In Russia, Even the Theater Has Become Political

Russian theater director Kirill Serebrennikov
Russian theater director Kirill Serebrennikov. Photo: Vyacheskav Prokofyev/TASS

MOSCOW, Russia – It happened all of a sudden: On the morning of May 23, police officers came to search the apartments of the prominent Russian movie and theatre director Kirill Serebrennikov. They were simultaneously searching the Gogol Center, a progressive experimental theater based in Moscow and headed by Mr. Serebrennikov. The theater employees were interrupted mid-rehearsal as police officers collected the actors and actresses in a big hall and took away their phones. After that officers let people in but wouldn’t let anyone leave.

Meanwhile, Mr. Serebrennikov was brought to a police station for questioning. He spent the rest of the day there.

Nobody would know the reason of his detention for the first few hours but the situation looked familiar to the people of Putin’s Russia. The director whose movie had won a prize at the Cannes film festival and who had not been seen among President Vladimir Putin’s friends – although he had not seemed to be his enemy either – was now under pressure. Mr. Serebrennikov’s works often dealt with political and sexual topics usually bypassed by other directors. What else would local intellectuals have thought?

After Mr. Serebrennikov’s arrest people came to the front of the Gogol Center theater, which was always admired by liberal Muscovites. There was Chulpan Khamatova, an eminent actress, who read out a letter in support of Mr. Serebrennikov signed by her and other respected colleagues.

“We, friends of Kirill Serebrennikov and the Gogol Center theater are shocked by today’s events,” Ms. Khamatova read. “We all know him as an honest, decent and open person.”

It was the first letter of support in a series of such statements dedicated to Mr. Serebrennikov. Numerous Russian and European celebrities spoke up for him. Some of them, including TV star Ksenia Sobchak, who is currently running for president, have printed “Kirill Serebrennikov Is My Friend” on their hoodies.

Contradictory Accusations

At first, the nature of the allegations against Mr. Serebrennikov were unclear. It started with a fraud case against Mr. Serebrennikov’s former colleagues from an earlier project, The 7th Studio, in which he was to be a witness. Then the authorities named different amounts of money supposedly given to The 7th Studio by the government and stolen.

There were rumors of Mr. Putin not supporting the case against the 7th Studio. There were even claims that Putin answered “Fools!” when he was told about the search of Mr. Serebrennikov’s apartments. “This case has nothing to do with politics,” Mr. Putin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov would add, as quoted by Interfax news agency.

Most of Mr. Serebrennikov’s colleagues have supported him, but the famous Soviet and Russian director Nikita Mikhalkov has not. He called the reaction to the investigation “puppet hysteria.”

“This story does not connect to his views, creative plans or thoughts. It is all about money and he has to prove he did not steal it,” RIA Novosti quoted Mr. Mikhalkov as saying.

Mr. Serebrennikov was arrested on August 23, exactly three months after the first alarm bell. The director was no longer a witness but a defendant after he was arrested on a movie set in Saint Petersburg. Police came and took him to Moscow with no explanation, Julia Aug, an actress at the Gogol Center, told The Globe Post. “We thought they were taking him for another questioning,” Ms. Aug recalled.

By that time the accusations against Serebrennikov were clear. Police now claim that Mr. Serebrennikov organized a criminal group in 2011 to steal government money using The 7th Studio. During the next three years he and his accomplices were believed to steal 68 million rubles ($1.15 million) which had been given to Platforma, The 7th Studio’s subsidiary modern art project.

Investigators charged Mr. Serebrennikov with taking money to finance the production of Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but never staging it, although video recordings and media reports exist showing the play was performed over the last five years.

“The case is definitely political,” Ms. Aug said. “During the three years of Platforma’s existence the government gave 218 million rubles ($3.7 million) and a big empty loft space to the project. The space was reconstructed and nearly ninety events – thirty for each season – were organized. There simply was no money to steal.”

Nevertheless, Mr. Serebrennikov was put under house arrest. The case has four other defendants. One of them, the 7th Studio’s ex-accountant Nina Maslyaeva, agreed to make a deal with investigators. She gave statements against Mr. Serebrennikov in exchange for house arrest, Ms. Aug said.

The other defendants have denied everything.

“I’m indicted for an unbelievable accusation. When I read it, I did not know what to do. Cry? Laugh? Resent? You do not know how to react to this. It’s like being accused of digging a tunnel from London to Bombay,” Mr. Serebrennikov said in an interview with Moskovskij Komsomolets newspaper the day after his arrest. “But they don’t beat me and thanks for that,” he added.

According to Transparency International papers published on October 23, Mr. Serebrennikov as Gogol Center creative director hired himself to direct plays. He earned 4.56 million rubles ($77,000) this way, the group claims. A creative director must have contracts approved by the Department of Culture before signing to avoid possible conflicts of interest, and Mr. Serebrennikov did not do that. Transparency International has sent its documents to prosecutors who promised to react properly.

Ms. Aug called the Transparency International report “a very mean story.” She explained that directing is outside of a creative director’s duties. Hiring directors, even if they hold another position in the same theater, is a common practice, she said.

“It’s up to the court now to decide whether he is guilty or not,” Zoia Svetova, a human rights activist and Radio Liberty observer, told The Globe Post. She does not believe a fair trial is possible for Mr. Serebrennikov. “In Russia I saw violations of a right to a fair trial so many times. It’s proved by the European Court of Human Rights papers. And Serebrennikov was treated wrong from the very beginning.”

Ms. Svetova is sure there was no need to arrest the defendants. “It’s just an economic case. They took away their passports and that was pretty much enough,” she explained.

Rustam Seidafarov, a theater lover and Muscovite, agrees with her. “As far as I know policemen treated Serebrennikov and his colleagues boorishly and rudely. It looks a lot like the worst Soviet times manifestations,” Mr. Seidafarov told The Globe Post.

Mr. Serebrennikov is now spending a third month under house arrest. During that time one play he directed successfully premiered and two others were nominated for Russia’s most prestigious theater prize, the Golden Mask. Mr. Serebrennikov begged in vain for permission to go to the set to finish shooting his movie.

Last month a court prolonged his house arrest until January 19. On Thursday, his assets and property were frozen. Hearings in Mr. Serebrennikov’s case should begin in 2018.