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Moscow Seeks to Pull the Plug on Cultural Liberalization

Maxim Trudolyubov
Moscow Seeks to Pull the Plug on Cultural Liberalization

Moscow was rattled this week by the arrest of Kirill Serebrennikov, an internationally renowned Russian theater and film director. Russia’s Investigative Committee, a semi-autonomous body that reports directly to the president of Russia, has charged Serebrennikov with embezzling 68 million rubles (more than $1.1 million) allocated for an art project.

To understand why a story of an alleged embezzlement is causing Muscovites to compare it to the worst cases of Soviet and post-Soviet repression, it’s necessary to understand a bit more about Russia’s state procurement legislation, Russia’s culture politics, and the embattled director.

Serebrennikov’s 2016 film The Student, a tale of religious fundamentalism that might have enraged the Russian Orthodox Church, won the François Chalais Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 2016. The director has spoken out repeatedly in support of gay rights and against the suppression of artistic freedoms. He was arrested while shooting a movie about Viktor Tsoi, the frontman of the legendary 1980s band Kino. Tsoi’s songs are firmly associated in Russia with the emotional uplift of the late 1980s that led to the implosion of the Soviet Union.

His views notwithstanding—or perhaps because of them—Serebrennikov, forty-seven, was until recently a symbol of a liberalizing streak within Russia’s unfolding political drama. In 2011–12, in the wake of public unrest caused by a parliamentary election widely seen as rigged, the city of Moscow embarked on a program meant to appease and distract the capital’s disgruntled middle class and intelligentsia.

The city started to repair its parks, design and implement trendy urban improvements, renovate old museums and open new ones. The Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center, arguably Moscow’s most spectacularly modern cultural institution, was opened in 2012. Early that same year Gorky Park, a vast Soviet-era green area complete with aging landscaped pavilions and crumbling amusement rides, was turned into a trendy recreational space.

Amid this wave of modernizing changes Serebrennikov was appointed to lead the Gogol Theater, a half-forgotten traditional drama stage just outside the Garden Ring. In a matter of months, the new art director turned the sleepy place into a vibrant platform for theatrical experiment. Lead by Serebrennikov, the Gogol Center was soon offering its hip audiences a play based on the biography and writings of Franz Kafka and dramatizations of poems by Leonid Pasternak, Osip Mandelstam, and Daniil Kharms.

And these are just a few highlights of the unabashedly modernist and anticlerical posture Serebrennikov assumed in a country swept by cultural infighting. The kinds of names and subjects Serebrennikov chose to showcase were like a red rag to Russia’s powerful elites purporting to represent loosely defined traditional values.

Some of Serebrennikov’s projects are funded by the state and Moscow’s municipal government. The Gogol Center is owned by the city of Moscow and still enjoys generous funding. Studio Seven, a project at the center of the investigation, received about 200 million rubles ($3.3 million at today’s exchange rate) between 2011 and 2014 from the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation. Serebrennikov has been charged with embezzling about a third of this sum.

In the absence of other sources of funding, most Russian directors, musicians, scholars, and scientists end up being funded by the state. But this funding carries with it a big caveat. The legislation that regulates all procedures needed to pay for a theatrical, cinematic, or scientific project is the same legislation that regulates state procurement for any needs, from state-owned oil rigs to office furniture for presidential resorts. The process is heavily bureaucratized and impossible to follow in every detail, film and theater directors say.

“If you receive financing from the state you are required to keep it all on an account opened for you by the State Treasury. In order to pay for any of the work on your set you have to provide the Treasury with a document certifying the work has already been done,” Avdotya Smirnova, a renowned Russian writer and film director, wrote on Facebook. “To produce a film or a performance in strict observance of these laws is impossible. At all,” Smirnova concludes in one of her subsequent comments.

In other words, everything from the big and the important to the tiny and the unexpected, such as a set ruined by bad weather, has to be planned and paid for after the fact. Most of the time directors find ways to circumvent the law simply to get the work done. And it works until some of the director’s enemies within the state system decide to punish them, or the state itself decides it is no longer interested in supporting certain projects. Pulling the plug is easy because everyone is a potential fraud or embezzler.

The amounts the Kremlin and the city of Moscow have spent on trendy projects is a reminder of how serious the Russian authorities were in 2011 and 2012 when launching a cultural liberalization that was apparently meant to offset the risks of tightening the screws in political and civic life. The time has passed, the risks are deemed low, and the Kremlin apparently has decided to stop pretending it was equally protective of its traditionalist power base and all those “problematic groups” in Russian society that expound universalist values. (The expression “problematic groups” is reportedly the language used by the Kremlin’s political managers to describe political and social liberals and other nonconformists.)

“The brilliant Kirill Serebrennikov is under arrest. I can barely believe it,” Michael Idov, who cowrote the story for the director’s current film, said on Facebook. “We were on his set the day before yesterday. He was in great spirits and working his ass off. Our movie is more than two-thirds done and, I’m certain, will be completed no matter what. In the end, all the state will accomplish here is ensure there are even fewer talented men and women in Russia.”

Addendum: Serebrennikov was expected to fly to Germany to finalize an opera production at the Stuttgart State Opera. As he is under house arrest until October 19, this now seems unlikely, but the premiere of Engelbert Humperdinck’s opera Hansel and Gretel is still set for October 22. The performance is going ahead, Thomas Koch, the Stuttgart State Opera’s communications director, told Meduza.

About the Author

Maxim Trudolyubov

Maxim Trudolyubov

Senior Advisor; Editor-in-Chief, Russia File;
Editor-at-Large, Vedomosti Daily

Maxim Trudolyubov is a Senior Fellow at the Kennan Institute and the Editor-at-Large of Vedomosti, an independent Russian daily. Mr. Trudolyubov was the editorial page editor of Vedomosti between 2003 and 2015. He has been a contributing opinion writer for The International New York Times since the fall of 2013. Mr. Trudolyubov writes The Russia File blog for the Kennan Institute and oversees special publications.

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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American expertise and knowledge of Russia, Ukraine, and the region. Through its residential fellowship programs, public lectures, workshops, and publications, the Institute strives to attract, publicize, and integrate new research into the policy community.  Read more