MOSCOW – In a move that sent a shockwave through Russia’s art community, investigators on Tuesday detained a prominent theater director famous for his biting satire of Russian officialdom on charges of embezzling $1.1 million.
Kirill Serebrennikov, 47, who has won international acclaim for his productions spanning from drama to opera to movies, has denied the accusations.
The detention of Serebrennikov, whose productions mocking official lies, corruption and growing social conservatism have been hits for years, marks the first time since Soviet times when a theater director faced official reprisals.
Top members of Russia’s cultural elite have strongly defended Serebrennikov, denouncing his detention as an act of intimidation.
The Investigative Committee, Russia’s top investigative agency, accused Serebrennikov of staging a scheme to embezzle 68 million rubles (about $1.1 million) in government funds allocated for his productions in 2011-2014. He rejects the charges.
Serebrennikov’s lawyer, Dmitry Kharitonov, said he was detained in St. Petersburg where he was shooting a movie about a Soviet-era rock star and escorted to the Investigative Committee’s headquarters in Moscow.
After interrogation, Serebrennikov was taken to jail pending a court hearing Wednesday on whether to keep him in custody.
The director was briefly detained and questioned in May, but the investigators then stopped short of pressing charges. The theater’s accountant and one senior manager have remained in custody and another manager is under house arrest pending the probe.
Russia media have reported that the accountant and several others had testified against Serebrennikov.
Serebrennikov’s productions have topped Moscow’s theater scene for years. In September, he was to direct an opera production in Stuttgart, Germany. His movie “The Student” won the Francois Chalais prize at the Cannes film festival last year.
While Serebrennikov had personal contacts with some members of the Russian government and his theater received lavish state funding, he also faced frequent attacks by hardline politicians and conservative activists who wanted to revoke the state subsidies for his productions.
In July, Moscow’s famed Bolshoi Theater canceled a much-anticipated ballet directed by Serebrennikov just three days before the opening night, a development that made many in Moscow’s art scene speak of a return to censorship.
The Bolshoi denied reports that the show about dancer Rudolf Nureyev had been scrapped because of its frank description of his gay relationships — which is taboo under a strict Russian law banning gay propaganda.
Members of Russian art community, liberal politicians and activists on Tuesday strongly pushed for Serebrennikov’s release. Some drew parallels with the arrest of Vsevolod Meyerhold, an iconic Russian theater director executed by NKVD secret police during Soviet dictator Josef Stalin’s purges.
“The director’s detention is clearly excessive,” Alexei Kudrin, a former finance minister known for his liberal views, said on Twitter.
Mikhail Shvydkoi, President Vladimir Putin’s envoy for international cultural cooperation, criticized the investigators for what he described as a “demonstration of force,” according to the Interfax news agency.
Earlier this year, prominent members of the Russian artistic community defended Serebrennikov in an appeal to Putin. Shortly after that appeal, the Kommersant newspaper quoted Putin dismissing investigators as “fools” in May during a private conversation with Yevgeny Mironov, a prominent actor and director who spoke in Serebrennikov’s defense.
“The Investigative Committee has tried to prove they aren’t fools,” activist Olga Romanova commented Tuesday.