March 04, 2024

Words from Behind the Glass Box


Words from Behind the Glass Box
Zhenya Berkovich (left) and Svetlana Petriychuk (right) inside a glass box in a Russian court. NO.Media iz Rossii, Youtube.

Two theater creatives had a moment in a spotlight while in the defendants' spot in a Russian court.

Theater director Zhenya Berkovich and playwright Svetlana Petriychuk have been vocal about their opposition to President Vladimir Putin and his invasion of Ukraine. In May 2023, both women were arrested on charges of "promoting terrorism" after staging a play criticizing ISIS.

After several months in prison, the two Golden Mask national theater prize winners were allowed to speak to the press behind a glass box. The Youtube channel NO.Media iz Rossii recorded the interaction.

As Berkovich and Petriychuk descended from the police van, a crowd waved behind the courthouse fence. Then the police took off the women's handcuffs as they were let inside a glass box, which, in Russia, is often used to contain defendants in the courtroom. Berkovich drew hearts for the crowd while Petriychuk wore one on her white sweatshirt.

Berkovich showed them a notebook with writings and illustrations. She had begun writing a book while in prison, and showed them the title of the chapter she was about to begin, "Part 3." Journalists proceeded to ask Berkovich about her hair, and one of them said, "Zhenya, do you have manicures in prison?" Berkovich said yes and showed her nails.

The real questions began after a journalist asked them about their hopes. Petriychuk and Berkovich confessed feeling tired by the detention process. Berkovich said, "I spend so much time forcing myself not to hope for anything." Petriychuk responded, "We will still fail, but we still have to release oxytocin into the brain." Then, the playwright added, "I was taught, 'Prison is not a grave, time is not a rubber band.' Women don't get life sentences, so... we see, the earth is round." The two highlighted that they had received many letters of support from people from all walks of life. Many letterwriters did not know of the two women until they were arrested.

Then, the women spoke about their arrest. Petriychuk confessed, "I didn't think at all that we would be arrested. They approached me at the airport and said I was detained for the [play criticizing ISIS]. I laughed (...) But the day passed, and by the evening everything became more real." After her first trial and being separated from her colleague into different cells, the situation finally became clear to Petryichuk.

At the time of her detention, Berkovich was at home. She described holding her kids who were "in hysteria" and making sure the cats didn't run away as she was being detained.

Berkovich talked about her perception of time in prison. She said that compared to other prisoners in pre-trial detention centers they were still "newbies," yet everything moved very slowly. Berkovich said, "This is really starting to feel normal to me (...) On one hand, you spend your energy not getting depressed and maintaining a sense of humor. And, at the same time, it is necessary to remember that this is not the norm - the terrible lawlessness, the injustice. And then you start to get angry, banging your head against the wall."

Supporters clapped and chanted "Zhenya" and "Sveta" as the police van took the women back to prison, where they still are today. Amnesty International has collected over 40,000 signatures in a petition demanding the two women's liberation.

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