Artists protest af­ter po­lice raid Rus­sian di­rec­tor’s home, the­ater

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY AN­DREW ROTH an­drew.roth@wash­

moscow — A sen­sa­tional em­bez­zle­ment in­ves­ti­ga­tion in­volv­ing a the­ater com­pany has sparked a protest among prom­i­nent fig­ures in Rus­sia’s arts com­mu­nity, pit­ting di­rec­tors and ac­tors against pow­er­ful Rus­sian law en­force­ment agen­cies and prompt­ing ap­peals to Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin to in­ter­vene.

At the storm’s cen­ter is Kir­ill Sere­bren­nikov, the vir­tu­oso Rus­sian stage di­rec­tor be­hind Moscow’s in­no­va­tive, and of­ten con­tro­ver­sial, Gogol Cen­ter the­ater, who awoke on Tues­day to find agents of the Rus­sian Fed­eral Se­cu­rity Ser­vice, the sprawl­ing law en­force­ment and in­tel­li­gence agency, raid­ing his the­ater and his apart­ment.

The rea­son? Ac­cu­sa­tions that a the­ater col­lec­tive he founded called “Sev­enth Stu­dio” had been in­volved in an em­bez­zle­ment scheme, si­phon­ing off $3.5 mil­lion in gov­ern­ment fund­ing from 2011 to 2014.

For now, Sere­bren­nikov, who did not an­swer re­peated calls to his mo­bile phone, is a wit­ness and not a sus­pect in the case, which for­mally does not con­cern the Gogol Cen­ter. A for­mer ad­min­is­tra­tive di­rec­tor and ac­coun­tant for the stu­dio were de­tained on Wed­nes­day, and on Thurs­day the ac­coun­tant’s lawyer said she had ad­mit­ted her guilt and was co­op­er­at­ing with in­ves­ti­ga­tors.

But sup­port­ers of Sere­bren­nikov, in­clud­ing the head of the Bol­shoi The­ater, see ul­te­rior mo­tives be­hind the case: an at­tempt to force Sere­bren­nikov out of the Gogol Cen­ter, which he has trans­formed since 2012 from a dra­matur­gi­cal back­wa­ter into Rus­sia’s lead­ing avant-garde the­ater.

It has not been a smooth ride, fraught with con­flicts with con­ser­va­tive ac­tivists and a 2015 brush with fi­nan­cial prob­lems.

With the com­pany’s ac­tors still de­tained by masked of­fi­cers in the the­ater on Tues­day, hun­dreds of sup­port­ers from artist and jour­nal­ist cir­cles be­gan gath­er­ing out­side, among them for­mer mem­bers of the punk protest band Pussy Riot and loy­al­ist film di­rec­tors like Fy­odr Ban­darchuk.

Mikhail Barysh­nikov, the prom­i­nent bal­let dancer, said that for a man with Sere­bren­nikov’s pub­licly ex­pressed dis­si­dent views, “these sud­den re­pres­sions look par­tic­u­larly nasty.”

Ma­rina Davy­dova, a vet­eran the­ater critic who also be­lieved the case had po­lit­i­cal mo­ti­va­tions, said in an in­ter­view that while there are plenty of cul­tural fig­ures skep­ti­cal of the Rus­sian gov­ern­ment, it was Sere­bren­nikov’s “aes­thet­ics” that put him in the “group at risk.”

“He’s al­ways been an ir­ri­tant, in­de­pen­dent and un­con­ven­tional, and that ir­ri­tates peo­ple in power,” Davy­dova said. “If you ask me, I think the goal of this probe is sim­ple: so that Kir­ill leaves the coun­try and to cre­ate a fog over the Gogol Cen­ter.”

The cen­ter’s 2014 play “Muchenik,” the mar­tyr, a dif­fi­cult pro­duc­tion about a student’s re­li­gious trans­for­ma­tion in a Rus­sian school, was con­sid­ered by some crit­ics to run afoul of Rus­sia’s newly adopted laws on of­fend­ing re­li­gious views. A 2013 play called “Thugs” was re­viewed by the Moscow po­lice for pos­si­bly in­cit­ing ex­trem­ism.

The cur­rent in­ves­ti­ga­tion is the lat­est cause cele­bre in a se­ries of po­lit­i­cal de­mon­stra­tions that have bub­bled up in Rus­sia in re­cent months, an un­usual pe­riod of op­po­si­tion ac­tiv­ity.

Ahead of the 2018 Rus­sian pres­i­den­tial elec­tions, where Putin will prob­a­bly run for a fourth term in power, pol­i­tics is back in Rus­sia. Thou­sands of homeown­ers turned out for protest ral­lies this month against the ex­pected de­mo­li­tion of Soviet-era apart­ment houses, part of a city beau­ti­fi­ca­tion ef­fort that op­po­nents be­lieve is a hand­out to con­struc­tion com­pa­nies tied to the gov­ern­ment.

An un­sanc­tioned March rally led by anti-cor­rup­tion whistle­blower Alexei Navalny brought out tens of thou­sands of pro­test­ers, and led to 1,000 de­ten­tions in Moscow alone.

Out­wardly, the Krem­lin’s goal in the Gogol Cen­ter case has been to tamp down po­lit­i­cal spec­u­la­tion sur­round­ing the in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

“There is no need to make this po­lit­i­cal; there’s no rea­son for the Krem­lin to be in­formed about this,” Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s per­sonal spokesman, told re­porters on Tues­day.

But prom­i­nent fig­ures in the the­ater com­mu­nity, in­clud­ing Vladimir Urin, the di­rec­tor of the Bol­shoi The­ater, have writ­ten di­rectly to Putin, ask­ing him to re­view the in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

An­other the­ater di­rec­tor, Yevgeny Mironov, who runs the pop­u­lar The­ater of Na­tions, ad­dressed Putin di­rectly with a sep­a­rate let­ter in sup­port of Sere­bren­nikov at an awards cer­e­mony on Wed­nes­day.

Ac­cord­ing to An­drei Kolesnikov, a po­lit­i­cal jour­nal­ist close to Putin who has re­ported from the pres­i­dent’s pool for more than a decade, Mironov told Putin that the in­ves­ti­ga­tion could un­der­mine his trip to France slated for Mon­day, where Putin will meet with French Pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron.

Putin, ac­cord­ing to the re­port, agreed. “Yes, they’re id­iots,” he said, ac­cord­ing to Kolesnikov.

For Davy­dova, the case re­called the trou­bles of Ana­toly Vasiliev, the founder and for­mer di­rec­tor of the School of Dra­matic Arts, a well-funded lab­o­ra­tory for in­ven­tive the­ater who was pushed out by the gov­ern­ment and left for France in 2006.

Oth­ers have re­called a darker case: that of Vsevolod Mey­er­hold, the pi­o­neer­ing Soviet the­ater di­rec­tor, whose un­usual style at first pro­pelled his ca­reer, and then led to his ar­rest, tor­ture, and death in 1940 un­der Stalin.

Sere­bren­nikov him­self was asked what he would do in place of Vasiliev, the di­rec­tor who was forced out of his School of Dra­matic Arts by jeal­ous city bu­reau­crats. But he played his cards char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally close to the chest.

“You can’t an­swer this ques­tion,” Sere­bren­nikov said then, in a col­lec­tion of re­sponses for the “The­ater” news­let­ter. “We don’t know his sit­u­a­tion all the way through.”

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