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Police Raid Major Moscow Theater, Detain Artistic Director over Alleged Embezzlement

Artists rallied outside the Gogol Center in support of Kirill Serebrennikov, an outspoken critic of Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church.

Today's rally outside the Gogol Center in Moscow following the detention of artistic director Kirill Serebrennikov (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Today’s rally outside the Gogol Center in Moscow following the detention of artistic director Kirill Serebrennikov (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

MOSCOW — This morning, law enforcement officials conducted searches at 17 Moscow addresses associated with Kirill Serebrennikov, the artistic director of the Gogol Center, including his apartment and the theater itself. Serebrennikov remains in custody and is being held at an undisclosed location for questioning.

The raids marked the latest episode in an ongoing embezzlement investigation involving an alleged sum of 1.2 million rubles (~$21,300), according to Life News. It’s unclear whether Serebrennikov has been formally charged or is being held as a witness for questioning in the ongoing embezzlement investigation.

According to Russia’s TASS news agency, Alexander Kibovsky, the head of Moscow’s Department of Culture, claimed the Gogol Center also owes around 80 million rubles (~$1.24 million) to various organizations. It’s unclear whether today’s raids are related to these alleged debts.

This morning’s raids were conducted by a Moscow Investigative Committee in association with the Federal Security Service (FSB). The raids were deemed sufficiently urgent to be carried out without a court order. During the raids, actors and theater staff were barred from leaving the Gogol Center building.

Under Serebrennikov’s directorship, the Gogol Center has become a prominent venue for liberal and progressive projects at the intersection of politics and art in Moscow, many of them critical of the government and the influence of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Some have suggesting that the raids are related to an investigation conducted between 2011 and 2014 into Studio Seven, a theater company founded by Serebrennikov. That organization was accused of embezzling funds allocated by the government for the development and popularization of theater in Russia.

Theater-goers inside the main performance space at the Gogol Center in Moscow (courtesy the Gogol Center)
Theater-goers inside the main performance space at the Gogol Center in Moscow (courtesy the Gogol Center)

Following today’s raids, dozens of cultural figures assembled in front of the Gogol Center to express support for Serbrennikov. In a statement posted on Facebook, the renowned dancer and choreographer Mikhail Baryshnikov — one of the signatories of a petition circulating in support of Serbrennikov — said that the motives behind his detainment are the repression of art and cultural figures who are critical of the government.

“An artist of whom Russia should be proud is being debased and humiliated,” Baryshnikov wrote. He added that, because Serebrennikov “is a person who is known for his independence and love of freedom; a person who has more than once made brave political declarations, these sudden repressions look particularly foul.”

Serebrennikov has been a vocal critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin and an advocate for an open, free, and more pluralistic society. He was appointed artistic director of the Gogol Center in 2012. In 2016, he directed The Student, a film that traces a young man’s pivot towards Christian fundamentalism.

In a 2015 interview with the New York Times, Serebrennikov said that in Russia, cultural producers must either censor themselves or face the consequences. “It’s about betrayal — those who betray are put in the Ninth Circle of Hell, like in Dante,” Serebrennikov said. The result, he explained, was to make writers and directors choose “between Scylla and Charybdis — between censorship or self-censorship.”

“We know Kirill Serebrennikov as one of Russia’s brightest and best directors. He is an honest, fair, and open person,” Chulpan Khamatova, a popular Russian actress, said in a prepared statement read to activists assembled outside the Gogol Center today. “We want to express our full support for our colleagues and hope that no violence will be conducted against individuals involved in the investigations.” She added: “We also admire the Gogol Center actors’ decision to perform tonight, not to cancel the play despite the sudden impediments.”

According to government spokesman Dmitry Peskov, quoted in a report by Radio Free Europe, Serebrennikov’s detainment has “nothing to do with politics or art,” and as such it is not a matter for the Kremlin to comment on.

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