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Theatre of the Absurd: the case that united Russia’s artists against the government, and the verdict that struck them down10 min read

 In Analysis, Culture, Politics, Russia

In the spring of 2017, riot police stormed the Gogol Centre, one of Moscow’s most prestigious dramatic theatres, interrupted a rehearsal, confiscated the actors’ phones, and launched a thorough search of the premises. At the same time, officers were searching the home of Kirill Serebrennikov, the artistic director of the Gogol Centre, until then best known as a provocateur, a rule-breaker of the artistic variety – not a criminal. Within a matter of months, Serebrennikov and a handful of his associates and ex-associates would be charged on a litany of offences related to theft, swindling, and fraud.

In Russian media, it’s been called the ‘Seventh Studio Case’, the ‘Theatre Case’, and the ‘Serebrennikov Case’. Serebrennikov was one of his country’s most-celebrated directors, equally at home under the proscenium, at the barre, and behind the camera. But since 2017, his name has been associated with controversy and danger.

Russia’s rising star

In 2011 Kirill Serebennikov founded the Seventh Studio, a theatre troupe that walked the line between experimental and accessible. Also in that year, Serebrenikov co-founded Platform (sometimes transliterated as ‘Platforma’), an arts organisation that produced works combining drama, dance, and other media. Platform received the kiss of support from then-President Dmitry Medvedev, and was hailed by some as the future of performing arts in Russia. Young audiences responded to Serebennikov’s sharp critical tone and willingness to experiment with artistic forms. Older generations respected his affiliations with establishment figures, including members of the Kremlin elite. 

In 2012, with blessings from his friends in Moscow’s city government, Serebrennikov was named the Artistic Director of the Gogol Centre. Now effectively in charge of three cultural institutions, Serebrennikov was on top of the arts world. He quickly became a minor icon. Jurors showered him with accolades, and the Ministry of Culture was happy to provide project funding. 

But in 2015, the Seventh Studio announced that it had been losing money. News media at the time reported that Serebrennikov had been overly ambitious in planning new shows, scheduling as many as 12 premieres per season. The last new show the Seventh Studio produced was The Lake, a drama about a group of friends who share their anxieties and fears over a picnic by the lake. The play begins with the question: “Where are you now? And where would you like to be when the apocalypse comes?”

The apocalypse comes

On 23 May 2017, officers in riot gear raided the Gogol Centre and Serebrennikov’s apartment. It wasn’t long before charges were laid against Serebrennikov and three of his colleagues from the Seventh Studio: accountant Nina Maslyaeva, CEO Yuri Itin, and administrator Alexey Malobrodsky. All four were accused of stealing funds allocated by the Ministry of Culture.

But the substance of the allegations changed constantly, and the The Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation (Sledkom), the country’s main anti-corruption bureau, seemed unsure of the facts of its own case. Sledkom initially claimed that Malobrodsky and Itin had stolen 2.3 million rubles (30 000 euro) from a Seventh Studio production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that never took place. But the show had in fact premiered at the Gogol Centre in 2012, and was subsequently nominated for a Golden Mask award. Lawyers defending the accused found mountains of further inconsistencies in the charges brought forth by Sledkom. Nonetheless, the prosecution maintained course, adapting its case to suit the facts, and, occasionally, adapting the facts to suit its case.

In August, 2017, some four months after the raid at the theatre, accountant Nina Maslyaeva pled guilty to theft charges. Maslyaeva, who had previously been convicted of a similar offence, also made a statement against Serebrennikov, Itin, and Malobrodsky, claiming they had orchestrated a complex embezzlement scheme. All three nonetheless maintained their innocence and pleaded not guilty to the theft charges brought against them. Soon after, news media reported that Maslyaeva had been promised amnesty in exchange for her statement. Despite naming names, no such amnesty was given, and Maslyaeva is still awaiting sentencing. She has since recanted her testimony.

Later in 2017, Sledkom charged two more defendants in the Seventh Studio Case: Sofia Apfelbaum, a former employee of the Ministry of Culture accused of conspiring with the Seventh Studio, and Ekaterina Voronova, a Seventh Studio producer. Voronova fled the country before being apprehended, and has since been charged in absentia. Serebrennikov, Itin, and Apfelbaum were placed under house arrest and not released until 2019. Their trial stalled and started a number of times, most recently due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Despite his confinement, Serebrennikov directed 11 drama, dance, and film projects between 2017 and 2019, for which he won two Golden Mask awards and the Stanislavsky International Prize, and was named a Commander of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres of France

Acting and reacting

As details of the Seventh Studio Case came to light, support flooded in for the defendants. High-profile figures affiliated with major cultural establishments, including the Bolshoi Theatre, spoke out against the arrests. It’s worth noting that success in the arts in Russia is largely contingent on government support; an artistic director or producer who challenges the government puts themselves and their entire institution at risk of retribution, including defunding. Hundreds of directors, writers, and journalists took that risk to speak out in support of Serebrennikov and the other accused, and to condemn Sledkom for obstructing freedom and the arts. They have made videos, signed petitions, written letters to the Minister of Culture, and even reached out to Vladimir Putin directly, pleading for freedom for their friends and colleagues.

I’ve never met Kirill Serebrennikov, but I have been in his distant orbit for a few years. In 2017, a couple months after he was indicted, I started working as a theatre critic in Moscow. Serebrennikov was all anyone could talk about, either with awed praise or in hushed tones. He was the person every artist wanted to be and was afraid to be: talented, intellectual, and fearless. Serebrennikov was not just an accomplished director, but a loud voice in some of Russia’s most divisive conversations. Beginning in 2011, perhaps coinciding with his rising stardom, Serberennikov had been more vocal in his disdain for the Putin administration and his support for anti-Putin figures, including the band Pussy Riot. He became a fierce critic the Orthodox Church and Russia’s anti-LGBT legislation. Although Serebrennikov has never come out publicly as gay, his sexual orientation is an open secret; in addition to his support for LGBT causes, Serebrennikov has imbued homoerotic aesthetics into many of his works, making him a target of homophobia

That’s why, many believe, Sledkom laid charges in the first place – not because of missing rubles, but at the behest of some higher-up in the administration who believed that Serebrennikov, a dissident artist, a counter-revolutionary, had risen too high. He needed to be knocked down. 

It’s impossible to say if Serebrennikov et al. did what they were accused of doing. No one disputed that these organisations accepted substantial funding from the Ministry of Culture over the years. The question, then, was how that money was spent.  Lawyers for the defence argued that their clients had, if anything, lost money by investing their own funds in the struggling Seventh Studio. But the Seventh Studio and Platform dealt largely in cash, which is difficult to trace. Moreover, their bookkeeping seems to have been shoddy, and loads of receipts apparently went missing. 

But to many in Russia, the Seventh Studio Case was not about money. As a friend of mine from Moscow, a theatre administrator, told me: “Look at these bureaucrats who have apartments in Spain and yachts on the Mediterranean. Does the government go after them? No, they’re not afraid of these people.” 

Since 2017, the world of Russian theatre has been smothered in caution. Although Russian artists have never enjoyed complete freedom of expression, the Seventh Studio Case signalled censorship at a heightened tempo, a new set of rules. As a critic in Moscow, I reviewed mostly period dramas and adaptations of classical literature, romantic comedies and Soviet-era favourites starring familiar faces. My friends in the theatre world hinted that they wanted to do more. But they didn’t. 

Shortly after the start of the affair, but before being charged, Sofia Apfelbaum told reporter Joshua Yaffa: “The idea of having a rational conversation with the state is gone. Now everyone feels tight, like they’re in a fishbowl. At any moment the authorities could show up with some sort of economic charges for them, too.” 

One of my contacts in Moscow also told me, on condition of the strictest anonymity, that some gay men in administrative positions now believe they are being watched. 

Climax

The Seventh Studio Case wrapped up in June 2020. The prosecution had simplified their allegation: whereas the Ministry of Culture had allocated 216 million rubles to Platform, and only 87 million could be accounted for, the remaining 129 million (1 650 000 euro) must have been stolen. Lawyers for the defense argued that the 129 million had simply been cashed out and spent on legitimate expenditures. 

On 26 June, Judge Olesya Mendeleeva prepared to announce her verdict. Outside the courthouse, hundreds had gathered to show support. Some believed that if they chanted loud enough, the defendants might hear them from inside. But the courtroom was strikingly quiet. Journalists reported that the judge spoke barely above a whisper.

Kirill Serebrennikov, Yuri Itin, and Alexey Malobrodsky were found guilty of “Swindling committed by an organised group or on an especially large scale”. Sofia Apfelbaum was found guilty of “Neglect of duty”.

But, the judge continued, there were extenuating circumstances to consider. Serebrennikov had demonstrated “positive characteristics”, Malobrodsky was ill, and Itin and Apfelbaum both had dependents. And so, she concluded, although all four were guilty, none deserved to be imprisoned. 

Kirill Serebennikov was sentenced to three years’ probation and a fine of 800 000 rubles (10 000 euro). He will be allowed to return to work at the Gogol Centre.

Yuri Itin was sentenced to three years’ probation and a 200 000-ruble (2 500-euro) fine. Alexey Malobrodsky was sentenced to two years’ probation and a 300 000-ruble (3 800-euro) fine. Neither man is permitted to hold an administrative position for a period of at least two years. 

Sofia Apfelbaum was fined 100 000 rubles (1 300 euro), but her sentence was suspended immediately.

The defendants together will also have to repay the Ministry of Culture 129 million rubles (1 650 000 euro). It’s not clear how they are expected to raise the money, since their assets seized during the investigation remain in government custody. But considering the support they have received both within Russia and internationally – including from stars like Cate Blanchett and Sir Ian McKellen – a mass fundraising appeal would likely succeed.

As the defendants left the courthouse, they were greeted with cheers and applause. Serebennikov was the last to step outside. 

“The truth,” he told his assembled fans, friends, and supporters, “must be fought for.”

Denouement

Reactions to the news have been mixed. PEN International roundly condemned the guilty verdict as “an affront to justice.” Opposition politician Alexey Navalny told his Twitter followers that the entire case had been “fabricated”. 

Yet others celebrated what they considered a best-case scenario. It had been clear from the start that Sledkom was thirsting for blood; how bad was it, then, that they only inflicted a flesh wound? 

Since 2017, Russians have banded together in unity and solidarity in support of a cause. Networks were formed, friendships made, telephone numbers exchanged. Daring people of all ages spoke out publicly against the government. They took risks. They stuck together.

It is possible that the lasting impact of the Seventh Studio Case will be caution and submission. But it is possible, too, that Russia’s artists have tasted courage, and they may be hungry for more.

 

The featured image for this article is adapted from a photo by Alexander Zemlianichenko for the Associated Press.

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