Russian Director Detained in $3.5M Fraud Probe

Kirill Serebrennikov - H 2013
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Kirill Serebrennikov - H 2013

Kirill Serebrennikov, who last year won a Cannes award for 'The Student,' was arrested after a raid on his Moscow theater.

Russian director Kirill Serebrennikov has been detained after state investigators and security forces raided his Moscow theater, the Gogol Center.

Serebrennikov, whose The Student won the Francois Chalais award in Cannes last year after competing in the Un Certain Regard sidebar, was arrested at his Moscow home Tuesday following the raid on the theater during a rehearsal for a performance of Nikolai Gogol's satire Dead Souls.

Around 50 actors and members of theater staff were held, and their mobile telephones confiscated during the raid, which investigators say is linked to a probe into suspected fraud between 2011 and 2014 of 200 million rubles ($3.5 million at current exchange rates) of state arts funding. Serebrennikov has not been charged, but is being held as a witness in the case.

In footage aired on Russian television, Serebrennikov was seen being telling reporters, "I am in complete shock," as he was led away from his apartment by investigators.

The director was appointed artistic director at the Gogol Center in 2012 where he quickly gained a reputation for staging cutting-edge and provocative performances that drew at times harsh reactions from conservative commentators.

Two years ago, prosecutors requested a probe into seven of his productions for possible breaches of laws on pornography, and Russia's culture minister Vladimir Medinsky denounced his adaptations of classics.

An advocate for LGBT rights and outspoken critic of the Kremlin, Serebrennikov dubbed Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine the actions of "an impoverished thug who has lost his mind from despair."

Last year, speaking on independent channel TV Dozhd, he condemned cuts in arts funding, saying: "They say we’re the state and we'll decide what the people need and don't need. Everything is going back to the most pathetic Soviet mentality."

Writing in online journal The American Interest, Karina Orlova, the Washington correspondent for Russian radio station Ekho Moskvy (Echo of Moscow), said: "The last time a theater director was arrested [in Russia] was in 1939, during Stalin's Great Purge, when Vsevolod Meyerhold was detained for political reasons. He was executed the very next year. Though we're probably not quite there yet with Putin's regime, it's worth remembering that Ukrainian film director Oleg Sentsov was convicted for terrorism under political false pretenses in 2015, and is still sitting in Russian prison."

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has denied the raid and Serebrennikov's detention were connected with politics. "There is no politics nor [anything to do with] creativity here," he told Russian media outlets.