Despite repression Russian theaters vow to carry on

As the Kremlin's influence seeps further into Russia's cultural world, one of the few outlets left for free expression — theater — is fighting to survive.

A trial is currently under way against renowned director Yevgeniya Berkovich and playwright Svetlana Petriychuk, both of whom produced critically acclaimed work before their arrest in May 2023.

They face up to seven years in prison for "justifying terrorism" over a show they staged in 2020 about Russian women marrying fighters from the Islamic State group online and joining them in Syria. But many believe Berkovich's opposition to the conflict in Ukraine was the real reason for her arrest.

On the sidelines of the trial, theater critic Irina Kuzmina told AFP the charges against the pair were designed to set "an example" to other dissenting artists.

In the past two years at least 30 directors, including industry figureheads Dmitry Krymov and Kirill Serebrennikov, have left Russia or been sacked.

At least 60 shows have been canceled, according to drama magazine Teatr, the paper version of which has been banned. To keep working, theaters are performing classical plays.

But even classics can be "denounced," especially by nationalist and conservative audiences.

One audience member lodged a complaint against the Alexandrinsky Theater in Saint Petersburg over its production of "The Raven" by 18th-century Italian author Carlo Gozzi.

A few lines in the play were delivered in the original Italian instead of Russian, which the audience member considered "Russophobic," a theater critic told AFP on condition of anonymity.

In May 2023, the same theater had to cancel an adaptation of "Cyrano de Bergerac" over accusations it "discredited the Russian army."

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