The celebrated Russian stage and screen director Kirill Serebrennikov, convicted last year in an embezzlement case seen as retribution for his politically charged work, has been forced out of the Moscow theatre he led for eight years.
Serebrennikov transformed Moscow’s Gogol Center from a small, overlooked theatre into one of the capital’s most vibrant cultural venues with experimental updates of Russian classics and plays that indirectly addressed official corruption.
In the process, he earned the ire of the state even as he found success abroad, working on opera in Europe and directing a film that featured in competition at Cannes.
Moscow authorities this month announced they would not extend his contract to lead the Gogol Center, which receives public funding. Associates of the 51-year-old director said they believed the order to sack him had come from the security services.
The move follows pressure on other Russian artists and comes as the Kremlin continues its crackdown on dissent over the jailing of Alexei Navalny, the opposition figure who returned to Russia in January after recovering from a near-fatal poisoning.
“The Gogol Center as a theatre and as an idea will continue to live,” Serebrennikov wrote on Instagram as he confirmed his departure this week. “Because theatre and freedom are more important, larger, and therefore more enduring than bureaucrats of all kinds.”
Serebrennikov was last year found guilty of fraud and given a three-year suspended sentence after prosecutors accused him and others of siphoning off funds intended for cultural projects. The director denied the charges and the case at times descended into absurdity, such as when prosecutors claimed a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream – which won plaudits and was seen by thousands of people – had never taken place.
Cultural figures in Russia and abroad, including Cate Blanchett and Sir Ian McKellen, called for what they saw as a politically motivated case to be dropped.
Before the trial Serebrennikov spent almost two years under house arrest, unable to attend the premiere of his ballet based on the life of Rudolf Nureyev at Moscow’s Bolshoi theatre. The production proved controversial because of its frank treatment of the Russian dancer’s homosexuality, and an earlier opening was cancelled at the last minute.
Despite being restricted to his flat, Serebrennikov continued to work, watching rehearsals of new productions on videos delivered by his lawyer and writing back with comments. He said in an interview before his sacking that the process had prepared him for life under coronavirus restrictions.
At the weekend the Russian Association of Theatre Critics appealed to the Moscow department of culture, asking it to allow him to stay on. “The Gogol Center is impossible without Serebrennikov. Moscow in the 2020s is impossible without the Gogol Center,” the association said in an open letter, adding that shows at the venue were sold out until the spring.
But the department later said Serebrennikov would be replaced by Alexey Agranovich, an actor and director who has worked at the Gogol Centre for several years.
“I am sure that Alexey Agranovich will cope with this difficult job,” Serebrennikov said in a statement released by the venue. “In the current situation, this is the best candidate.”
Serebrennikov did not respond to a request for further comment but his friend Marina Davydova, a theatre critic and editor-in-chief of the Russian magazine Teatr, said the director had put forward Agranovich as his replacement.
The removal of Serebrennikov was part of the “general trend” of authoritarianism in Russia, she said.
“There are [some officials] that feel a real hatred towards Kirill. You can’t explain it through politics or ideology: he’s just someone who’s different. They want to make things as unpleasant as possible for him.”
Davydova said she hoped the Gogol Center would be able to continue in its current form despite the pressure from authorities. “It doesn’t do direct politics but it’s a club of free thinkers,” she said, adding that the theatre had a liberal audience and often held discussion and lectures.
Other Russian artists have been targeted in recent years. Members of the Pussy Riot collective are frequently arrested, while the feminist artist Maria Tsvetkova is awaiting trial in the far east of Russia over charges supporters say were brought because of her LGBTQ activism.
Serebrennikov has said he is working on a number of forthcoming film and opera projects, including a production of Parsifal at the Vienna State Opera in April.