oDR: Opinion

The Kirill Serebrennikov trial gives us a glimpse of a dark future for Russian culture

We know that after any tragedy it’s possible to go on living as if nothing has happened. It’s the same after the sentence was handed down today in the Seventh Studio investigation – a high-profile trial into Russian theatre-makers. But to do this, you’ll need to be particularly good at self-deception.

Mikhail Kaluzhsky
26 June 2020
(c) Annette Riedl/DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved

The trial of the Seventh Studio case is over - and perhaps with an unexpected result: suspended sentences and fines for the defendants. We’re now in a situation where a suspended sentence seems like a win for common sense and justice.

Everyone who has followed this case knows what’s happened over the past three years of persecution, house arrest and investigative detention. The investigation and judge has pressured witnesses, engaged in outright lying and manipulation of documents. The people who found themselves in the dock – director Kirill Serebrennikov, director of the Russian Academic Youth Theatre Sofiya Apfelbaum, Gogol Center director Alexey Malobrodsky and Seventh Studio general director Yuri Itin – did not engage in a conspiracy to defraud or consciously commit a crime. Yes, there were accounting violations in Seventh Studio’s books. But Russia’s legislation governing cultural institutions is written in such a way that it’s very easy to break it, even without any intention.

Russia’s Ministry of Culture is formally considered an aggrieved party in the Seventh Studio trial. But if we want to talk about accounting violations, then the ministry is no less responsible – the ministry as an institution, not its former employee Sofiya Apfelbaum.

The issue isn’t even the fact that the Ministry of Culture suddenly realised it had been done wrong three years after the Platform project ended. Or the fact that the Seventh Studio investigation began while the ministry was run by Vladimir Medinsky – a supporter of conservative values and realism who doesn’t hide his distaste for artistic experiment. The issue is that Russia’s monstruous state apparatus – in this case, the Ministry of Culture – is organised in such a way that any interaction with it is, in fact, potentially dangerous. Simply because the “rules of the game” can change at any moment. From the point of view of management, this could be inefficient. But in terms of the everyday, it’s constant risk. “First they give you a form to fill out. You fill it out, and then it turns out you’re guilty of filling it out,” Sofia Apfelbaum said in court.

The non-state sector in Russian culture is neither particularly big, nor particularly strong. Practically all major events are to a lesser or greater extent funded by the state. Everyone who works in Russian theatre or music is at risk of violating something. But the risks are particularly high for those who decide to engage in experiments – an important lesson that the Ministry of Culture and Moscow’s Meshchansky district court have taught artists. The soulless yet inventive state has a universal method of punishing anyone who turns out to be undesirable, no matter why.

This is the point where the question “Is this a political trial or a financial one?” becomes rather beside the point. It’s a show trial. A court case where the authorities flex their muscles and demonstrate to everyone – loyalists and opponents alike - their limitless capacity for violence, just as numerous groups - from anarchists to Jehovah’s Witnesses - have discovered over the past year.

And this is what’s truly frightening. The authorities are openly saying: you don’t have to be a dissident in order to be punished. You can be a European celebrity like Kirill Serebrennikov, but it doesn’t matter. Like many artists, you can want to create freely in accordance with the law, but you’ll never know how the law will change. Or how the state’s idea of what’s good and what’s bad for culture can change radically overnight.

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August 2017: the Seventh Studio trial begins in Moscow | CC BY NC 2.0 Vladimir Varfolomeev / Flickr. Some rights reserved.

In his final address to the court, Kirill Serebrennikov talked about how he proposed the Platform project to now former president Dmitry Medvedev – and how he thought that Medvedev’s focus on “modernisation” and “innovation” could give young and talented people a chance at self-realisation in his own country. The natural desire of a director, theatre-maker – and a citizen – to see something good in a state initiative. Who could have predicted that just a few years later “innovation” would become close to a swear word when discussing art in Russia? Attempting to make relevant art part of the cultural mainstream becomes a subversive act – both because Russia’s new cultural politics doesn’t “need” novelty, and because there are few means of making it happen. Serebrennikov and Seventh Studio tried to do this, and unavoidably broke the rules.

Before Judge Olesya Mendeleyeva had finished reading the sentence, Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s press secretary, and culture minister Olga Lyubimova had both called the case a precedent. They both talked about how the investigation was a chance to change the existing rules of managing and financing cultural projects. Lyubimova, for example, called situations where “an artist and creator has to come into contact with money, accounting forms” a “tragedy”. This is the future that Russian culture should be concerned about – theatres where the main decision makers are public officials, not artistic leaders. The books, it seems, will be more important than an artistic gesture. And this is the main threat to aesthetic freedom that Russian theatre can be proud of. State reformers understand all too well that demands for political freedoms often follow artistic freedom.

In any case, the new relationship between artists and the culture ministry will not be limited to a scheme of “client and performer”. The situation after this case once again raises the question of professional solidarity. Almost 4,000 Russian artists, mostly from the theatre world, signed an open letter last week to culture minister Lyubimova, requesting that she read the results of the forensic accounting expertise in the Seventh Studio case and revoke the ministry’s suit. Naturally, the ministry responded with a standard phrase about its inability to interfere in the work of an independent court.

Today, the tragedy in Russia is that in the search for justice you have to appeal to those who aren’t interested in it. Serebrennikov and his colleagues are free, but the political system is so opaque that it’s impossible to understand how effective collective or individual appeals to the authorities are.

But what other forms of public solidarity are possible? And how do you demonstrate solidarity in a country where theatremakers are accused of embezzling funds, and Jehovah’s Witnesses of praying to the wrong god?

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