At the beginning of August, five members of a gang accused of murdering 17 people during robberies on highways around the Moscow area were facing trial at Moscow Regional Court. While the five men were being escorted to the courtroom, they attacked their guards, seized their weapons and opened fire in the courthouse. Most likely this terrible episode could have been avoided had there been adequate security, but the five defendants were accompanied by only two armed guards.
There were no such incidents later in the month when Kirill S. Serebrennikov, a theater director, arrived in court for a hearing. The defendant, a young man in a baseball cap, was escorted into the courtroom by five armed special forces agents. If you were watching the scene, you might think Mr. Serebrennikov was an extremely dangerous criminal, rather than a theater director accused of embezzling more than $1 million of state money.
Mr. Serebrennikov’s arrest last month shocked the Russian public. Several hundred of the director’s supporters gathered outside the courthouse, and people are issuing statements of support, writing open letters and circulating petitions — one of which was signed by the actress Cate Blanchett.
The official version in the indictment raises many questions. One of the accusations prosecutors made during early hearings has to do with Mr. Serebrennikov’s staging of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” for which his theater received state culture funds. The prosecution contends that Mr. Serebrennikov failed to mount the production. When publicity posters for the show and newspaper reviews of it were presented as evidence in court, one of the prosecutors said that he does not believe what he reads in the papers.
Mr. Serebrennikov’s arrest seems less bizarre when put into context. In recent years, Russian officials have said that if an artist receives state funding, then he must do only what is in the state’s interest. Dmitri S. Peskov, a spokesman for President Vladimir V. Putin, put it plainly last year: “If the state gives money for a production, the state has the right to determine its theme.” The Russian state’s taste runs toward films, performances and exhibitions dedicated to the heroic past of the Russian Empire or the Soviet Union. Mr. Serebrennikov, as one of the leaders of the theatrical avant-garde, is like a fifth wheel in the new official cultural value system of Mr. Putin’s Russia.
In recent years, arrests in Russia have often given the impression of being politically motivated. But until now, cultural figures have been spared. Before Mr. Serebrennikov, the most famous theater director to be imprisoned was Vsevolod Meyerhold, who was arrested under orders from Stalin and shot in 1940 and to whom Mr. Serebrennikov is now being compared.
This might seem like an exaggeration — after all, Mr. Serebrennikov was put under house arrest, which is not quite the same as being shot to death. But the comparison seems apt if you take note that both Meyerhold and Mr. Serebrennikov were not necessarily dissidents or standard-bearers of artistic freedom.
During the early years of Soviet power, Meyerhold was the most important official theater director. He celebrated Communist power and even contributed to the repression of other directors. Five or 10 years ago, Mr. Serebrennikov, too, was in favor with the Russian authorities. He staged a play, “Almost Zero,” based on a novel reportedly by Vladislav Surkov, an aide to Mr. Putin. He also organized a Kremlin-supported arts festival called Territory. Five years ago, he became artistic director of the Gogol Center, a state theater. He really is more like Meyerhold than, say, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, or the other dissident artists who battled the Kremlin.
In May, when Mr. Serebrennikov’s theater was first searched, Yevgeny Mironov, the artistic director of Moscow’s Theater of Nations, presented Mr. Putin with a letter supporting Mr. Serebrennikov. This took place at a ceremony in the Kremlin, when the president was presenting awards to loyal figures in the arts, including Mr. Mironov. When he took the letter, Mr. Putin was heard saying, “Fools.” At the time, some thought the president was reproaching the investigators and prosecutors. Now it seems that the president had in mind people in the theater community who still believe that they can work with the Kremlin.
After Mr. Serebrennikov’s arrest, Ivan Vyrypaev, a well-known Russian playwright and director, wrote an open letter calling on his colleagues in the arts not to accept money or awards from the Kremlin, and not to publicly shake Mr. Putin’s hand. This appeal doesn’t seem to have gone very far. Marina Davydova, an influential theater critic who had organized a campaign in support of Mr. Serebrennikov, wrote on Facebook: “If the regime decides to support contemporary composers, new cinema and a festival that attracts the European theater elite, why should we not cooperate with such a regime?” — as though it were irrelevant that this same regime is engaged in a war of repression against its opponents.
This is the most unpleasant conclusion to draw from Mr. Serebrennikov’s situation. Even now, with the regime speaking to artists for the first time in the language of arrests and trials, there is practically no one in the Russian cultural community willing to stand up to the government. These artists have no desire for confrontation; they want to play a loyalist role that allows them relative freedom.
Until recently, Mr. Putin seemed inclined to replicate the approach to the arts that the Kremlin took in the 1970s. During that time, despite totalitarianism, Soviet film studios managed to produce the director Andrei Tarkovsky’s work, and Moscow theaters staged productions that fell outside official cultural policy. The situation now is not as harsh as it was during the Stalin years, but it is headed in that direction. Mr. Putin demands absolute loyalty.
Aleksei Uchitel, a film director who signed an appeal in 2014 supporting the annexation of Crimea, is now in trouble over his new film, “Matilda.” Putin loyalists in Parliament and some regional leaders, including Ramzan Kadyrov, are calling for the film to be banned because it depicts a love affair between Czar Nicholas II and the ballerina Matilda Kshesinskaya. The church considers the czar to be a saint, and a saint shouldn’t be portrayed as having affairs. Until now, Russian directors, actors and writers have not understood that as the authoritarian system continues to tighten its grip, they will face a choice: either become dissidents or agree to work under the regime’s direct control.
Oleg Kashin is the author of Fardwor, Russia! A Fantastical Tale of Life Under Putin. This essay was translated by Carol Apollonio from the Russian.