Twin police raids on one of Moscow’s most respected theatres and the home of its artistic director this week have sparked fears of an official crackdown on the Russian performing arts.
Russian actors appealed to President Vladimir Putin to intervene after law enforcers targeted Kirill Serebrennikov, the arts director of the Gogol Centre in a criminal case involving the alleged theft of millions of rubles of state funds.
Many observers believe that Mr Serebrennikov, who is renowned for his innovative work in the cinema and theatre, is being punished by the authorities for criticising Kremlin policies and refusing to bow to creeping state censorship of the arts.
Masked police and secret service agents swarmed into the Gogol Centre without explanation on Tuesday corralling theatre staff into a rehearsal hall and confiscating their mobile phones.
A few kilometres away police were already rifling through the apartment of Mr Serebrennikov in a six-hour search that ended when the director, complaining of being “shocked and bewildered” was taken away by law enforcers for questioning.
A large crowd gathered outside the the Gogol Centre on Tuesday evening to show their support for the theatre as actors, in a show of defiance, decided to go ahead with the planned evening performance.
Russia’s Investigative Committee said the police raids were linked to an investigation of the suspected theft of 200 million roubles (€3.16 million) awarded by the city government to Seventh Studio, an experimental drama group founded by Mr Serebrennikov in 2012.
Police have arrested two suspects including the former general director and the chief accountant of Seventh Studio. Mr Serebrennikov, who was released on Tuesday evening after signing a gagging order agreeing not to reveal details of the investigation, is being regarded as a witness in the case.
Mr Putin's press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, urged reporters not to politicise the raids on the Gogol Centre, saying the Kremlin had no hand in the matter.
That prompted Vladimir Urin, the head of the Bolshoi Theatre, to lead a group of directors and actors writing to Mr Putin to demand a fair and objective investigation of the Seventh Studio case.
Yevgeny Mironov, the artistic director at Moscow's Theatre of Nations, took matters a step further when he was invited to the Kremlin to receive an award for his work on Thursday. As the champagne was flowing after the ceremony, Mr Mironov accosted the Russian president demanding to know why law enforcers had taken such extreme measures against Mr Serebrennikov.
Appointed as artistic director of the Gogol Centre in 2012, Mr Serebrennikov brought a new vigour to one of Moscow’s most respected yet slightly stuffy theatrical institutions with cutting edge, provocative productions.
But Mr Serebrennikov has made enemies along the way. Fiercely patriotic pro-Kremlin groups detected amorality and slander in his work and loathed the Gogol Centre’s bold interpretations of Russian classical literature.
Mr Serebrennikov's film The Student, tracing the story of a troubled schoolboy who becomes a religious fanatic, won a prize at the Cannes Film Festival last year, but offended some Russian Christian Orthodox believers.
Then there were arguments with Vladimir Medinsky, the highly conservative Russian cultural minister, who considers state funding for art that conflicts with traditional values a waste of taxpayers' money. Mr Medinsky's declared policy "to water only the useful flowers," was seen at the Gogol Centre as state censorship in disguise.
Many political commentators believe it will not be long before Mr Serebrennikov loses his job at the Gogol Centre and the theatre that flags itself as “a place of freedom” on its website, will become a symbol of latent official repression of the arts.
"Minister of culture Medinsky has been trying to replace Serebrennikov with someone else for a long time," Stanislav Belkovsky, a Russian political commentator, wrote on the Open Russia website this week. "We'll soon find out who that is."
The authorities’ attack on Mr Serebrennikov is part of an alarming trend in Russia where the “theatre is becoming one of the main battlegrounds between the state and national cultural institutions,” Svobodnoe Slovo (Free Speech) a Russian literary rights group warned this week.
“All of the theatre directors who have experienced repressive measures are known for their social and political criticism.”