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Artist Profile

Zhenya Berkovich


Status: In Jail

Zhenya Berkovich. Image courtesy of Alexandr Andriyevich.

On the morning of May 5, 2023 the news about Zhenya Berkovich’s arrest was everywhere. The day before her arrest, Zhenya was detained at her home after police searched her Moscow apartment and the apartments of her parents and grandmother in Saint Petersburg. Zhenya’s fellow scriptwriter, Svetlana Petriichuk, was detained at Moscow’s Vnukovo airport. The women were accused of justifying terrorism in their play Finist the Bright Falcon and currently face up to seven years in prison.

For a period of nine months, Vera, ARC’s Regional Representative for Belarus and Russia, has been in contact with Zhenya as she remains detained in Pechatniki, a Moscow pre-trial detention facility. The only way to communicate with Zhenya is through electronically mailed letters received via FSIN-pismo, an e-service provided by Russian detentions. 

Zhenya receives the printed letters, writes back on a piece of paper, and then her correspondents receive the scans of her handwriting via FSIN-pismo. Usually, it takes about two weeks for a letter to reach its final destination. It takes that long partly because of the censorship, and partly because jail staff do not print the letters one by one, but rather collect dozens of them and bring Zhenya a huge pile of correspondence at once.

One of Zhenya's handwritten letters scanned and sent from jail. Image courtesy of Vera.

Feminist Plays: Freedom in Fairytales

In 2018, Zhenya organized an independent theater company, Daughters of SOSO, which consists of only women. Svetlana, who is much less talked about and less heard of, was part of the troupe and the author of Finist the Brave Falcon, for which she received the Golden Mask Award.

Finist the Brave Falcon included the actual sentences and interrogation reports of women in Russia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan who traveled to Syria at the invitation of men working for ISIS. The most high-profile story was that of Moscow University student Varvara Karaulova. Without saying anything to her parents, Varvara flew to Istanbul in 2015. From Istanbul she travelled to Syria where she was detained while trying to cross the border. At the trial Varvara said that she did not intend to be recruited as a terrorist, but went to Syria for her great love, who turned out to be an ISIS recruiter. She received four and a half years in prison.

Zhenya's play is an attempt to understand: What drives women to drop everything to follow their virtual love to a country they’ve never been? The title references a fairy tale about a Russian warrior who is unbeatable, brave, and can transform into a falcon. The play illustrates the seductive idea of a fairytale lover who exists somewhere far away, basking in freedom and can take you with him. 

Accusations of justifying terrorism seemed absurd to anyone who had seen this play. And in her interviews Zhenya openly stated that terrorism in any of its manifestations is a crime. 

  • Images from "Finist the Brave Falcon." Courtesy of Alexandr Andriyevich.
  • Images from "Finist the Brave Falcon." Courtesy of Alexandr Andriyevich.
  • Images from "Finist the Brave Falcon." Courtesy of Alexandr Andriyevich.
  • Images from "Finist the Brave Falcon." Courtesy of Alexandr Andriyevich.
  • Images from "Finist the Brave Falcon." Courtesy of Alexandr Andriyevich.

Wordsmithing Resistance

Feminist discourse has always been important to Zhenya. In the Russian language, every noun is gendered either masculine, feminine, or neuter. Zhenya was one of the first to use “feminitives” publicly in speech, meaning she added the feminine ending to masculine nouns. This led to a wave of outrage on social media - how could language be so ugly? Zhenya argued that language is alive and ever evolving, that nothing will happen to it, but something bad constantly happens to women in Russia. Russian feminists insist that without the feminine ending, women in certain professions simply disappear since words like poet, doctor, or president are male nouns. 

"Zhenya. I always wanted to say how much I love you, but the contrived strictness of the ‘course master’ did not allow it. You're my favorite student. The most talented, the smartest, the freest. Mother of two children. Director, poet, scriptwriter (I don't know how to form your favorite feminitives). You should be proud: such people in the culture of any normal country are a rarity, a miracle, a pride. But in Russia - everything is the opposite now... "

These are the words of one of the most famous Russian directors and Zhenya’s university professor in 2013, Kirill Serebrennikov. It is an open letter that Serebrennikov wrote after Zhenya was arrested and placed in detention. 

In February 2018, Zhenya had supported Serebrennikov who was under house arrest at the time, facing bogus charges of embezzlement. All the political commentators and journalists wrote that his case was a political tactic, and that Putin's authoritarian regime was dangerous not only for political activists, but for artists. 

Zhenya stood alone in a “solitary picket” in Saint Petersburg holding a poster that displayed her support for Serebrennikov. She went to the courts and signed letters in his defense. He was her favorite teacher, the first person who noticed Zhenya's very brave and extraordinary artistic talents. 

The People's Poet

After Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, a new stage of Zhenya's fame began - she became known as a poet. As it became almost impossible to express discontent for the war in Russia–Facebook was blocked, Zhenya held a piece of paper on the street that said “no war” and was immediately detained for 11 days, a law was introduced to protect the army from being ‘discredited,’–Zhenya’s poetry became popular. Zhenya wrote a poem for the ninth of May, the day that Russia celebrates its victory in the Great Patriotic War when the Soviets beat Nazi Germany. This holiday, as well as the discourse around Russia’s participation in this war, has long been usurped by state propaganda. By twisting the memory of this war, the state justifies the current war in Ukraine. 

Zhenya's poem, titled “Whether it was…”, expressed the deep and unspoken distress for the war and it went viral on social networks with millions of reposts. Zhenya became the people's poet. A voice of silent protest. It was this poem and the many others that Zhenya continued to write that became the real reason for her arrest. It was the first time anyone in modern Russia had been jailed for poetry. 

Svetlana Petriichuk and Zhenya Berkovich in Russian court. Image courtesy of NO.Media from Russia. YT

Every two or three months Zhenya and Svetlana are brought to court to review their case. Zhenya and her three lawyers seek to ensure that for the duration of the investigation Zhenya can be under house arrest with her two teenage daughters who were adopted only a few years ago. The sisters have been through the horrors of the Russian orphan system: multiple foster homes, loneliness in hospitals, violence, neglect. 

In each of her speeches, Zhenya explains the need to be with her daughters. Each time, the court doesn’t change her case and Zhenya and Svetlana are sent to detention for another three months. For many people in Russia, Zhenya's appeals to the court have been a breath of fresh air, in the absence of public policy and freedom of speech. 

Zhenya began her most recent speech on the 9th of January by addressing the judge with a poem in which she explained that in all this time the investigation of her case has not been conducted, thus no new materials or evidence can appear in her case, therefore the circumstances won’t change. 

Zhenya said: I have accepted that you have decided to ruin my life, but how can you ruin the lives of two young girls who have only just believed in the possibility of a normal life, in the possibility of a family? In the same poem, Zhenya says that she has only one grandmother left and would like to be able to see her again. 

One of Zhenya's grandmothers, Nina Katerli, could not wait for Zhenya's release. She died in the ninetieth year of life in Saint Petersburg, Zhenya’s hometown. Directors, actors, and many people from the cultural community wrote a letter to Tatiana Moskalkova, the human rights ombudsman at the time, asking her to let Zhenya attend her grandmother's funeral while detained in Moscow. They obliged. This seemed like an incredible mercy, but at a later trial Zhenya recounted that she was transported in an “iron box,” a “cage on wheels,” that was approximately “three foot by five foot.” She explained that it was impossible to stand or sit normally and that it was extremely cold because there was no heating and she was not allowed to take warm clothes with her. In a period of 25 hours she was only offered to go to the bathroom twice. 

Even detained in solitary confinement, Zhenya remains one of the wittiest and freest artists of modern Russia. The speeches Zhenya makes at the trial, the poems she writes in detention, the letters she writes addressing her fans or friends are published in a specially curated channel. They are quoted, reposted, forwarded. In her letters she jokingly retells the Russian propaganda that plays all day long on the TV in her cell, asks for more books to be sent, shares how she plays Scrabble with herself, and incessantly supports those who remain in Russia and those who were forced to emigrate. 

She misses her daughters, her theater, her family and friends very much, but she continues to embody hope. Zhenya writes: There's a long, long way to go. We have to be patient and optimistic.

Vera Shengeliya, January 25, 2024. Vera is a Visiting Scholar for the Center of Civic Engagement at Bard College. She has worked as a disability rights defender for many years in Russia. After the full-scale invasion, Vera left Moscow and currently lives in New York City.

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