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In Russia, A Jewish Director’s Trial Marks A New Threat To Freedom

At the Cannes International Film Festival in May, Kirill Serebrennikov was everywhere.

His nametag on a table at a press conference. His film “Leto” mentioned as a top contender for the Palme d’Or. His eyes looking out from square-frame glasses, printed on a paper bag the actress Franziska Petri wore over her head. On a red carpet know for its rigid, gendered dress code, Petri’s outfit was remarkable; in addition to the bag, she wore a T-shirt reading “I have to stay at home.”

Because despite the many markers of Serebrennikov’s presence at Cannes, that was exactly where he was: At home in Moscow, under house arrest.

Actress Franziska Petri, wearing a paper bag with Kirill Serebrennikov’s face on it, at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. Image by Matthias Nareyek/Getty Images

Now Serebrennikov, one of Russia’s most renowned directors and a vocal opponent of President Putin, is on trial for financial fraud. That trial, in which initial hearings against Serebrennikov and his three co-defendants were held on November 7, is widely seen as a referendum not on Serebrennikov’s financial dealings but rather on the limits of artistic freedom in an increasingly authoritarian Russia.

Serebrennikov, whose father was Jewish, faces up to ten years in prison. Human rights observers worry that the charges against him mark an escalation in the Kremlin’s crackdown on artistic expression. “We’re seeing that a lot of dissident voices are prosecuted, and Kirill is one of them,” said Julie Trebault, director of PEN America’s Artists-at-Risk program. “Kirill has been an activist and government critic, making him a target of repression.” (PEN America, a branch of the human rights organization PEN International, has been advocating for Serebrennikov since his August 2017 arrest.)

For observers from abroad, it can be hard to make sense of the particular issues at stake in Serebrennikov’s trial. Here’s how to understand what comes next.

What are the charges?

Serebrennikov’s troubles began in May 2017, when both his Moscow apartment and the Gogol Center, of which he is the artistic director, were raided by investigators as part of what was billed as a corruption investigation. Following the raids, the investigators stated that they were looking into the fate of state funds awarded to the theater company Studio Seven between 2011 and 2014. At the time, Serebrennikov had been in charge of that company.

By 2017, Serebrennikov had gained a reputation for being a strong critic of Putin. Particularly outspoken on issues of LGBT rights, at the time of the May raids he was preparing to debut a ballet based on the life of the gay ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev, a defector from the Soviet Union, with Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet. In a year the Russian journalist Masha Gessen would eventually sum up in an article headlined “The Year Russian L.G.B.T. Persecution Defied Belief,” Serebrennikov got Richard Avedon’s nude portrait of Nureyev projected onto the most prominent stage in Moscow. But while the ballet debuted after Serebrennikov’s eventual arrest, its focus on a dissident queer artist has made it central to speculation that Russia’s case against Serebrennikov is in fact an attempt at censorship.

In August 2017, Serebrennikov was detained in St. Petersburg and charged with embezzling 68 million rubles of state funds, or just over $1 million. One of the government’s charges was that Serebrennikov and his collaborators, who were arrested before him, had taken funds to produce a version of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” but never produced it.

Serebrennikov and his collaborators — Yury Itin and Aleksei Malobrodsky, both producers, and a former Culture Ministry employee named Sofia Apfelbaum — deny the charge. In their defense, they have provided authorities with posters for the production, as well as media reviews of it. They also sent out social media solicitations for audiences to share their memories of the show. But prosecutors were unconvinced.

More broadly, the government alleged that Serebrennikov and his peers, as organizers of the popular, long-running arts festival called Platform, embezzled money for the festival from the Ministry of Culture by, among other things, submitting inflated invoices.

Overall, the group is accused of embezzling 133 million rubles, or roughly $2 million.

In court, Serebrennikov is being represented by Dmitri Kharitonov, who previously represented the family of Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian accountant and whistleblower whose 2009 death in police custody eventually led to American sanctions. Testifying on November 7, Serebrennikov spoke for nearly an hour, claiming that government funding for the Platform festival was unreliable, and that he and his peers often patched gaps with their personal funds.

“I have never stolen anything from anybody and have never organized any gang apart from a theater group,” he said.

What does this have to do with artistic freedom in Russia?

Tatyana Beschastna, author of a 2013 Emory International Law Review article on Russia’s increasingly restrictive response to government criticism, says that Serebrennikov’s trial is part of an ongoing trend in Russia.

“His arrest is being used to send a message that any… artistic figure engaged in any form of artistic expression contrary to the Putin ideology could be next in line,” Beschastna wrote in an email. Trebault dated the beginning of the crackdown on freedom of expression to 2012, when Putin re-entered the presidency after four years as prime minister, an event that was greeted by mass protests.

According to a 2016 PEN America report, while efforts to restrict free expression are not new in contemporary Russia, they are somewhat new as applied in the cultural sphere. “In its efforts to control cultural and intellectual spaces,” the report notes, “the government also can use quasi-legal means such as limiting funding or increasing direct oversight to bring independent institutions, many of which are publicly funded, into line.”

Yet Beschastna noted that state financial pressure may be a less effective tool of censorship than the PEN report suggests. “Financial control or oppression is less effective in Russia than in the past,” she wrote. “With the opening up of trade, and a capitalistic Russian economy, many artists are able to turn to private funding, including Western funding sources.”

That doesn’t mean that artists are safer than before, she warned, only that the government will turn to new methods to try and exert control over their work. “The threat of serving a prison sentence holds more weight than the withholding of funds,” she said.

Serebrennikov’s trial follows closely on the heels of the end of a prison hunger strike by Oleg Sentsov, a Ukrainian filmmaker serving a 20-year sentence. While Sentsov was found to be guilty on charges of terrorism in 2014, Trebault said his conviction appeared to have more to do with him “targeting propaganda against state terrorism.” Sentsov’s arrest followed his activism against Putin during Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, and his conviction was based largely on eyewitness testimony that was later retracted.

Sentsov, whom international observers believe was forced to end his 145-day hunger strike before winning concessions, began his protest as a means of advocating not only for his freedom but also that, in his words, of “all Ukrainian political prisoners.” His case attracted international concern, and its prominence brought new attention to Serebrennikov’s house arrest and trial. But Trebault said that attention may not help Serebrennikov’s cause. “I kind of hope that the Russian government [will be] less dismissive of this type of case now,” she said. But “when they have someone as prominent as [Serebrennikov], they tend not to stop.”

What are the potential consequences?

If convicted, Serebrennikov faces a sentence of up to ten years in prison. But the consequences of his trial’s outcome could be even more long-lasting.

As Trebault and Beschastna both pointed out, the most prolonged effect of Russia’s prosecution of dissident artists is likely to be one of self-censorship, especially as Putin’s government is not the only powerful Russian institution to engage in such efforts. “The Orthodox Church is playing a big part,” said Trebault.

While PEN and others are advocating for artists like Serebrennikov and Sentsov in the international arena, Beschastna noted their efforts are unlikely to have much effect. Russia, she said, “is acting with near impunity within its own borders.” She added that external efforts to influence Russia’s behavior might unintentionally aid Putin’s cause by redirecting global focus. “Russia is likely to gamble that further suppression on freedom of expression will have comparatively little world attention and will be unlikely to cause tighter sanctions,” she said.

There’s also a potential adverse impact for artists, she said, noting that a seemingly arbitrary show of leniency could make them feel more rather than less uncertain about their standing.

“With no clear guidelines as to what is considered a transgression, artists throughout Russia are left with uncertainty, which is arguably worse than when a clear line in the sand is drawn,” she said.

“The message becomes clear: Who’s next?”

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