One of Russia’s most prominent theater directors has been fired, a move widely seen as an attempt to clamp down on artistic freedom in the country.
The director, Kirill Serebrennikov, who led the Gogol Center in Moscow, said on Tuesday in an Instagram post that the city’s culture authorities had told him that his contract would not be renewed when it expired on Feb. 25.
“The Gogol Center as a theater, and as an idea, will continue to live,” Serebrennikov wrote, “because theater and freedom are more important, and therefore more tenacious, than all kinds of bureaucrats.”
Serebrennikov was appointed head of the Moscow theater, which receives city funding, in 2012, and he transformed it into one of Europe’s most vibrant playhouses. His productions often contained thinly veiled criticisms of life under President Vladimir V. Putin, and sometimes featured nudity and sexual imagery that ran contrary to the Russian government’s promotion of family values.
Serebrennikov’s work was nonetheless embraced by elite Russian arts organizations. In 2017, the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow staged a ballet about the life of Rudolf Nureyev, which Serebrennikov directed. The production, which highlighted the dancer’s homosexuality, prompted much speculation. (Endorsing homosexuality is a crime in Russia.)
But the backing of such institutions was not enough to stop the authorities from targeting the director. In 2017, Serebrennikov was put under house arrest after being accused of embezzling more than $1 million in state funding from the Gogol Center. He continued working from his Moscow apartment, directing a movie selected for the Cannes Film Festival and operas in Zurich and Hamburg, Germany. His case also attracted the attention of Western artists and human rights groups.
Last June, Serebrennikov was sentenced to three years probation and a $11,000 fine.
His firing comes as Russia cracks down on political opposition in the country following widespread demonstrations in support of Aleksei A. Navalny, Putin’s most prominent critic. Last week, Navalny was sentenced to over two years in prison.
Several artists were detained during those protests, including Oxxymiron, a popular rapper, and members of Pussy Riot, the political arts collective.
Serebrennikov’s firing had been expected, after an article published last week by TASS, the state news agency, quoted an anonymous source in the Culture Ministry saying that Serebrennikov’s contract would not be renewed. Prominent figures in Russia’s theater world intervened to try and stop it: On Sunday, the Association of Theater Critics sent an open letter to City Hall in Moscow calling for Serebrennikov to remain. “The Gogol Center is impossible without Serebrennikov,” it said, adding, “Moscow in the 2020s is impossible without the Gogol Center.”
“What is happening today in Russia as a whole, and in its cultural space, is a very sad picture, with less freedom and more violence by the authorities,” Ludmila Ulitskaya, the internationally acclaimed Russian novelist, said in an email. “My honor and respect to Kirill Serebrennikov,” she added. “He is a worthy representative of Russian culture.”
Theater figures outside Russia also condemned the move. “This is a clear message that artistic freedoms are being reduced to zero,” said Thomas Ostermeier, artistic director of the Schaubühne theater in Berlin, which has hosted Serebrennikov’s productions on tour.
Neither Serebrennikov, nor a spokesman for Moscow’s culture department responded to requests for comment.
Ostermeier said he feared that the Moscow authorities would bring in an outsider to lead the Gogol, and that their choice would turn it into a “boring, safe, conventional space.” But Russian state media reported on Tuesday that Aleksey Agranovich, an actor and director from within the company, would take charge. A spokesman for the theater did not respond to a request for comment.
Marina Davydova, a theater critic, said in an emailed statement before Agranovich’s appointment that an internal candidate would be best the solution as they could “preserve the theater, its troupe and its top ranking repertoire.”
“Life is still buzzing here,” she said, “and artistic, creative achievements are possible.”
Serebrennikov’s Instagram post did not say what he planned to do next, but it did contain a message to his colleagues at the Gogol Center and his many fans. “Try to make sure that the theater remains alive,” he wrote. “You know what needs to be done.”