Russian theater director detained in embezzlement case

In this photo taken on Tuesday, June 27, 2017, Kirill Serebrennikov, one of Russia's most venerated theater and film directors leads a rehearsal in the Bolshoi Theater, in Moscow, Russia. In a statement Tuesday Aug. 22, 2017, Russia's top investigative body says it has detained Serebrennikov and is pressing charges against him of embezzling 68 million rubles (US dlrs 1.1 million) of government funds that were earmarked for a production at his theater. (AP Photo/Damir Yusupov)
In this photo taken on Tuesday, June 27, 2017, Kirill Serebrennikov, center, one of Russia's most venerated theater and film directors leads a rehearsal in the Bolshoi Theater, in Moscow, Russia. In a statement Tuesday Aug. 22, 2017, Russia's top investigative body says it has detained Serebrennikov and is pressing charges against him of embezzling 68 million rubles (US dlrs 1.1 million) of government funds that were earmarked for a production at his theater. (AP Photo/Damir Yusupov)

MOSCOW — In a blow to Russia's contemporary arts scene, investigators on Tuesday detained one of the country's most prominent directors and are pressing embezzlement charges against him.

Kirill Serebrennikov, known for bold productions that poke fun at Russia's growing social conservatism, is one of Russia's most venerated theater and film directors whose work spans from drama to opera. His movie, "The Student," won the Francois Chalais prize at the Cannes film festival last year.

Serebrennikov is suspected of embezzling 68 million rubles ($1.1 million) of government funds that were earmarked for a production at his theater, the Investigative Committee, which looks into high-profile crimes, said in a statement.

The RIA Novosti news agency on Tuesday quoted Serebrennikov's lawyer Dmitry Kharitonov as saying that his client was detained in St. Petersburg where he was shooting a movie about a Soviet rock star and escorted to Moscow.

The 47-year-old director was briefly detained and questioned in May but the investigators stopped short of saying they suspect he was involved. The theater's accountant and one senior manager are in custody and another manager is under house arrest pending the probe. Russia media reported earlier this month that the accountant had testified against the director.

Serebrennikov has denied any wrongdoing. His supporters have dismissed the investigation as payback from the Kremlin's conservative circles for his pithy satire of Russian officialdom.

Serebrennikov's productions have been sold out for years. While he was known to enjoy support and protection of liberal-leaning government officials, he has often been the target of conservative activists and politicians.

In July, the legendary Bolshoi Theater canceled a much anticipated ballet directed by Serebrennikov just three days before the opening night, a development that got many in Moscow's art scene to speak of a return to censorship. The Bolshoi denied reports that the show had been scrapped because of its frank portrayal of the protagonist dancer's gay relationships.

The detention of one of Russia's most sought-after directors has shocked the art community.

Film director Pavel Lungin compared Russia's law enforcement agencies to a "Biblical beast" and said on Ekho Moskvy radio station that arresting Serebrennikov doesn't make sense "because he isn't a dangerous criminal."

A court is expected to rule within the next 48 hours whether to keep Serebrennikov in custody or not.

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