OVD-Info Weekly Bulletin No. 304: Prosecuting the arts

6 May 2023

OVD-Info is a Moscow-based NGO that monitors politically-motivated arrests and prosecutions in Russia. Each week OVD-Info publishes a bulletin with the latest news, which is translated here. To receive the mailing in Russian, visit here.

Zhenya Berkovich at Zamoskvoretsky district court / Photo: Aleksandra Astakhova, Mediazone


Hello! The authors of a play about Russian women recruited by Islamic State have been prosecuted, a soldier from St. Petersburg was sent to a penal colony for trying to resign from service, and a Ukrainian woman who wanted to visit her sick father in Crimea has been remanded in custody.

The authors of the play Finist, the Bright Falcon, are being prosecuted for justification of terrorism. Director Zhenya Berkovich and playwright Svetlana Petrychuk were detained and remanded in custody in Moscow for two months. Before that, police officers searched the flat of Berkovich’s parents and grandmother in St Petersburg and also questioned the director of the SOSO Daughters theatre where the play was staged. The play, for which the playwrights are being prosecuted, is about ‘women who have decided to marry radical Islamists online and join them in Syria’.

  • Why is this important? Freedom of artistic expression is impossible in Russia: critical statements can easily become a pretext for prosecution. The production of ‘Finist the Bright Falcon’ does not justify terrorists, its authors only wanted to examine why women were willing to go to Syria to lovers they didn’t even know in person. ‘What can be so wrong with a person, a woman, that she is prepared to put her whole life on the line, to trust not even a man but a picture on a screen?’ – that’s the question the playwrights wanted to answer. The play won the Golden Mask prize in 2022.

A soldier from St Petersburg who has been trying to resign from service for almost a year has been sentenced to seven years in a penal colony. Private Sergei Spiridonov was found guilty of absconding from his unit during mobilisation. After the war began, Sergei Spiridonov began to deliberately commit disciplinary offences in order to be dismissed, but that never happened.  After the announcement of the ‘partial’ mobilisation, Spiridonov escaped from his military unit five times and hid with his girlfriend, which became the reason for the criminal prosecution.

  • Why do I need to know this? Sometimes even those who were prepared to serve in the army before the war began do not want to participate now. There are many reasons for this – for example, the fear of dying during the fighting, or opposition to the attack on Ukraine itself. But once you’re in the system, it’s hard to get out. And spending years behind bars may be a better option for some than following criminal orders. However, even a criminal case may not save you – a soldier may, for example, receive a suspended sentence, after which he will be sent back into battle.

Russian authorities have arrested a Ukrainian citizen who went to Crimea to visit her father. Lenia Umerova is suspected of espionage, and has been remanded in custody. In 2022, the young woman went back to her home country to visit her father, who had been diagnosed with cancer. She did not have a Russian passport, only Ukrainian citizenship. She was detained at the border with Georgia and held for several months in a temporary detention centre for foreign citizens and in isolation, although the court of cassation had cancelled her deportation back in March. Later it became known that a criminal case had been opened against her.

  • Why is this important? Russia is grabbing land that belonged to Ukraine, and families are being separated. This is turning into tragedy – a daughter can’t visit her father who is suffering from a terminal illness. And the Russian authorities have no compassion, so instead of letting the young woman go, she may be imprisoned for many years. The article of the Russian Criminal Code on espionage has been used for this purpose – apparently as a way of putting pressure on unwanted foreigners.

A Muscovite detained for criticising the war has been beaten at a police station. In October, the security forces smashed 36-year-old Inna Olenich’s face, knocking out her teeth. The young woman had been arrested after she and a friend loudly criticised the war in Ukraine in the courtyard of a residential building. At the police station, a police officer began to investigate her bag, and the woman tried to grab it back, after which the officer pushed her away, knocked her face down on the floor, twisted her hands behind her back and cuffed her. According to Olenich, several of her teeth were knocked out, and blood smeared on the floor and on her clothes. At A&E, she was found to have multiple bruises.

  • Why do I need to know this? The beating and torture of anti-war protesters at police stations has become commonplace. Sometimes the brutality of the police is completely inexplicable – for example, in the case of Inna Olenich, they did not need to get a statement from her. However, they know that they are unlikely to be punished for their actions, so they continue to take out their anger and aggression on ordinary people.


‘I want to show that you don’t have to keep quiet’. At the end of January, Gulia Mukhametzyanova, a resident of Kazan, was charged with discrediting the Russian army. At the same time, the police began to follow her: they called her from different numbers, sent telegrams and they told her through a friend that she would have problems if she did not appear in court. On 14 April, Gulia was fined 30,000 roubles. She believes that surveillance began after a photo of her holding an anti-war sign was published on a local internet forum. Read her story on our website, Yandex.Zen and Medium

Translated by Anna Bowles

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