Russian investigators have arrested one of the country’s most prominent theatre directors for fraud, in a case that many in the arts world fear is part of a crackdown on dissenting voices.
Kirill Serebrennikov stands accused of embezzling 68m roubles (£900,000) of government funds. He was questioned by investigators on Tuesday and denied the allegations, Russian agencies reported.
The director will spend the night in prison and a court will decide on Wednesday whether he should be remanded in custody or put under house arrest.
Serebrennikov, known for his work on stage and screen, is the director of the Gogol Centre, a progressive, experimental theatre frequented by liberal Muscovites.
The theatre is known for contemporary productions that often deal directly with political or sexual themes rarely seen on stage in Moscow.
Serebrennikov was first detained by investigators in May and questioned as a witness in the fraud case. That led to an outpouring of support for him from the Moscow theatre world and protestations that the pressure was political.
However, the investigators did not stop there.
A number of Serebrennikov’s former colleagues were detained and, according to Russian media outlets, some have given evidence against him.
The director has previously described the case against him and his former colleagues as “absurd and schizophrenic”, and insisted that all the government money had been spent on theatre productions.
In one Facebook post, he referred to a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which was performed more than 15 times and nominated for awards. “Now the investigators tell us that it doesn’t exist and never did,” he wrote.
Sources in the Moscow theatre world said the allocation of state funds for theatres was a notoriously murky process, but they found it hard to believe the director could be guilty.
Serebrennikov revealed in an interview this month that his passport had been confiscated while the investigation continued.
A statement on the website of the Russian investigative committee on Tuesday morning announced that the director had been arrested for fraud.
He was detained in St Petersburg overnight and brought to Moscow to be charged.
Serebrennikov has had a difficult year, with an eagerly awaited premiere of a ballet about the dancer Rudolf Nureyev pulled from the Bolshoi theatre’s stage at the last minute in July.
Officially, the reason was because the performance was not ready, but there were rumours that the theatre had come under pressure to shelve the ballet owing to Serebrennikov’s reputation and the open portrayal of homosexual relationships in his production.
As well as opera, theatre and ballet, Serebrennikov has also directed films, and his 2016 movie The Student won accolades at the Cannes film festival.
Before the arrest he had been shooting a film about the 1980s Soviet singer Viktor Tsoi. “I was on set with him on Saturday in St Petersburg and he was in high spirits and enjoying himself,” said Michael Idov, who co-wrote the screenplay.
It is unclear whether the director will be able to finish work on the film or fulfil other artistic commitments.
He was due to direct an opera in Stuttgart, Germany, next month.
There was a fresh outpouring of support for Serebrennikov on Tuesday, as members of the art world reacted with horror to the arrest. Vladimir Urin, the director of the Bolshoi theatre, said Serebrennikov was a “gifted and talented man” and a “great artist”.
Shortly after the initial questioning of Serebrennikov in May, the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, was asked about the incident by an actor at a Kremlin reception.
He responded: “Fools”, apparently referring to the investigators.
This was seen by some as a sign from the Kremlin to stop the campaign against the director; instead, Russian authorities have intensified it.
“There was an implicit understanding that there are certain elite safe spaces where you can do the kind of things that Gogol Centre was doing,” said Idov. “However, this agreement seems to be fraying recently.”
The writer Boris Akunin wrote on Facebook that the arrest could not have happened without Putin’s approval, and said it signalled a “new stage of existence with new rules” in the country.