Hundreds of Russia’s most celebrated movie and theater actors, composers, and artists gathered outside Basmanny Court in Moscow on Tuesday afternoon to protest the arrest of their friend Kirill Serebrennikov, one of Russia’s top contemporary theater and movie directors.
People in the crowd did not believe that the founder of Gogol Center theater, 47-year-old Serebrennikov, was guilty of the crime he has been charged with—embezzling 68 million roubles ($1.1 million) of state funds. The Gogol Center was founded by Serebrennikov four years ago.
His arrest was a political attack on the entirety of Russia’s artistic elite, “as he is Russia’s pride,” several protesters said. “None of us here believes that Kirill is guilty,” Paulina Andreyeva, a young celebrity actress told The Daily Beast during the rally. “We are here to make sure that our friend Serebrennikov is treated with honor, he did not deserve to be grabbed in the middle of the night at his hotel room.”
Independent news outlet MediaZona reported that opposition leader Aleksei Navalny and Serebrennikov’s assistant Anna Shalashova were among those detained outside Bassmany Court.
The scandal around Gogol Center had developed for several months. In May police took Serebrennikov’s foreign passport away, so the director could not travel freely.
On Monday broad-shouldered men grabbed Serebrennikov in his hotel room in St. Petersburg, where he was filming a movie about the revolutionary rock band Kino, whose music inspired the Perestroika movement more than 25 years ago.
Outside the court on Tuesday about two dozen protesters were singing “I Want Changes!” a symbolic Perestroika-era song by Kino. “In our laughter and in our tears and in the pulsing of our veins: Changes! We are waiting for changes!” protesters were singing, when police began detaining people.
For four years Serebrennikov’s Gogol Center has played an important role in Moscow’s cultural life. It was funded by the state but it was Serebrennikov, the theater’s artistic director, who managed this unique venue that provided a platform for political thought and that many fans called “a new place of power.”
The Center taught master classes, opened discussions of new international trends in cinematography and theater, and staged performances that often criticized and mocked repressive methods of the past and the current state machine. The Gogol Center’s critics hated that the theater often expressed the opposition’s point of view, while functioning on the state’s funds.
Tuesday news reports said that the famous director was facing up to 10 years in prison. The court decided to keep Serebrennikov under house arrest.
Several of Serebrennikov’s supporters in the crowd outside the court had signed a letter addressed to President Vladimir Putin, after police raided Moscow’s Gogol Center in May. A famous Russian actor, Yevgeny Mironov, passed the letter to President Putin during an official event at the Kremlin.
According to the Kommersant newspaper, Mironov asked Putin about police raiding Gogol Center: “Did you know? Did you know about that?!” Putin said: “Yes. I found out yesterday.” Mironov continued to press the president: “Why? But why to do this?! You are flying to France on Monday, why do you need this?” Putin said one word to that question about the fraud investigators: “Fools.”
Human rights defender Olga Romanova was convinced that Serebrennikov’s arrest was unavoidable. “The public appeal to the President and his publicly pronounced ‘fools’ could never be left unpunished,” Romanova wrote in her post on Facebook. “Putin is a collective personality, that is why the Investigative Committee [Russia’s top investigative agency] has done everything to prove that they are not fools.”
A few weeks after Mironov’s conversation with Putin, the Investigative Committee released a statement about the arrest of Alexei Malobrodky, the former head of the Gogol Center theater.
Police also arrested the theater’s former director Yuri Itin and chief accountant Nina Maslyaeva.
According to local reports, the detainees told police that Serebrennikov was part of a scheme performed by his nonprofit organization Seventh Studio, which the Investigative Committee accused of embezzling $3.4 million.
In July, many in Russia were shocked when the world premiere of Serebrennikov’s biographical ballet about Rudolph Nureyev was canceled at Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater. Hundreds of people had been working on the ballet for months, and millions of Russian rubles had been spent on the project.
Nobody explained to the audience, who had bought tickets for the premiere, the reason behind the cancellation. But many of Serebrennikov’s supporters suggested that somebody influential was angry about Serebrennikov’s plan to use Richard Avedon’s nude image of Nureyev as the backdrop of the ballet.
Serebrennikov’s critics also claimed that the director was planning to use “transvestite” dancers on stage and to dress some male chorus singers as women.
One of Russian leading theatrical critics, Ksenia Larina, was outraged by the authorities’ treatment of her good friend Serebrennikov.
“The artistic manager of Gogol Center, a director with internationally recognized name, is arrested in his hotel room in Saint Petersburg, convoyed to Moscow to the Investigative Committee, knowing perfectly well that his lawyer was in a different city and could not be present at the first interrogation,” Larina wrote in her post on Facebook. “So nobody knows what has been happening since the detention, it looks more like a scene from some American thriller.”
One of the protesters, Moscow composer Igor Vdovin, told The Daily Beast that “the most beautiful people” gathered to support Serebrennikov on Tuesday.
Vdovin did not believe that the famous director had committed a crime. “If our authorities decide to start a war on corruption, theater is not the place where that should start,” Vdovin told The Daily Beast.
Russian novelist Boris Akunin had a strong opinion about who wanted Serebrennikov’s arrest: “Let’s call things by their true names,” Akunin wrote on Facebook. “That was not NKVD who arrested director Meyerhold, it was Stalin. It was no Investigative Committee who arrested director Serebrennikov. Putin arrested him.”