Read: It’s Putin’s world
“In his first presidential term, Vladimir Putin crushed Russia’s independent media, and in his second and third terms he moved to suppress business and bend it to his will,” Mikhail Zygar, a journalist and the author of a best-selling history of Putin’s presidency, told me. “Now the Kremlin is coming for the young and the talented—to control the theater, to push out independent cinema, to cancel concerts.”
Unlike previous occasions, though, the backlash this time could be significant. When Putin sought to constrain Russian business in 2003 by arresting and then jailing the energy tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, few in the business community spoke out, Zygar said. In the case of Serebrennikov, however, actors, directors, and musicians have refused to back down, openly criticizing Putin as out of touch and at the head of a system in which justice is given short shrift.
Serebrennikov, a tall and bespectacled 49-year-old whose award-winning plays are often critical of the Kremlin, has been under house arrest for more than a year, ever since police wearing ski masks nabbed him. He has been forced to wear an electronic bracelet, his time outside his small apartment in a historic Moscow neighborhood is limited to two hours a day, and he cannot walk more than a few blocks from his home. His beloved Gogol Center is strictly off-limits, and he is not allowed to leave Moscow.
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Hundreds of artists and cultural figures, including Vladimir Urin and Oleg Tabakov, the directors of the Bolshoi Theater and the Moscow Chekhov Art Theater, respectively, have signed letters supporting Serebrennikov and his three colleagues, calling for them to be freed. Zygar and Karen Shainyan, the founders of the Future History studio, which focuses on popularizing Russian and world history, have devised a walking tour in which Serebrennikov, via a Dictaphone recording, describes his own neighborhood, where almost every building echoes with the history of Soviet political repression.
And throughout the trial, many of these artists have shown up in court to offer solidarity. “To go to the court is a matter of dignity and love for a genius director, and our dear friend,” Kseniya Rappoport, a leading actor in the Maly Drama Theater, told me at a recent hearing, which she traveled from St. Petersburg to attend.
Serebrennikov’s supporters—as well as human-rights advocates—argue that the case against the director is a flimsy one and is instead an attempt to muzzle his art and, by extension, Russia’s cultural sector. For centuries, artists have informed Russian political thought, and today both those inside and outside the country mock its corrupt politicians and aggressive foreign policy in their rap lyrics, modern art, and theatrical performances. As fans of these artists have grown in number, the Kremlin has reacted in the only way it knows how: by cancelling concerts and searching studios.