Somewhere, Nikolai Gogol is not so much turning in his grave as simultaneously laughing and crying into his overcoat. The absurdity that the 19th century writer both lampooned and lamented lives on in a big way in 2017 — and has now engulfed a prominent Moscow theatre with his name on it.

Gogol Centre is one of Russia’s best, and best-known, theatres. Its former managing director, Alexei Malobrodsky, is currently languishing in pre-trial detention, accused of embezzling 2.33 million rubles ($39,200) from the budget of a 2012 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Also stuck in detention is accountant Nina Maslyayeva, a frail woman who is said to be terrified of what is happening to her. One other person the authorities claim is involved in the embezzlement case is theatre administrator Yury Itin, who is currently under house arrest. These are just the latest developments in what is seen as an ongoing crackdown against the theatre itself, its celebrated and controversial artistic director, Kirill Serebrennikov and the art world in Russia in general.

In a twist that perfectly summarises the surreal legal nihilism of modern-day Russia, the prosecutor arguing that Malobrodsky should be detained pointed out that A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a popular, critically acclaimed production, may not even have been staged, and that reviews and articles about said production are not proof of anything.

As is so often the case, the actual legal drama surrounding Gogol Centre is a murky affair. Critic Alyona Solntseva argues that its roots can be found in 2010 legislation on the financing of all state institutions, including theatres. As Solntseva points out, if you want to work in Russian theatre, you will be dependent on the state: independent theaters are a rare and severely underfunded phenomenon. But government financing can be a complicated business, and the 2010 law made it even more complex, notably by forcing theatres into new procurement schemes that resulted in legal and financial headaches for many an administrator and accountant.  

“Almost anyone working in a management capacity at a government-funded company in Russia has been inadvertently involved in […] necessary sloppiness”

Complicated bureaucracy such as this isn’t just there to cause headaches, of course. It also ensures that one can be charged with breaking the law should someone powerful find it convenient. As writer and former colleague of mine Anna Arutunyan recently pointed out, “almost anyone working in a management capacity at a government-funded company in Russia has been inadvertently involved in […] necessary sloppiness.” Not because all of these people are inherently crooks, but because the system is subtly designed to make them into crooks, whether they want it or not. And this, in turn, makes them vulnerable to a criminal justice system used as an attack dog by powerful officials.

As an avant-garde director, Serebrennikov has infuriated plenty of conservative people in Russia, from babushkas who think nudity on stage should be taken care of via firing squad to officials who insist that the only real art is Swan Lake and patriotic accordion-playing. In Moscow, a town where billions regularly go missing with not a single prosecutorial eyebrow raised, the investigation into Gogol Centre and Seventh Studio, a staging company founded by Serebrennikov and directly involved in the production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, clearly has ulterior motives.

  • Gogol centre graffiti

    The graffitied wall behind the Gogol Centre. Image: Gogol Centre / Facebook

  • Gogol centre graffiti

    Statue of Nikolai Gogol outside the theatre. Image: Gogol Centre / Facebook

We don’t know who exactly is after Serebrennikov’s head — and targeting the people he has worked with — but we do know that plenty of petitions and letters of complaint were sent to the authorities after Serebrennikov took over Gogol Centre, which was then the Nikolai Gogol Theatre, a largely forgotten state theatre with a dull repertoire.

State theatre actors, especially older ones, like their dull repertoires — not to mention their comfortable state subsidies. A war was waged against Serebrennikov and his team in the press and on the street. Malobrodsky was even violently attacked in 2012, prompting furious accusations from Serebrennikov that actors from the rebellious old troupe were responsible.

Perhaps what’s happening to Gogol Centre today is connected to that old actors’ rebellion, a rebellion that was cultural at its heart: regressive conservatism in dusty stage wigs against the experimental, often jarring, even frightening nature of modern theatre. This kind of conservatism is currently winning on all fronts in Russia, so why not at Gogol Centre?

The Russian criminal justice system is a leviathan where guilty verdicts are said to be more common than they were under Stalin

The only positive lesson to come out of this sorry mess so far — a mess that involves, it should be remembered, two people being held behind bars as if they’re dangerous criminals — is in the Russian theatre world’s reaction. As my colleague Mikhail Kaluzhsky points out, the solidarity displayed by Russian theatre right now ought to be the envy of the rest of Russian society. Theatres from 21 cities across Russia have participated in actions of solidarity demanding that Malobrodsky and Maslyayeva be released and calling for an unbiased investigation informed by theatre experts (particularly so prosecutors can stop claiming that popular productions don’t exist when it suits them). This is an unprecedented response.

The Russian criminal justice system is a leviathan where guilty verdicts are said to be more common than they were under Stalin. It’s also a system that doesn’t like admitting to its mistakes once it has somebody in its jaws and is busy chewing. Often the reasons for this aren’t all that sinister — it’s a matter of banal convenience. Russian judges tend to have close working relationships with prosecutors, and acquittals can threaten said relationships.

In that sense, the case of Malobrodsky and company is a good example of how art in today’s Russia can’t help but engage in politics, or be engaged by the political system all are beholden to. Simply because there is no escaping that political system’s methods, even if you have zero interest in becoming a dissident or otherwise rocking the boat. Some will argue that Gogol Centre could have escaped the predatory attention of the authorities by not being itself — popular, successful, well-attended, well-financed, not to mention frequently controversial. But for the people who work there that would mean merely surviving, as opposed to living, and what’s the point of that?

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