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This article first appeared in the 29 January 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The seven per cent problem

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Serebrennikov's arrest is another step in the erosion of Russia's cultural freedom

The detained director is widely known for challenging more conservative forms of theatre.

“The play opens amid scenery which has already become, it seems, painfully familiar: a room with official furniture and a cage, to which they lead a man in handcuffs.” Thus reads a RIA Novosti review of Russian director Kirill Serebrennikov’s staging of Lars Von Trier’s The Idiots in Moscow in 2013.

On Wednesday, it was the 47-year-old Kirill Serebrennikov who was led to the cage in handcuffs. Crowds gathered outside chanting “Kirill, Kirill” and “freedom” as he took the stand in a Moscow courtroom after being detained on suspicion of embezzling 68 million roubles (£900,000) of government funds, according to reporters at the scene.

Serebrennikov was placed under house arrest until 19 October awaiting trial. If found guilty, he could face up to ten years in jail. The investigation alleged that house arrest was necessary as Serebrennikov has a Latvian residence permit and real estate abroad. However, authorities had already confiscated his passport at the beginning of August, the director said. Travel abroad would be impossible.

The investigation into Serebrennikov reflects the incremental – yet cumulatively extremely effective –  erosion of freedom of expression that has pervaded Russian cultural politics in recent years. Russia’s legal system implicates vast swathes of its residents, and some have suggested that the processes involved in securing funding for the theatre are near-impossible to navigate.

“The laws governing Russian theater financing are so arcane and contradictory that even a mathematical genius could not run a theater and abide by the law,” theatre critic John Freedman wrote in The Moscow Times in June, as the case started to develop. The investigation is also an example to others who continue to challenge the status quo; locals have spoken of “an atmosphere of fear and hysteria” among (what’s left of) the country’s leading liberal cultural figures.

Serebrennikov was initially remanded on Tuesday by the Russian Investigative Committee’s special investigations department. He has himself previously been critical of artistic censorship and called the accusations against him “absurd”. Supporters are now beginning to draw parallels with Stalinist-era crackdowns.

“Director Meyerhold was not arrested by the NKVD, but by Stalin. Director Serebrennikov was not arrested by the Investigative Committee, he was arrested by Putin,” renowned author Boris Akunin wrote in a public Facebook post on Tuesday. “Russia has moved into a new state of existence with new rules.”

Other key cultural figures have stood by Serebrennikov to support freedom of expression and grimly reflect on present-day realities. Writer and director Viktor Shenderovich told television station Telekanal Dozhd (TV Rain) that even global fame cannot “save you from the interests of a repressive state if it decides that it is in its interests to put you on the ground face down.”

Thousands of people signed a petition demanding his liberation. “Artists should have the right to express their opinion freely. That is guaranteed by our country’s Constitution,” the letter signed by more than 14,300 people as of midday on Wednesday said.

The case, in theory, revolves around funding awarded to a theatre project known as Platform between 2011 and 2014. Three other former colleagues of the director were also detained in connection with the case. However, Serebrennikov’s supporters believe there is more to the story.

Serebrennikov is widely known in Russia for challenging more conservative forms of theatre. He is the head of the Gogol Centre – one of Russia’s more avant-garde institutions. It was here that The Idiots was staged. His originality and talent is widely hailed on the Moscow theatre scene.

At the beginning of July, Serebrennikov’s staging of a ballet exploring the life and work of gay or bisexual ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev was postponed. The ballet, according to the New York Times, explored homosexuality in Nureyev’s art and his battle with AIDS, which killed him in 1993.

In a subsequent press conference, the Bolshoi confirmed the postponement of the ballet, with the theatre’s director general Vladimir Urin saying “the ballet was not good” and that he and others were “very depressed” by what they saw. Urin did not state that the homosexual themes played any part in the decisio,n.

On 7 August, Serebrennikov told German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung that his passport had been seized by authorities. At the same time, he said Urin had contacted him to say that Nureyev would be shown in December this year.