A suspect in the criminal investigation into prominent Russian theater and film director Kirill Serebrennikov has warned of a looming clampdown by authorities and urged “uncompromising resistance” in the fraud case that has sent shock waves through Russia’s political and cultural classes.
Discussing the embezzlement charges against him in a letter from jail this week, Aleksei Malobrodsky, the former director of Moscow’s embattled Gogol Center theater, alluded to the notorious oprichnina policy of brutal state repressions under Ivan the Terrible.
"If we don’t create a precedent of uncompromising resistance, a precedent of victory, then an all-encompassing oprichnina-like cannibalism may be irreversible," Malobrodsky wrote in the August 28 letter to Moscow-based U.S. theater critic John Freedman and the writer’s wife, Russian actress Oksana Mysina.
Malobrodsky, 59, is currently being held in Moscow’s Matrosskaya Tishina pretrial detention facility. He was arrested in June on fraud charges involving the alleged theft of state funds for Serebrennikov’s Seventh Studio theater company.
Serebrennikov, a frequent and fierce critic of Russian authorities, was detained and placed under house arrest last week on suspicion of embezzling 68 million rubles ($1.1 million) allocated by the government in 2011-14 for a project. Two other Seventh Studio theater employees are in custody as well.
The investigation has triggered criticism across Russia’s cultural landscape, and Serebrennikov has found support even from political and entertainment figures typically loyal to the Kremlin.
Other supporters, including opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, say the case against Serebrennikov is aimed at intimidating the country’s cultural elite ahead of a March 2018 presidential election that President Vladimir Putin is widely expected to enter and win.
Much of the outcry over the investigation has centered on Serebrennikov, an acclaimed director who has rankled officials and cultural conservatives with his avant-garde productions. But prominent members of the Russian intelligentsia have rushed to support Malobrodsky as well.
This is not a political hit. It doesn’t even have anything to do with Serebrennikov’s work."
Earlier this month, a group that included respected Russian authors, journalists, actors, and directors signed an open letter calling for Malobrodsky’s release from pretrial detention.
The signatories, including novelists Lyudmila Ulitskaya, Vladimir Sorokin, and Viktor Yerofeyev, denounced as “absurd” that Malobrodsky stole money for a production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream that prosecutors have argued was not staged.
The show was widely reviewed in the Russian media and was a nominee for Russia’s most prestigious theater award, the Golden Mask. A hashtag campaign, #ябылнаплатформе (I was at Platform), emerged on social media after Serebrennikov appealed for audience members to share "testimony, memories, and impressions" to "recall" performances of the show.
In his August 28 letter from jail, Malobrodsky wrote of his incarceration: “In the more than two months of my odyssey, I have felt directly the full extent of the system’s villainy and mendacity.”
More than 30 cultural figures from different countries this week -- including Australian actress Cate Blanchett and German film director Volker Schloendorff -- signed a petition calling on Russia to drop the investigation into Serebrennikov.
Malobrodsky wrote in his letter that support from “the international theater community” in the matter “is especially important.”
“Because the gang of investigators will stall for time, inventing more and more new nonsense, if only to weaken public attention,” he wrote.
Also this week, more than 300 individuals identifying themselves as Russian “young cultural figures” signed an open letter calling the charges against Serebrennikov and Malobrodsky -- along with alleged conspirators Yury Itin, a former Seventh Studio director, and bookkeeper Nina Maslyayeva -- “politically motivated.”
“The real reason 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,” they wrote.
Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, has previously said that the investigation involving Serebrennikov had "nothing to do with politics or art" and therefore was not a matter for the Kremlin to comment on.
Russian Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky, a conservative historian who has previously said the government would not finance films that "smear elected authorities," said in comments published by Kremlin-friendly national broadcaster NTV this week that the case against Serebrennikov “has nothing to do with politics.”
“This is not a political hit. It doesn’t even have anything to do with Serebrennikov’s work,” Medinsky said, adding that he felt “truly sorry” for the director.