Kirill Serebrennikov, a prominent Moscow theater figure who has protested against the government, has been indicted on embezzlement charges.
The Investigative Committee said on August 22 that Serebrennikov, the artistic director of the Gogol Center theater and founder of a dramatic collective called Seventh Studio, is suspected of organizing the embezzlement of 68 million rubles ($1.1 million) allocated between 2011-14 for a project.
Serebrennikov maintains that he is innocent. A Moscow court will decide on August 23 whether he will be held in custody or released pending trial.
The funding was provided as a grant by the government "for the development and popularization of the arts."
Serebrennikov, 47, could face up to 10 years in prison.
Serebrennikov's lawyer, Dmitry Kharitonov, told the RIA Novosti state news agency on August 22 that Serebrennikov was detained in St. Petersburg, where he was working on a film, and brought to Moscow by law enforcement personnel earlier in the day.
Opposition political leader and anticorruption activist Aleksei Navalny posted on his website that the case against Serebrennikov was intended by the government to send a signal to Russia's cultural elites ahead of the presidential election scheduled for March 2018. Russian President Vladimir Putin is widely expected to seek and win a fourth term in that election.
"The main reason for the high-profile detention of Serebrennikov is to ensure that the remaining 'masters of culture' do not play hard to get but instead run quickly to sign up to represent Putin," Navalny wrote. "The election is just around the corner."
He added that the government wants cultural figures, at the very least, to refuse to support the opposition and to adopt a position "above politics."
That, he said, "is a euphemism in Russia for 'I am a coward who depends on money from the state."
Former Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin, a relative liberal who is reportedly on close terms with Putin, posted on Twitter on August 22 that Serebrennikov should be released pending trial.
"A stage director's arrest is certainly an excessive measure pending trial, especially after the president's words regarding the excessiveness of businesspeople's arrests," Kudrin wrote.
Investigators searched the Gogol Center theater and Serebrennikov's apartment in May, and he was questioned at the time as a witness in the case.
Former Seventh Studio Director Yury Itin and bookkeeper Nina Maslyayeva were later taken into custody in connection with the investigation, and former Gogol Center Director Aleksei Malobrodsky was detained in June.
Investigators say the money was allocated for a production of William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream that they say was never produced. The play, however, has been staged more than 15 times in Moscow and in Paris and at the Baltic House festival in St. Petersburg. In June, Serebrennikov appealed to theatergoers who had seen the production to post photographs and recollections on social media.
The trial of Maslyayeva and Itin began earlier this month. According to transcripts of Maslyayeva's interrogations that were entered into evidence, the bookkeeper accused Itin, Serebrennikov, and Malobrodsky of trying to embezzle the funds. She also purportedly confessed to her own role in the alleged plot.
In July, the Bolshoi Theater indefinitely canceled the premiere of the Serebrennikov production Nureyev, a ballet about legendary Soviet ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev, who defected to the West in 1961.
According to media reports at the time, the production was postponed because Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky feared it might violate a 2013 law that bans disseminating "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations" to minors. Medinsky denied interfering in the Bolshoi's "repertory politics."
Serebrennikov has participated in antigovernment protests and voiced concern about the increasing influence of the Russian Orthodox Church in cultural matters.
He participated in the Strategy-31 protests, in which demonstrations were periodically held against restrictions on the right to protest, which is protected by Article 31 of the Russian Constitution. He also demonstrated against Russia's actions during the 2008 war with neighboring Georgia. He signed statements in defense of the performance-art collective Pussy Riot, members of which were arrested in 2012 for performing in a church.
Serebrennikov has spoken out against a Russian ban on the adoption of Russian orphans by U.S. citizens and against the treatment of Russia's lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community.
Prominent artists in Russia and elsewhere have expressed concern over the probe and have called for a transparent investigation. Ballet great Mikhail Baryshnikov suggested in May that political motives were behind what he called the "repression" of an outspoken advocate of freedom.
Journalist Vladimir Varfolomeyev posted on Twitter that "soon even those who used to speak out in defense of the detainees will go and sign up to represent the person who gave the orders for the arrests."
Culture critic Lev Rubinstein told RFE/RL that many private theaters that have accepted government grants could find themselves in a similar situation.
"Independent theaters, if they are connected with government funds, are always obligated and you can always pressure them, indubitably," he said. "I know many people in the theater and they all say that such a story could happen to any of them."
Playwright and director Yury Muravitsky told RFE/RL that the Serebrennikov case could lead to "the discrediting of theater as an institution."
"The most well-known people in the country are politicians and artists, in the broadest sense of the word," Muravitsky said. "And now the politicians are intentionally shifting the attention, saying, 'Now we see who is really corrupt.'"