expressions.

PEN America calls on the Russian government to immediately release Berkovich and Petriychuk and to cease the targeted punishment of artists and writers for exercising their right to free expression.

About the Artists at Risk Connection

The Artists at Risk Connection (ARC) is a project of PEN America dedicated to assisting imperiled artists and fortifying the networks and organizations that support them. If you or someone you know is an at-risk artist, please contact ARC.

About PEN America

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write and recognize the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. Learn more at pen.org.

For questions or to schedule an interview, please contact Dietlind Lerner, [email protected]