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'It's Only Getting Darker': Arrested Russian Director Has Long Record Of Dissent

Russian theater and film director Kirill Serebrennikov is escorted by security officers ahead of his hearing at Moscow's Basmanny district court on August 23.
Russian theater and film director Kirill Serebrennikov is escorted by security officers ahead of his hearing at Moscow's Basmanny district court on August 23.

Kirill Serebrennikov, the acclaimed theater and film director whose arrest in Moscow this week on embezzlement charges rocked Russia’s political and cultural classes, has repeatedly clashed with officials over artistic freedoms and sharply criticized the ruling elite.

Investigators accuse the artistic director of the Gogol Center theater, who also founded a dramatic collective called Seventh Studio, of embezzling 68 million rubles ($1.1 million) in state funding.

Supporters of the director -- including opposition leader Aleksei Navalny – have called it a targeted strike aimed at intimidating potential critics ahead of the March election that President Vladimir Putin is expected to enter and win.

Serebrennikov, 47, is one of many leading cultural figures who have been harshly critical of Putin's rule. He has participated in antigovernment protests, denounced what he calls state censorship efforts, rankled officials with his avant-garde plays, and backed Kremlin foes in high-profile, politically charged cases.

But he has also warned that it is counterproductive to "primitively personify" the state, saying it is "too convenient and easy" to blame everything on Putin, who in 2011 approved funding for the project Serebrennikov is accused of embezzling from.

Here's a look at how Serebrennikov, who was placed under house arrest on August 23 and faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted, has pushed back against the authorities for years.

Antigovernment Protests

Serebrennikov has voiced support for antigovernment demonstrations that include actions in support of freedom of assembly. He also said he participated in 2011-12 street protests in Moscow against parliamentary elections denounced by opposition groups as rigged.

Serebrennikov poses during a photocall for his film "Uchenik" (The Student) at the 69th Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, France, in May 2016.
Serebrennikov poses during a photocall for his film "Uchenik" (The Student) at the 69th Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, France, in May 2016.

He said later that he was more of an observer than a participant.

"For better or for worse, I generally always assume the position of an observer," he said in an April 2012 interview. "Yes, I went to all of these protests, but I can't yell from a stage and urge people to go somewhere. It was simply pleasant for me to be around people whom I can call kindred spirits."

In June 2012, on the day Putin signed a law dramatically increasing fines for those found guilty of participating in unsanctioned rallies, Serebrennikov wrote on Facebook: "We have to stop being law-abiding citizens, because a free person cannot obey absurd, fascist orders that violate the constitution."

Gay Rights And Themes

Serebrennikov has also been ensnared in controversy over gay themes in his works. The issue emerged in 2013 when Putin signed a law banning "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations” among minors. The measure was denounced by rights groups and Western governments as discriminatory.

Russia is an unbelievably dark and ignorant country, and it’s only getting darker.”
-- Kirill Serebrennikov in 2014

Months after the law came into effect, Serebrennikov said he would return state funds for his planned film about Pyotr Tchaikovsky and denounced a public discussion over the famed composer's sexual orientation.

Vladimir Medinsky, the conservative culture minister who has been a lightning rod for debates over artistic freedom, also weighed in, saying there was "no evidence" that Tchaikovsky was gay. He said Serebrennikov's film "must be about Tchaikovsky's genius and not about rumors surrounding his biography."

Serebrennikov said he had sought other funding from the state-run Cinema Fund, but it turned him down because "they did not see any audience potential,” and he said he would seek financing outside the country.

"We will look for funds for the film about our top national composer, about Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, outside our country," he wrote on Facebook. "Not in Russia...."

Last month, the legendary Bolshoi Theater announced it had canceled the premiere of Serebrennikov’s biographical show about Soviet ballet icon Rudolf Nureyev, who defected to the West in 1961. Speculation had swirled in Russian media that gay themes in the show prompted officials to shut it down. Medinsky denied interfering in the Bolshoi's "repertory politics."

Heat From Lawmakers

At least two lawmakers had asked authorities to look into the government funding the Gogol Center has received under Serebrennikov’s direction. A member of Putin's ruling United Russia party in March 2015 asked prosecutors and auditors to examine the theater's books, as did a member of the Liberal Democrats, a Kremlin-friendly nationalist party, the following month.

Serebrennikov looks on from inside the defendants' cage in a Moscow court on August 23.
Serebrennikov looks on from inside the defendants' cage in a Moscow court on August 23.

The United Russia lawmaker, Yevgeny Fyodorov, noted that Moscow police had opened a probe into possible extremist content in one of Serebrennikov's plays.

In March 2014, meanwhile, Oleg Panteleyev, a member of the upper house of parliament, criticized Moscow’s iconic Taganka Theater for staging plays "in the style of the Gogol Center's Kirill Serebrennikov" that "promote violence, homosexuality, pedophilia, and suicide." Panteleyev, who died in 2016, based his criticism on a letter purportedly from members of the Taganka theater's union.

Pussy Riot And Oleg Sentsov

Serebrennikov has also backed Kremlin opponents in causes celebres that have drawn worldwide attention, including the 2012 prosecution of two members of the Pussy Riot art collective.

Shortly before Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina were found guilty of "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred" for an anti-Kremlin stunt in Moscow’s main cathedral, Serebrennikov wrote on Facebook: "If the young women are convicted, then it will finally become clear for me that the current authorities are leading all of society, all of Russia, into obscurantism, lawlessness, and civil war."

Russian Director Serebrennikov Put Under House Arrest
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In 2013, Moscow authorities demanded that the Gogol Center, then under Serebrennikov’s direction, halt a planned screening of a film about Pussy Riot.

Serebrennikov has also supported Ukrainian filmmaker Oleh Sentsov, a Crimea native who opposed Russia's 2014 annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula. Sentsov is now serving a 20-year prison sentence in Russia after being convicted of plotting terrorist attacks in a trial his supporters called absurd.

Addressing Sentsov's case, Serebrennikov warned in May 2014 that by locking up "artists, poets, directors, and musicians," the authorities were getting rid of "canaries in the coal mine who are the first to tell about disasters that are nearing."

"If someone decides to strangle all of the canaries in the coal mine, that person is writing his own death sentence," the director wrote.

'It's Only Getting Darker'

Serebrennikov’s comments on the Pussy Riot case weren’t the director's only harsh assessment of Putin's Russia.

In a 2014 interview with the Russian edition of Esquire, he said the country "is acting right now like the lowest lowlife" and said Putin's high ratings in opinion polls were due to "fear" and the power of television.

He added, however, that he had no qualms about receiving state funding for his projects.

"You say: 'Government, I know that you're a selfish liar, but by law you must help the theater and art, so be kind and fulfill your obligations.' In the interest of theater, I'm not ashamed to do that."

He told the online arts and culture journal in October 2014 that Russia "is an unbelievably dark and ignorant country, and it's only getting darker."

"It looks like a complete catastrophe. And in the end, no one will be able to defend themselves against it," he said.

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    Carl Schreck

    Carl Schreck is an award-winning investigative journalist who serves as RFE/RL's enterprise editor. He has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than 20 years, including a decade in Moscow. He has led investigations into corruption, cronyism, and disinformation campaigns in Russia and Central Asia, as well as on poisoning attacks against Kremlin opponents and assassinations of Iranian exiles in the West. Schreck joined RFE/RL in 2014.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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