MOSCOW—When Russia’s leading contemporary theater and film director Kirill Serebrennikov and his three colleagues went on trial, virtually all of Russia’s cultural elite, nearly 4,000 actors, poets, writers, and directors demanded authorities stop the shameful proceedings. Even the most careful celebrities stopped being careful and made public comments condemning the prosecution.
What they realized as they watched this case taking shape was that in Russia today any famous personality can be charged with some sort of cooked-up crime, arrested, and convicted. Dozens of celebrated artists showed up at the court’s door, along with hundreds more people protesting the trial.
Those who hate Serebrennikov believe that the state should support religious patriots who love “traditional values” and persecute those who do not. Serebrennikov’s art is full of love for Russia, but it laughs in the face of all dogmas.
“In most of his best pieces the main character deals with the darkness of our Russian reality,” the editor-in-chief Russia’s Theater magazine, Marina Davydova, told The Daily Beast outside the court on Friday. “In his Dead Souls, 10 men play the roles of all characters, including old women, horses, dogs. Suddenly sweet children turn into monsters, horses into corpses. He shows how unpredictable our life is, when you open a fridge and see a porn film inside.”
Outside the court building the crowd of celebrated artists of all ages continued to grow, while inside Serebrennikov was found guilty of embezzlement, or, as the court put it, “large theft for profit.” Serebrennikov’s supporters, theater fans, and their favorite artists were chanting, “Freedom!” And then the sentence came down: three years probation and a fine of about $11,000, leading some to wonder why an investigation was opened in the first place.
The spin masters of the so-called “theater case” must have been poor students. This judgment surely will blow back in their faces. All contemporary textbooks condemn the state’s repressive machine under the Soviets and the czars who targeted leaders of culture. Russia’s history shows again and again that artists who direct public attention to the biggest vices of the elites and troubles in society, risking prison and working through the underground, became the nation’s real heroes. “A poet in Russia is more than a poet, for whom there is no coziness, no peace,” wrote the late Yevgeny Yevtushenko. The artists’ would-be executioners are never praised here.
From the first days of the investigation three years ago into alleged embezzlement at Serebrennikov’s company, the Seventh Studio, the Kremlin had to deal with a growing lobby of the director’s supporters, celebrated actors, and directors. One famous star, the actress Chulpan Khamatova, says she was among those “naïve enough to go from door to door” asking influential bureaucrats, including some Serebrennikov’s fans in the Kremlin, to leave the artist alone.
The heads of all the famous theaters wrote letters to President Vladimir Putin, to the Kremlin, to the minister of culture. “He is Russia’s oil, he is internationally famous, we told them,” Khamatova said. It seemed it was all in vain.
The artists have been pissed for months and even when the sentence turned out to be fairly light, Serebrennikov’s supporters outside the court building continued to chant: “Mrazi!” or “Bastards!”
“It it is too late; we tried to sit quietly but they continued to open our wounds with this case against our innocent friend for three years, they traumatized the whole generation of Russian artists,” Khamatova told The Daily Beast.
Mikhail Zygar, author of All the Kremlin's Men, noted that in today’s Russia, "The artists demonstrated they can unite and resist pressure much better than businessmen."
The investigation into the alleged fraud at Seventh Studio started in the spring of 2017, while Serebrennikov was directing a Nureyev ballet at the Bolshoi Theater and simultaneously directing a film about the icon of Perestroika rock music, Viktor Tsoi. Police raided the Gogol Center, founded by Serebrennikov, which is Moscow’s best experimental theater, and grabbed him right on the set of the Tsoi movie in St. Petersburg. The police convoy took nine hours to get him back to Moscow where he was put under house arrest for 20 months.
Serebrennikov always works on several projects at the same time. While under house arrest he managed to direct long distance Giuseppe Verdi's opera Nabucco at the Hamburg Opera, his Nureyev ballet premiered at the Bolshoi, he directed his drama The Little Tragedies, which many believe is his best play, and he finished the film about Tsoi.
When Serebrennikov was released last year, people hoped he would be OK, but the case was suddenly taken off the shelf just a few days before voting started for constitutional changes that would allow Putin to stay in power until 2036. “I think the Kremlin was in a hurry to wrap up this case before the vote, so we would not make too much noise,” said Marina Davydova.
Serebrennikov’s art has been recognized as explosive from the moment his first plays, Terrorism and The Naked Pioneer debuted on Moscow’s best stages. He works to bring oxygen into the stuffy corners of society, portrays fearless and stubborn revolutionaries, and shakes up dogmas that nationalists think should be untouchable: the power of the Russian Orthodox Church, the official version of World War II—the “Great Patriotic War”—and crimes by the repressive machinery of the state.
Khamatova, who starred in The Naked Pioneer, remembers the criticism. “They scolded us for mocking the memory of the great war in The Naked Pioneer even back in 2005, but our sensitive spectators felt how much love we all had for the victims when we showed the horror of the war,” the actress emphasized on the deadness in understanding the contemporary art language.
Moscow’s entire theatrical world—the capital counts 211 theaters—has been wondering who was behind what people call, darkly, “the order” to punish this famous artist. He has many enemies. According to one theory, his movie The Student, about a violent schoolboy who is a fundamentalist Orthodox believer and his conflict with a Jewish teacher, irritated Orthodox Bishop Tikhon Shevkunov. A few years ago Tikhon was believed to be Putin’s spiritual adviser.
“This is the bigger story,” says a human rights defender Zoya Svetova. “Any minister, any officer or priest can simply ‘order’ [the persecution of] any free thinking person…. This trial showed that anybody famous can be ordered and convicted for some falsified fraud.”
Until recently, Shevkunov was a spiritual adviser to Putin and an aide to the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill. Svetova says the priest currently is “in exile” in a provincial monastery. Rain TV, an independent online channel, reported that Tikhon, “Putin’s confessor,” regularly criticized Serebrennikov’s art.
“We can see we can all be put on trial like Kirill,” Yulia Persild, a celebrated actress who starred in Serebrennikov’s films and plays, told The Daily Beast. “I want to scream now. This nightmare in his life has been going on for three years, it is like somebody is deliberately torturing all of us to wounds,”
The director of Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater also supported Serebrennikov. In an exclusive interview, Vladimir Urin talked with pride about two ballets Serebrennikov directed at the Bolshoi: The Hero of Our Times ballet, after Mikhail Lermontov’s classic novel, and Nureyev, devoted to the great Russian dancer Rudolf Nureyev.
“Serebrennikov is definitely a leading contemporary director, no matter which of his projects are accepted or rejected,” Urin told The Daily Beast. “I am convinced, that as time passes Serebrennikov will be remembered in the history of the 21st century as a unique artist.”
“In my life experience I have worked with the most unusual creators, only an extraordinary personality can create something new, surprising, touching, and human.” Urin admired the united support by the entire art community; as for Serebrennikov’s guilt, Bolshoi’s director was not convinced by prosecutors. “Look, the company was sloppy running the business, but you don’t send people to prison for that,” Urin added.
Famous pop stars, whose faces everybody recognizes in the street, including comic Katerina Varnava, who has more than seven million followers on Instagram, came to support Serebrennikov on Friday. There were ovations, cheerful screams—the crowd exploded with joy when Serebrennikov walked out of the court building. Many had tears in their eyes.
Somebody in the crowd asked the director how he felt. “I am happy for you,” Serebrennikov answered, meaning that his light sentence was a victory for all those who had supported him. Then he added, “Please keep social distance, do not give each other the virus, you need your health to fight for the truth.”