Russia’s contemporary arts scene is on edge after a Moscow court placed the theater director Kirill Serebrennikov under house arrest until 19 October while he awaits trial on charges of defrauding the state of 68 million rubles (about $1.15 million). The decision has led analysts to predict further cultural crackdowns with the approach of the March 2018 presidential elections and a likely fourth term for Vladimir Putin.
Serebrennikov, the artistic director of Moscow’s Gogol Center theater, was detained by police in St Petersburg earlier this week on the set of a film he is directing about Viktor Tsoi, a late Soviet era cult rock star. Tsoi’s hit songs with his band Kino included Перемен! (Changes!), which called on Russia’s youth to demand change from the government. Via his lawyer on Tuesday, Serebrennikov called the charges “absurd.”
Last month, the premier of his staging at the Bolshoi Theater of a production about Rudolf Nureyev, which addressed the dancer’s homosexuality, was postponed at the last minute. He is in demand in Europe and was expected in Stuttgart, Germany in September for an opera production. His 2016 film The Student, about a high schooler’s religious fanaticism that has been seen as a satire of the rise of right-wing extremism in the Russian state, won the Francois Chalais award at the Cannes Film Festival last year.
On Wednesday, Serebrennikov was held in a cage at the Basmanny Court, as hundreds of supporters, including actors, writers and artists gathered outside. Irina Prokhorova, a publisher, public intellectual, patron of contemporary art and sister of billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, offered to put up bail of any sum. In May, Yevgeny Mironov, a famous actor and the director of another Moscow theater personally handed a letter in support of Serebrennikov to Putin at a Kremlin awards ceremony.
According to the official Ria Novosti news agency, Serebrennikov told the court: “I have my art to which I devote my life, and I have nothing else. We did not steal anything. I am an honest person. I want Russia to turn from a provincial into a great cultural power.”
Several of Serebrennikov’s former colleagues have already been held in pretrial detention for months in the ongoing case. Among the prosecution’s allegations is that expenses were submitted for a production of Midsummer Night’s Dream that it claims was never staged even though video of it exists and the 2012 premier was reported in state-run media.
In a frenzy of Facebook discussion, Serebrennikov’s arrest has been compared to the persecution and subsequent execution of director Vsevolod Meyerhold under Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.
Contemporary artists speculated that they will be targeted too. “Of course for now the state is dealing more with theater, but we will have our day too,” wrote Yuri Albert. Contemporary art impresario Marat Guelman, who moved to Montenegro in 2014 after facing increasing pressure in Russia, seconded the opinion that anyone who works with state funds will be tested for loyalty and is at risk. Fears were expressed even about Mikhail Piotrovsky, the director of the State Hermitage Museum, which has come under scrutiny in construction-related fraud cases. Serebrennikov attended a public discussion at the Hermitage in July. Last year, at the State Tretyakov Museum in Moscow, he was a speaker along with Iwona Blazwick, the director of London’s Whitechapel Gallery, in a talk titled “Culture as a Catalyst and Instigator of Change”. The talk was subtitled: “Culture as a territory of risk and experiment. The boundaries of freedom and accountability. To whom is an artist accountable? Censorship and self-censorship. The price of freedom.”