A Trial in Moscow Exposes Russia’s War on Artists

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.