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Curtains Close On Theater Of The 'Absurd' In Russian Director's Fraud Case

Russian theatre and film director Kirill Serebrennikov read a poem from his cell phone at the closing of his trial in Moscow on June 22.
Russian theatre and film director Kirill Serebrennikov read a poem from his cell phone at the closing of his trial in Moscow on June 22.

After three years of proceedings, the controversial embezzlement case against Kirill Serebrennikov was drawing to a close, providing the internationally renowned Russian theater and film director the opportunity to get in a few last words.

Six words, in fact -- one for every year that state prosecutors demanded ahead of the verdict on June 26.

In giving his final arguments to the court on June 22, Serebrennikov read from a statement in which the first letter of each paragraph was boldfaced. The message to the authorities was clear: "No Regrets: I Feel For You."

The 50-year-old Serebrennikov, who serves as the director of the prestigious Gogol-Center and Seventh Studio theater, has a track record of making church and state officials squeamish.

He has voiced concerns about the rising influence of the Russian Orthodox Church. His work addressing LGBT themes has drawn the ire of conservatives. And he supported anti-government protests that took place across Russia ahead of the 2018 presidential election that saw Vladimir Putin return for a fourth term in office.

By the time of the vote, Serebrennikov was out of the picture, having been placed under house arrest in August 2017 and charged along with three others with using fraud to embezzle state subsidies granted from 2011 to 2014 to Seventh Studio for a pilot theater project called Platforma.

The damages pinned on Serebrennikov and his fellow defendants -- producer Yury Itin, former Culture Ministry employee Sofia Apfelbaum, and Aleksei Malobrodsky -- has changed three times, from the initial 68 million rubles (more than $1 million) to 133 million rubles ($2 million) and then to 129 million rubles ($1.8 million) over the course of the case.

Kirill Serebrennikov (far right) with the other three defendants in the case: Yury Itin (left); Sofia Apfelbaum (second from left); and Aleksei Malobrodsky. (file photo)
Kirill Serebrennikov (far right) with the other three defendants in the case: Yury Itin (left); Sofia Apfelbaum (second from left); and Aleksei Malobrodsky. (file photo)

The prosecutor has called for prison terms of between four years and five years for the other three defendants, while a fifth person charged in the case, Seventh Studio accountant Nina Maslyayeva, is being tried separately after pleading guilty and providing testimony against the others.

Serebrennikov himself has called his trial -- which began in 2018 -- "absurd," while supporters both inside and outside the country have said the charges are politically motivated.

At the onset of the case, more than 300 individuals identifying themselves as Russian "young cultural figures" signed an open letter that said that "the real reasons for Serebrennikov’s persecution are his 'improper' plays and 'incorrect' civic positions, and the Seventh Studio employees are simply becoming hostages of the director's persecution."

Ahead of the verdict and sentencing, European Union external affairs spokesman Peter Stano weighed in on Twitter, saying that the prosecution of Serebrennikov "sends worrying signals over artistic freedom of expression."

"We expect the authorities to ensure an objective, fair, and transparent trial based on the rule of law," Stano wrote.

Flawed Case?

The case centers on allegations that Seventh Studio embezzled state money, overcharged for tickets to performances, and in some cases failed to stage advertised performances at all.

But from the beginning, the legal process has not gone smoothly.

In August, a judge at Moscow's Meshchansky District Court found based on expert conclusions that it was "impossible to determine general expenditures of Seventh Studio due to a lack of financial and accounting records. For the same reason, there is no way to establish whether inappropriate expenses have ever taken place."

An independent examination determined that the defendants invested their own money into the project, which experts said cost far more than the 216 million rubles ($3.1 million) provided by the state.

The trial has also been repeatedly delayed, in part by the coronavirus pandemic. And the testimony of Yeleonora Filimonova, an assistant to Maslyayeva, was questioned after she said in early June that she was pressured by investigators.

In his letter, Serebrennikov said that the "claims by the Culture Ministry and the Prosecutor-General's Office that we did something wrong with the subsidy money are ridiculous," saying that Platforma staged 340 events with the funds it received.

He also alleged that the accountants who testified against the four had lied under the threat of retribution, giving the prosecution the basis for their case.

"Do I regret that the accounting department of Platforma, which is the subject of all these court hearings and investigations, was so horribly organized?" he wrote. "Of course…. But unfortunately, I could not influence it or change it."

However, he added, the point of the project was to become "a bridge between Russia and the world" and in that it succeeded. "That is why it was created," he wrote, "not for cashing in!"

While the director feels for the state, according to his cryptic message, his supporters fear for him.


In Germany, where Serebrennikov managed to premiere a new opera in March 2019 despite being under house arrest, the head of the Deutsches Theater Berlin defended the Russian director.

"Many artists far beyond the borders of Russia, including myself, are horrified by the indistinct criminal charges brought by the Prosecutor's Office against Krill Serebrennikov and his colleagues," wrote Ulrich Khuon. "We who have been following the creative path of Kirill Serebrennikov for many years are afraid for him. We are afraid of artistic and physical destruction."

Under House Arrest, Russia's Serebrennikov Directs Opera From Afar
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In 2018, when Serebrennikov had to miss the premiere of his much-praised film Leto (Summer) at the Cannes Film Festival, audience members applauded him in absentia. In January of this year, his work on the film earned him the honor of Best Director by the Russian Cinematographers Union.

And France honored Serebrennikov in October by naming him a commander of the order of arts and letters, granted in recognition of significant contributions to the arts.

When given one final, free-form chance to speak in his own defense came on June 22 -- an opportunity that had once led expelled Soviet poet Joseph Brodsky to give an eloquent courtroom statement -- Serebrennikov chose simply to recite Brodsky.

"For the innocent head there is nothing in store but an axe and the evergreen laurel," concludes The End Of A Beautiful Era, the poem which Serebrennikov read from his mobile phone.