On and Off the Boards

Jump to 2012, by which time Serebrennikov had earned worldwide fame. His own productions abroad, as well as European tours of his Russian works, made him the most acclaimed Russian theater director of his generation. The international respect accorded him increased manifold, thanks to several award-winning films that he made over the years.

And yet — or, perhaps, because of this — Serebrennikov became the target of concerted attacks from cultural conservatives in the fall of 2012 at the very instant he was appointed artistic director of the former Gogol Theater, to be renamed Gogol Center under the new management. Members of the Communist Party and of various religious activist groups raised a ruckus over the director’s “non-traditional” art.

Sit-ins, protests and physical violence accompanied Serebrennikov’s first months at the Gogol Center. Alexei Malobrodsky was attacked and beaten on the street by opponents of the new management.

This only made the director dig in harder. Over the next few years, he unveiled an unusually large number of new shows, most of which relentlessly tackled social ills.

His production of “Idiots” (after Lars von Trier’s film) was brash and passionate, suggesting that society must embrace its outsiders. His “Muller Machine” shocked conservatives out of their senses by employing virtually all nude performers.

His staging of Nikolai Gogol’s “Dead Souls” was seen by detractors as a high-handed attack on Russian mores and traditions — it “defiled” the classic comedy, they suggested, by showing Russia as a clumsy, drunken nation that would never rise from the mire. Adding insult to injury — horrors! — it included male actors playing women.

Almost invariably, a Kirill Serebrennikov production at Gogol Center puts forth a message of personal and intellectual independence, as well as tolerance for the “other.” This has brought down criticism that he is, in some way, not a “real” Russian director and that his allegiance is not with his native culture, but with the “unprincipled”and “promiscuous” West.

One often hears that Serebrennikov is too much at home in “Gay-ropa,” a slur often used by Russian bigots.

Curiously and even incongruously, Serebrennikov flirted briefly with the powers-that-be in the years prior to his appointment to the Gogol Center.

He cultivated what appeared to be a close friendship with Vladislav Surkov, one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s right-hand men whose divisive, nationalistic philosophy was highly controversial at the time. And he staged a dramatization of “Near Nul,” a novel about Russian skinheads written under a pseudonym that later was revealed to belong to Surkov.

The director’s infatuation with Surkov caused no small confusion in the theater community between 2009 and 2011. Serebrennikov seemed at times to be a political opportunist with a tremendous visual flair for theater.

But be that as it may, he went through a steep maturation curve in his first months and years at Gogol Center. His work at this venue took on an urgency, unity and clarity that it showed only on occasion early in his career.

Through it all, the detractors never let up.

The Politics of Theater

Over the last five years parliamentarians, conservative activists and nationalists have joined repeatedly to abuse and malign Serebrennikov. Kultura and Literaturnaya gazeta, both government newspapers that almost belligerently espouse “traditional ideals,” routinely brand his theater as one “alien to Russian values.”

Critics once again rose up at a dress rehearsal of Serebrennikov’s production of “Nureyev” at the Bolshoi Theater in July. Horrified by photos of the famed ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev in the nude, as well as a nude actor performing Nureyev, the authorities forced the Bolshoi to postpone, if not ban, the production.

The language used against Gogol Center, its director, and others sympathetic to them is strikingly similar to that which was used during the infamous Purges of the 1930s when dozens of great Russian artists were sent to death in prison camps.

The fact that Serebrennikov once courted favor with those in power only makes the situation more poignant – any historian can tell you that the first individuals wiped out in the Purges were former friends and allies of those who remained in power.

This is precisely what caused famed Russian director Kama Ginkas to struggle angrily for words when asked to comment on Serebrennikov’s arrest by Matters Like That magazine.

“Oh, for F’s sake,” he said. “For F’s sake. That’s my reaction. From there you can decipher numerous phrases in Lithuanian. What can I say? Are we really starting over? Are we really doing this again?”

For the present, Russian artists largely are joining ranks behind Serebrennikov.

But Konchalovsky’s cautious and skeptical words are almost a sure sign that a break will come, dividing artists who have much to lose by opposing the state from those whose conscience will not allow them to do otherwise.

The Theater of Politics

Let us not forget that Russia’s next presidential election will be held in less than a year. And, as happened during the trials of former Russian tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, during the last presidential election, and during the height of the war with Ukraine, large numbers of celebrities will surely take the safe course of supporting the authorities against any perceived opposition.

The Serebrennikov case is one of the biggest of the current era. It is similar in magnitude to the cases against the members of Pussy Riot in 2012 and Khodorkovsky in 2005 and 2010.

And, if it is not clear by now, let me say it in no uncertain terms: The Serebrennikov case is a show trial. That nonsense about finances is precisely that: nonsense.

This trial seeks to stigmatize those who believe in independent thinking and freedom of expression. It seeks to equate an artist with crooks. It seeks to hang a label of corruption on a few individuals who work in a financial system that is, in itself, so flawed and corrupt it cannot possibly be negotiated without crossing the line and letter of the law.

This is not a case of the state seeking to right a wrong. It is a case of the government repressing individuals in an attempt to secure its own future.

John Freedman is an American writer and translator in Moscow and the former theater critic of The Moscow Times.