Prominent Russian theater director put under house arrest

A Moscow court put a widely revered theater director under house arrest Wednesday on charges of embezzling $1.1 million, in a case widely seen as part of ongoing crackdown on freedom of expression in Russia.

Kirill Serebrennikov, whose productions spanned from drama to opera to movies, has won broad acclaim for biting satire mocking official lies, corruption and a growing hard-line streak in Russian society.

Moscow’s Basmanny Court heeded the investigators’ request to put Serebrennikov under house arrest for almost two months.

The 47-year-old director was detained Tuesday in St. Petersburg where he was shooting a movie. He was driven to Moscow and put in jail later in the day.

His detention, widely seen as the continuation of official efforts to stifle dissent, has shaken the arts scene and outraged the country’s liberal circles.

The Investigative Committee, Russia’s top investigative agency, accused Serebrennikov of staging a scheme to embezzle 68 million rubles (about $1.1 million) in government funds allocated for his productions in 2011-2014.

Speaking in court, Serebrennikov rejected the charges, saying that the state funds were used to finance “big and bright” shows that spawned young talents.

The judge rejected Serebrennikov’s plea to keep him free and his lawyer’s offer to provide bail equaling the sum he was accused of embezzling.

Some of Russia’s leading cultural figures backed Serebrennikov.

In a speech to court, Irina Prokhorova, a sister of Mikhail Prokhorov, a billionaire Russian tycoon who owns the Brooklyn Nets basketball team, hailed Serebrennikov as “the pride of Russia” and pledged to provide any bail the court ordered.

Outside the hearing, several hundred of his supporters rallied outside, shouting Serebrennikov’s name and chanting “Freedom!”

Serebrennikov was briefly detained and questioned in May, but investigators then stopped short of pressing charges. The theater’s accountant and one senior manager have remained in custody while another manager is under house arrest pending the probe.

Serebrennikov’s productions have topped Moscow’s theater scene for years. In September, he was to direct an opera production in Stuttgart, Germany. His movie “The Student” won the Francois Chalais prize at the Cannes film festival last year.

While Serebrennikov had personal contacts with some members of the Russian government and his theater received lavish state funding, he also faced frequent attacks by hard-line politicians and conservative activists who demanded to halt the state subsidies for his productions.

In July, Moscow’s famed Bolshoi Theater canceled a much-anticipated ballet directed by Serebrennikov just three days before the opening night, prompting many in Moscow’s art scene to speak of a return to censorship.

The Bolshoi denied reports that the show about dancer Rudolf Nureyev had been scrapped because of its frank description of his gay relationships, a taboo under a strict Russian law banning gay propaganda.