By Oksana Chelysheva
The morning of 23 May 2017 in Russia began with news of a scandal that swept across social media – authorities searched the flat of Russian stage and film director Kirill Serebrennikov. Soon after, news came out that riot police raided Gogol Centre, the theatre that Serebrennikov has been artistic director of since 2012.
By the end of the day, 17 addresses associated with the theatre had been or were being searched by the Federal Security Service (FSB).
The Russian Investigative Committee stated the searches were related to a 2014 criminal case involving the embezzlement of 200 million Roubles of state funds earmarked for art and cultural use by “individuals who still have not been identified” from Seventh Studio, a theatre collective Serebrennikov created in 2012 that remains a resident group of the Gogol Centre.
The director said the investigation involves a Seventh Studio project entitled “Platform”, a multidisciplinary project that began in 2011 with the aim of developing art projects that combined theatre, music, dance and media, each with its own supervisor. Serebrennikov supervised the theatre component.
On 26 May 2017, Serebrennikov himself made a statement on his Facebook page concerning the searches, explaining that he couldn’t get online for a few days as authorities has confiscated all communication devices.
“This is the first day when I have managed to collect all my thoughts. This is the first day when I can go online as all my computers and others means of communication were confiscated. I keep reading, reading, reading your messengers of love and support. Frankly, I find it rather difficult as I am overwhelmed with tears and emotions and feel like thanking each and everyone. I’d like to hug all of you. Sometimes events occur in our lives you are not prepared for; you can’t be prepared for. This is what has happened to me and my friends and colleagues with the ‘Platform’ project.”
Serebrennikov and Sofia Apfelbaum, who headed the Ministry of Culture department on the support of art at the time of the funding allocation, have both been listed as witnesses in the investigation.
Two charged with embezzlement
Former Seventh Studio director Yury Itin, who currently heads the Yaroslavl Fyodor Volkov Theater, and former Seventh Studio chief accountant Nina Maslyaeva were charged with money embezzlement under Article 159.4 of Russia’s Criminal Code.
Authorities believe Itin and Maslyaeva allegedly misappropriated 1.2 million of the 66.5 million Roubles allocated to Seventh Studio from the federal budget, reported online media news site Open Russia on 25 May 2017.
Itin told the news site that if he had committed any crime it would amount to “negligence”: “What I actually did was issue my letter of authority to producers who were running the company. During all those three years that I was based at Yaroslavl I didn’t perform any operational work as the company’s general director”.
Itin was held under house arrest at the time of the searches and Maslyaeva was detained.
The Washington Post reported on 27 May 2017 that Maslyeava’s lawyer said their client admitted her guilt.
Support from artistic community
Artistic and civil society groups in Russia have expressed their support for Serebrennikov and his colleagues immediately upon the news spread of the searches and raids and the Gogol Centre managed to continue its work the same day.
Many of the supporters see this round of raids as an attack on Serebrennikov who has been an outspoken critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his government, and has put on performances that rub Russian conservatives the wrong way.
Prominent directors in the theatre community have written directly to Putin about the investigation and their support of Serebrennikov, though the president’s personal spokesperson said the investigation is not political and there was “no reason for the Kremlin to be informed”, reported The Washington Post.
Several in the theatre community in France have also stood in solidarity with the director and his colleagues, reported French newspaper Liberation on 28 May 2017.
Moral content in question for many years
The beginning of the embezzlement case dates back to 2014 when Yevgeny Fyodorov, a parliamentary member who sits on the State Duma Committee on budgets and taxes, initiated an inquiry that led to the recent round of searches.
In a 23 May 2017 interview with Russian news outlet Komsomolskaya Pravda, Fyodorov explained that government authorities “repeatedly received complaints from citizens on the content of the performances” at Gogol Centre, adding that “people complained about signs of extremism in the content, a high level of explicit vocabulary, the degrading influence of performances on viewers, as well as propaganda of homosexuality and paedophilia”.
When the search was being carried out in Serebrennikov’s flat, journalists had a chance to interview Dmitry “Enteo” Tsorionov, a right-wing activist with a group called “God’s Will”, who was holding a one-person celebration over the criminal case into the alleged misappropriation of funds coming to this level.
Tsorionov was holding a sign with the slogan: “Raikin will be next”, referring to actor, director and head of Moscow’s Satiricon theatre Konstantin Raikin, who in October 2016 made an emotional, public speech about Russia’s leaders using “informal means to push so-called traditional values”.
Online news source Meduza reported on 23 May 2017 that their source with the Ministry of Culture stated that the criminal case had been instituted following a complaint received from the Art Without Boundaries Foundations chaired by Andrey Groznetsky.
In 2015, the same fund initiated inquiries into several cultural establishments in Moscow “to search for the use of explicit vulgar language, and the propagation of immoral behaviour and paedophilia”.
That same year, Groznetsky organized the “At the bottom” exhibition which featured photos of theatre sets and costumes from various performances asking what they would cost.
In a statement on his Facebook account, Groznetsky denounced any connection between that 2015 exhibition and the recent raids, searches and detentions, but didn’t protest his connection to the criminal case as such being initiated by the foundation he chairs.
Meanwhile, in a 25 May 2017 report by online media site Colta, former official with Moscow’s culture department Yevgenia Shermehjova said that while she was with the department she received several reports on Serebrennikov.
“Whole groves of trees were destroyed to make paper for all those reports on Serebrennikov which I personally received while working in the culture department. All those reports were cc’ed to both chambers of Parliament, the President’s Administration, Ministry of Culture, the city mayor, Prosecutor’s office and the Investigatory Committee. Since at least 2012, Serebrennikov had to spend time to give explanations about various performances, many of which were no longer in the program, and numerous playwrights, many of whom have never been to Russia … I assume not everybody knows how widespread nowadays this practice is of spreading slander… Besides, many media publications on the matter do remind me of those slanderous reports I had to read myself.”
» Liberation – 28 May 2017
In support of Kirill Serebrennikov, “genial troublemaker” of Russian theatre
» The Washington Post – 27 May 2017
Artists protest after police raid Russian director’s home, theater
» Open Russia – 26 May 2017
Medina speaks about Serebrennikov searches
» Facebook – 26 May 2017
Kirill Serebrennikov statement
» Gogol Centre – 25 May 2017
Handling of the theatre
» Colta – 25 May 2017
Kirill Serebrennikov and anonymous letters
» Open Russia – 25 May 2017
Second helper “theatrical works” under house arrest
» Komsomolskaya Pravda – 25 May 2017
State Duma deputy Evgeny Federov: Events in “Gogol Centre” a classic scheme of theft
» Novaya Gazeta – 23 May 2017
Chulpan Khamatova actors delivered a message in support of Kirill Serebrennikov and “Gogol Centre”
» Open Russia – 23 May 2017
Search at Sophia Apfelbaum lasted several hours
» Ridus – 23 May 2017
Serebrennikov and Raikin accused of “acts of pedophilia” for the state account
» Rain TV – 23 May 2017
“Your master-thief” – Actor Nikita Kukushkin argued with Dmitriem Enteo and Kirill Serebrennikov
» Meduza – 23 May 2017
Searches at “Gogol Centre” and at home of Kirill Serebrennikov
» Komsomolskaya Pravda – 23 May 2017
“Gogol Centre” artistic director Kirill Serebrennikov figures in 200 million Ruble embezzlement criminal case
» Facebook – 23 May 2017
Andrei Groznetsky statement
» Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty – 23 May 2017
Russian authorities search theater, home of director, government critic
» Hyperallergic – 23 May 2017
Police raid major Moscow theater, detain artistic director over alleged embezzlement
» Vzglyad – 14 May 2017
Exhibition “At the bottom” of the negative trends in the modern theatre opened in Moscow
More from Freemuse
More from Freemuse
» 6 January 2017: Russia: Artistic freedom threatened by nationalist and orthodox groups
» 29 September 2016: Russia: Theatres in an age of government intimidation
» 20 June 2016: Russia: Ministry censors theatre company’s festival performances
» 26 January 2016: Russia: Theatre director says culture ministry vets new plays