Celebrated both on screen and on stage, Russian director Kirill Serebrennikov was once lauded as one of the country’s leading artistic lights: respected by independent artists and the authorities alike. Then his star began to fall. Serebrennikov was arrested in August 2017 on fraud charges — the amount he was accused of stealing rising from 68 million rubles ($1.2 million) to 129 million rubles ($1.87 million). The 50-year-old eventually spent 22 months in the painstakingly slow machinations of Russia’s justice system, languishing under house arrest before being allowed to leave his building. Three colleagues stood as his co-defendants: Alexei Malobrodsky, Yuri Itin, and Sofia Apfelbaum. From the beginning, many believed that the case was less about money, and more about the director’s avant-garde work, which had a certain penchant for ridiculing that state. Much of the state’s case rested on a performance which they claimed had never taken place — despite the show being reviewed in a number of newspapers, and even cinching awards.
From the beginning, many believed that the case was less about money, and more about the director’s avant-garde work
It was no surprise then, that on Friday 26 June 2020, all four defendants were found guilty: an almost foregone conclusion in the Russian court, where the conviction rate hovers at roughly 99 percent. But rather than suffering the six-year jail term that prosecutors had hoped for, Serebrennikov walked away from court, given nothing worse than a lenient suspended sentence. Many had expected worse. Suddenly, there was a sense that the Kremlin had compromised: Serebrennikov’s conviction ensured that officials didn’t lose face, but the lack of real world punishment for both himself and his co-defendants appeased the dozens of supporters — some of whom were prominent Russian celebrities — standing outside of the courtroom in solidarity. Celebrations began as Serebrennikov’s lawyer announced that the director would still make an appeal.
But even as Serebrennikov prepares to turn a page on a turbulent chapter of his career, his case will still have repercussions for Russia’s artists. Few have the recognition or public support that Serebrennikov enjoyed while fighting his case, particularly among the influential upper-middle classes that would have frequented his shows at Moscow’s respected Gogol Centre.
At the heart of the issue is the growing gulf between Russia’s cultural community and the state. Serebrennikov may be celebrated across Russia and the world — his films have regularly been entered into competition at festivals such as Cannes — but he is far from the only innovative or talented director that Russia has to offer. But Serebrennikov managed to achieve something few others have: he was able to please both to liberal audience members and the more conservative bureaucrats who granted government funding.
Much of Russia’s great creative strength lies in its creative DIY underground: the thousands of artists and activists toiling in their homes, in their spare time, to create things which are new and exciting and speak about their own lives. But often, boundary-breaking art requires money. As in many countries, the majority of arts funding in Russia is linked to the government — which, as the Serebrennikov case proves, can often control or change its mind about the kind of art which gets produced. For years, Serebrennikov enjoyed state money to create his productions. But as attitudes in the Russian government swang back towards conservatism — particularly in the wake of the country’s 2012 protests, when officials began to put new emphasis on ideals such as religion and the idea of an Orthodox “traditional family” — Serebrennikov did not adjust his performances to line up with these new ideals.
Instead, he openly seemed to mock them. The director’s 2016 release,The Student, took blistering aim at the disintegrating boundaries between church and state, revelling in its own absurd irony. There was no symbolism or room for interpretation here: when Serebrennikov was interviewed ahead of the film’s release, he publicly condemned the government’s latest legislation to punish those convicted of “offending religious feelings.” Serebrennikov may have been able to get away with gently mocking the state in the 00s, but times had changed. At some point, the machinery of the state, which had so long worked in Serebrennikov’s favour, began to turn against him.
This is a troubling message for Russia’s artists: the idea that even those that work with the government can eventually find itself in its crosshairs. Serebrennikov was not a dissident, and yet he still fell foul of official malice. In the wake of his case, any young artist tempted to apply for government support — even those whose ideas may not be particularly outspoken or subversive — will think again. As a result, many artists may never get their foot in the door, get their dream project off the ground, or break into the mainstream. It is a devastating blow for Russian art.
But if this case cements the long-running distrust of the government on behalf of artists, it also gives a green light for those people in power who already see artists as a threat. One such creative is Yulia Tsvetkova, an amateur youth theatre director, activist, and artist in Russia’s Far East, more than 8,000 kilometres away from Moscow. In 2019, local police investigated Tsvetkova’s play The Blue and The Pink, which explored gender stereotypes. She was later arrested on 20 November 2019 and charged with “production and dissemination of pornographic materials” after officers saw cartoons on her social media profile depicting naked women. Most of the doodles showed women topless or in their underwear, alongside phrases such as “women have body fat – and it’s normal” — part of Tsvetkova’s work on body positivity. She will now stand trial, and, if found guilty, will spend up to six years in prison.
There is an enduring stereotype about Russia that everything comes from that top; that President Putin himself dictates what happens in the country in minutiae. While this isn’t true, regional officials will often look to the Kremlin and follow its example. Serebrennikov’s long-running trial is one such case that will send a message to regional prosecutors. If an artist produces something that you don’t like, you can find grounds on which to punish them. Whether Serebrennikov’s last moment reprieve will also signal mercy in such cases remains to be seen, but Tsvetkova and Serebrennikov are artists from very different walks of life. One has the backing of the international community (Serebrennikov’s arrest in 2017 was condemned by many high profile international cultural figures including Cate Blanchett, director Simon McBurney, artist Sophie Calle, and novelist Elfriede Jelinek), the other has struggled to draw attention to her case by even local Russian media. (“It’s mostly feminists fighting for Yulia because for ‘serious male journalists’, it’s not a valid reason to come out to protest,” one photographer told The Calvert Journal.)
Art, at its very foundation, means doing things which are strange and different
Tsvetkova may both be fighting for freedom of expression, but the battlefield is not even. It is not inconceivable that other regional police departments will take the stance of clamping down on art that they find distasteful. If that is the case, then it is not Russia’s Serebrennikovs, but smaller, amateur artists, fighting their corner far from mainstream attention in Moscow and St Petersburg that will suffer most.
Ultimately, Serebrennikov’s case will discourage young artists from taking risks, giving their work a larger reach, or trying new things. Such a mentality will only stifle Russia’s creative sphere. Art, at its very foundation, means doing things which are strange and different. Some of these things will fail, but a few will stick, and even better, inspire or spark ideas in others, who will also make their own strange experiments. Perhaps, those artists will fail better. Many of the cultural forces which now shape our everyday were strange and offbeat in their heyday. But slowly, piece by piece, those ideas will evolve and enter the mainstream, and even change it for good. And without artists who push the boundaries, the creative scene will stagnate.
Not everyone will see this as important: why can’t artists just create for themselves in their own time? What are they really contributing? But if young creative people in Russia don’t see any opportunities at home, then there’s every chance that they will move elsewhere. That impacts Russia not just in terms of demographics — the country’s population is rapidly aging — but it’s also a death knell for the country’s creative economy.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia — and Moscow in particular — was uniquely poised to become the region’s default cultural hub. Filmmaking, fashion, and design could have diversified Russia’s economy and brought the city an additional income. It could have also brought the Kremlin the kind of soft power it has always dreamt about. (If you don’t believe me, just look at skyrocketing interest in South Korean business amid a surge of K-pop and K-beauty.) But a lack of investment and government missteps mean that it no longer has that standing. Other local capitals have surpassed the city as hotbeds of creativity. If Russia wants to change that trend, then it needs to act now, but cases like Serebrennikov’s show that the government has little interest in changing the narrative. For now, art will continue to flourish in Russia, but on the sidelines, like it has for too long. Russia’s artists will not run out of innovation or creativity. But if the government continues to push them away, then that talent will never reach its true potential.