Star Russian director says ‘never stole anything’ at Moscow trial

Russian film and theatre director Kirill Serebrennikov, who was accused of embezzling state funds, looks on before a court hearing in Moscow November 7, 2018. — Reuters pic
Russian film and theatre director Kirill Serebrennikov, who was accused of embezzling state funds, looks on before a court hearing in Moscow November 7, 2018. — Reuters pic

MOSCOW, Nov 7 — Acclaimed Russian director Kirill Serebrennikov insisted he “never stole anything” as he appeared in court today on embezzlement charges seen by his supporters as part of a crackdown on artistic freedom.

The 49-year-old, who challenged social norms and revolutionised the Russian art scene in recent years, appeared in the first open hearing of his case after spending more than a year under house arrest.

“I can say that I don’t understand anything,” the head of the Gogol Centre theatre said in Moscow’s Meshchansky district court, calling the charges “absurd”.

“I never stole or embezzled anything,” he said, dressed in jeans, a T-shirt and a hat—all black—and purple sneakers.

The courtroom was packed with dozens of supporters including prominent writer Lyudmila Ulitskaya and actress Kseniya Rappoport.

Serebrennikov’s three co-defendants—Sofia Apfelbaum, Yuri Itin and Alexei Malobrodsky—were also in court.

The award-winning director is accused of embezzling more than US$2 million (RM8.31 million) of state funding for a theatre project. He has insisted the money was used properly.

The director’s supporters see his case as part of a growing clampdown on artistic independence under President Vladimir Putin.

Hollywood actress Cate Blanchett has been among those calling for the charges against him to be dropped.

In recent years, Serebrennikov criticised growing censorship of the arts in Russia, warning that “everything is returning to the most pathetic Soviet practices”.

Russian and European actors have staged multiple campaigns calling for his release, wearing “Free Kirill” T-shirts from Avignon to Zurich.

Serebrennikov was arrested in August 2017 in Saint Petersburg, where he was shooting a film about a Soviet rock band, and brought to Moscow, in a move that sent shivers through the Russian arts community.

Destroying intelligentsia’

Russian actress Julia Aug said the case would go down in history.

“This trial is aimed at destroying the authority of the creative intelligentsia,” she wrote on Facebook yesterday.

The prosecution claims that Serebrennikov and his co-defendants stole part of the funds allocated for the Platforma interdisciplinary modern art project between 2011 and 2014.

They are accused of signing fake contracts for “imaginary services” and then using the money “for their personal needs” while filing sham financial reports to the government.

Prosecutor Oleg Lavrov, speaking in court on Wednesday, alleged Serebrennikov coordinated the work of “a criminal group” and misled the culture ministry by providing “false information”.

During the hearing other defendants including Malobrodsky also said the charges were not clear to them.

“I don’t understand what I’ve done and whose trust I have betrayed,” said Malobrodsky, the former director of the Gogol Centre.

The high-profile trial began last month with a closed hearing.

Working under house arrest

The free-wheeling director has fallen foul of Russian conservatives for a daring ballet about Rudolf Nureyev at the Bolshoi Theatre, where he used a full-frontal nude of the legendary gay dancer by photographer Richard Avedon.

Nikita Mikhalkov, a powerful Oscar-winning film director who is close to Putin, has said Serebrennikov should not have been allowed to hang the picture in the country’s most important theatre.

Serebrennikov’s defence last month asked the judge to call as witnesses the 400 people involved in the Platforma project, but said the request was refused.

While under house arrest, Serebrennikov missed premieres of two of his major theatrical productions while continuing to work despite a ban on phone or internet usage.

Shooting and editing on his film Leto (Summer), about the Kino rock band and its legendary frontman Viktor Tsoi, had to be completed without him. It was given a standing ovation in Cannes in May before it was even shown at the film festival.

He managed to produce the opera Cosi Fan Tutte, which premiered in Zurich on Sunday, by recording videos with instructions on memory sticks which were then sent to Switzerland, and received rehearsal recordings back.

Last week, Serebrennikov was nominated in three different categories for Russia’s prestigious Golden Mask theatre award, with both of his 2017 theatrical premieres up for prizes.

One was a modern take on a collection of small plays by Alexander Pushkin called Little Tragedies at the Gogol Centre theatre, the other was the acclaimed production of “Nureyev”. — AFP

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