UPDATE: On June 26, 2020, Kirill Serebrennikov and a group of co-defendants were convicted on baseless embezzlement charges.
Kirill Serebrennikov, a prominent Russian theater director, was put under house arrest on August 23 on charges of fraud. As director of the Gogol Center, a theater in Moscow that he created, Serebrennikov has promoted modern art during his prolific career as a playwright, director, and TV anchor. He has also espoused views critical of the Russian government, making him a desirable target of repression.
A prolific playwright and director, Kirill Serebrennikov has been a champion of contemporary arts in Russia. In 2013, he transformed Moscow Gogol Drama Theater into an interdisciplinary center for the arts, called Gogol Center, featuring film screenings, lectures, discussions, concerts, and exhibits alongside traditional plays. From 2011 to 2014, Serebrennikov was artistic director of the “Platform” project which was designed to popularize contemporary dance, music, and theater in Russia.
On May 23, 2017, Serebrennikov found his apartment and the Gogol Center raided by the police on suspicions of embezzling state funds allocated for “Platform.” The director was interrogated and released. The current and former CEOs of Gogol Center, Yuriy Itin and Aleksei Malobrodsky, were arrested and refused to plead guilty. However, the theater’s accountant, Maslyaeva, who was also detained, collaborated with the security services by testifying against them.
In July 2017, a ballet that Serebrennikov produced on the life and work of Rudolf Nureyev, scheduled to premiere at the Bolshoi, was cancelled a few days before its opening night. Although the circumstances are controversial, critics see it as a bow to potential government pressure which has become increasingly widespread in the arts.
On August 22, Serebrennikov was detained and charged with embezzling 68 million rubles ($1.1 million) allocated for “Platform.” Investigators claimed that a part of this project, a production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, was never staged. Serebrennikov denied the accusation, claiming that the play was performed at least fifteen times. On August 23, Serebrennikov was put under house arrest until January 19, 2018. On Tuesday, January 16, 2018, a court extended the house arrest for three more months. He is forbidden to correspond, make phone calls and meetings, and go outside.
Serebrennikov has been an activist and government critic, making him a target of repression. He has protested against Russia’s involvement in the Russo-Georgian war of 2008, election fraud in 2011, persecution of the LGBT community, and arrests of Pussy Riot members, among other issues. He called Russia a country of “unabolished slavery” where people do not value freedom and a chasm exists between the people and power.
A number of prominent directors and journalists stepped up to defend Serebrennikov. According to journalist Roman Super, despite the director’s fame abroad, Serebrennikov does not consider emigration to be “right, worthy or necessary,” adding “he says and has always said that he is a Russian director, and his comfort zone in theater and in life is Russian discomfort, which he uses as fuel.”
UPDATE: On June 25, 2020, ARC together with Human Rights Watch, the Human Rights Film Network, the International Coalition for Filmmakers at Risk (ICFR) and its initiators, the European Film Academy (EFA), the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA), and the Rotterdam International Film Festival (IFFR), as well as the International Documentary Association (IDA), the Geneva International Film Festival and Forum on Human Rights (FIFDH) and the Federation of European Film Directors (FERA),
call on the prosecution to immediately drop the criminal charges against them.
UPDATE: On June 22, 2020, prosecutors have asked Moscow’s Meshchansky District Court to sentence acclaimed theater and film director Kirill Serebrennikov to six years in prison on embezzlement charges he denies.
UPDATE: On September 11, 2019, Judge Irina Akkuratova sent Serebrennikov's case back to prosecutors, citing "inconsistent and controversial clauses" in the original charges. Additionally, the judge lifted the travel ban that prevented Serebrennikov from leaving Moscow.
UPDATE: On April 8, 2019, a Moscow city court judge has overturned a decision by a lower tribunal to extend the director’s detention for three months, Serebrennikov’s lawyer told the AFP. He will now be able to work and communicate providing he remains in Moscow where he is still due to face trial in a $2M fraud case.
UPDATE: On November 5, 2018, the court adjourned for five days following the hospitalization of one of the co-defendants. The court will reconvene on December 10.
UPDATE: On November 7, 2018, a Moscow court opened the trial against Kirill Serebrennikov who pleaded "not guilty".by Polina Kovaleva, July, 2017 (updated on June 22, 2020)
Polina Kovaleva is PEN America's Free Expression Programs Manager. After working at UNESCO’s Division of Freedom of Expression and Media Development, Kovaleva joined PEN America team in 2016 as the first Free Expression Programs Coordinator for Eurasia.