It is a cold October evening in 2017, in a building semi-hidden in a street close to the vast Kurskaya train station in central Moscow. Tonight, at one of Russia’s most highly acclaimed theatres, it is the opening night of Little Tragedies, a production based on works by national bard Alexander Pushkin.
Rap music fills the main stage with a vital energy, causing the sound system to vibrate. Lines of wooden benches, surely some of the most uncomfortable seats in town, creak. Many in the audience know their Pushkin by heart, reciting verse after verse with excitement.
Meanwhile, Kirill Serebrennikov — at the time the artistic director of the Gogol Center, and the man who brought Pushkin into the contemporary moment by mixing four hours of his verses with rap from Russian rapper Husky, finds himself under house arrest.
Even though Serebrennikov “followed the rules”, the state ultimately turned against him, destroying hopes that liberal artists and conservative officials could work together
“I wrote plays and manuscripts, and directed performances during my house arrest. It was my innovation to put together a performance thousands of kilometres away,” he tells from his living room. It is 2020 and Serebrennikov is no longer confined by law, but other difficulties have driven our first conversation online. “We became accustomed to working remotely and with video before everyone started doing it during the pandemic. USB sticks were transferred to my lawyer, we watched the material, and wrote hundreds of comments. I was under house arrest — and now, the whole world is under house arrest,” he says.
Serebrennikov’s story tracks the rise and fall of a particular era of culture. A decade ago, when an edgy new avant-gardism emerged in Russia, Serebrennikov was in the foreground of it all. He became artistic director of the Gogol Center in 2012, and transformed the stage into a platform for modern artists. Prior to his tenure, the theatre had been known for its old-fashioned repertoire, where the same productions could run continuously for years on end. When he took the reins, Serebrennikov created outspoken works of art which could tread the delicate balance of the status quo, quickly gaining favour in an era when the Kremlin explicitly wanted to show that they also could support experimental art.
But if Serebrennikov’s radical productions were a manifestation of this new, more liberal cultural sphere, then his arrest in 2017 marked its demise. Early in 2016, prosecutors had blamed him of fraud, accusing him of embezzling around £1.5m of public money in state funding for his plays — a charge Serebrennikov vehemently denies. Even more absurdly, prosecutors also claimed that some plays hadn’t been produced at all, despite the presence of hundreds of spectators and a mountain of published documents. When the director was brought in front of a court, it sent shockwaves through Russian society. To many, it seemed the case served both as a warning, and a sign of turning tides.
Serebrennikov’s difficulties with the authorities were not entirely unexpected. On occasion, the director had performed the role of a nemesis to the Russian government, often criticising the growing influence of the Russian Orthodox church and repeatedly defending sexual minorities. In Serebrennikov’s work, contradictions are foregrounded rather than mitigated. Plays and historical works written for other time periods interest him, and the director is prone to change characters’ appearances as well as play with gender and representation, as when a male ensemble dominated his production of the ballet Swan Lake. Nevertheless, Serebrennikov was still given large sums of government support. On the outside, it looked as if he knew where to draw the line and enjoyed an undeniable freedom.
Yet even though Serebrennikov “followed the rules” — pushing boundaries, but not too far — the state ultimately turned against him, destroying hopes that liberal artists and conservative officials could work together. The director’s arrest made it clear that such arrangements would no longer be tolerated: the state’s flirtation with tolerance had been crushed under its growing tendency towards authoritarianism.
Critics have described the case against Serebrennikov in terms of vengeance. The accusations against him cast a long shadow on the intricate workings of bureaucracy that can be deployed to disrupt artists working underneath and against power at the same time. Cultural workers in Russia and abroad have defended Serebrennikov and called the indictment “a fabrication”.
Yet while the Russian government’s taste may have changed, audiences remain ravenous for Serebrennikov’s work. Several of his productions have garnered worldwide attention, including a biographical ballet about legendary dancer Rudolf Nureyev, who defected from the Soviet Union to the West in 1961. The ballet was halted before its premiere at Moscow’s historic Bolshoi Theatre not long after Serebrennikov’s arrest in the summer of 2017, provoking outcry. When the ballet finally opened in December 2017 it was without having eliminated its homoerotic undertones or a seductive pas-de-deux from its repertoire; and it was also without Serebrennikov in the audience.
I ask the director how he felt under house arrest while standing ovations — including from the Kremlin elites in the crowd — took over the Bolshoi. “Life in Russia is unpredictable. I treat what happened with a certain degree of fatalism,” he says. He describes the intense relief he felt when the Bolshoi decided that Nureyev could be performed. “The officials who applauded may have seen something good. It is important to me that this was the strongest and most successful opening at the theatre. We have received every possible award from the ballet world. This is a performance that everyone wants to see, and it is impossible to buy tickets — it is sold out for eternity.”
The cultural world emitted a sigh of relief in June 2020 when Serebrennikov was sentenced to three years of probation, rather than six years in a penal colony. The director chooses his words carefully when speaking about the charges. “I hate being a victim. I have always worked in an honest manner, and have supported the self-realisation and creativity of others. During all these years I have done what I consider to be important and necessary — I helped people. And as long as I live I will continue to do so,” he says.
Just like many of Serebrennikov’s works, the ending to the saga of his arrest has been left with a final twist to bring the audience to its feet. Less than a year after escaping jail, Moscow’s Department of Culture announced that they will not be renewing the director’s contract when it expires on 25 February. Draped in black, Serebrennikov gave an electric farewell speech on Tuesday 2 February, at an event designed to mark eight and a half years since the former Gogol Theatre became the rebranded, boundary-pushing Gogol Center. “In eight and a half years, you can make powerful, educated, and wealthy friends. In eight and a half years, you can find yourself with powerful and vengeful enemies,” Serebrennikov told the audience from the main stage, a backwards baseball cap perched on his head. The speech was published on the Gogol Center’s Instagram account.
“I want you to know that the most valuable and important thing in Russia is not the power of the government, or the media. The most valuable thing is Russian culture. It’s the language, the culture, the discoveries within the arts that make life a little more bearable”
Previously, the fact that Serebrennikov’s sentence had ended up somewhat milder than prosecutors’ original requests had been seen as a sign that the Kremlin wanted to distance itself from the issue. Just after Serebrennikov was given a suspended sentence, a new set of much-disputed constitutional changes were passed in Russia’s parliament. These changes pave the way for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has been in power for two decades, to remain in power until 2036. It is likely that Serebrennikov’s highly-controversial case was “smoothed over” to avoid stoking antagonism before these changes. Now it seems merely that the Kremlin was willing to wait before seizing its final revenge.
Serebrennikov’s defenders have once again leapt to his aid. The Association of Theater Critics wrote an open letter to Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, pleading with him to renew Serebrennikov’s contract. “The Gogol Center is impossible without Serebrennikov. Moscow in the 2020s is impossible without the Gogol Center”, they wrote.
Marina Davidova, theatre critic, editor-in-chief of Russia’s Theatre magazine, and a close friend of Serebrennikov, is one of those who signed the letter. She does not think the saga is over yet. “All this has been going on for quite a long time and it is clear that [Serebrennikov] causes enormous annoyance [to the authorities]. Being surprised that his contract was not extended, is like being surprised when a killer steals a wallet. They are trying to destroy one of Russia’s finest theatres,” she told The Calvert Journal.
She also believes that the Gogol Center is too popular with the public to be affected by these political games in the long run. “People are ready to pay more for art created at the Gogol Center. If ordinary officials in Moscow were making these decisions, they would try and seek some kind of a compromise with the guys at the top, because they want to keep the money from the ticket sales rolling in. Performances have already been planned for the rest of the year and sold out until spring,” she adds.
Yet a Gogol Center without Serebrennikov is already taking shape. Well-known actor Alexey Agranovich was appointed as the theatre’s new artistic director on 9 February. He has already walked the boards under Serebrennikov in the plays, Little Tragedies and An Ordinary Story, as well as starring in popular Russian film The Comedian. Serebrennikov confirmed his resignation on the same day.“Everything starts and ends, but something new begins”, he wrote on Instagram. His contract officially ends on 25 February.
The real damage, however, may have already been done to Russia’s theatre scene. For artists today, Serebrennikov’s fate is a warning against playing Serebrennikov’s game of pushing the envelope within acceptable limits. Now, these boundaries are not only more fixed, but they also more tightly align with the Kremlin’s conservative social beliefs.
Serebrennikov says that he has already paid a high cost by suffering for his art. Alongside his suspended liberty and suspended sentence, Serebrennikov was fined to pay 800,000 rouble (£7,800). But, he says, “I want you to know that the most valuable and important thing in Russia is not the power of the government, or the media. The most valuable thing is Russian culture. It’s the language, the culture, the discoveries within the arts that make life a little more bearable — culture is worth suffering for.”
For now, however, he does not plan to direct any plays of his own in Russia. “I help other directors with their productions. It is important to me that people of talent will continue to work at the theatre. I am not rehearsing anything of my own yet. And I am not going to.”
Instead he is focusing on new projects, as well as offers of work from theatres abroad — something which poses its own set of problems. In April 2019, when Serebrennikov was finally released from house arrest and put on bail, he was also placed under a travel ban. He does not have the right to leave Russia. “I haven’t made any performances with audiences in a certain city or of a certain nationality in mind. It’s not important where one performs one’s work,” he says.
For now, Serebrennikov hopes that the Gogol Center can live on as a theatre, while he continues to work remotely. “I am going to make several films, write scripts. I am preparing the opening of Richard Wagner’s opera Parsifal at The Vienna State Opera in April 2021. It is my first Wagner. At the Münich Opera I will be directing The Nose, by Dmitri Shostakovich,” he says. “I have a lot of work. That inspires me.”
Another version of this article was originally published for the theatre journal Teaterrummet in Sweden.