Russian stage and screen director Kirill Serebrennikov smashed taboos and revolutionised the Russian art scene in recent years

Moscow (AFP) - Acclaimed Russian director Kirill Serebrennikov insisted he “never stole anything” as he appeared in court Wednesday on embezzlement charges seen by his supporters as part of a crackdown on artistic independence.

The 49-year-old, who challenged social norms and revolutionised the Russian art scene in recent years, appeared in the first open hearing of his case after spending more than a year under house arrest.

“I can say that I don’t understand anything,” the head of Moscow’s Gogol Centre theatre said in Moscow’s Meshchansky district court.

“I never stole or embezzled anything,” he added, dressed in jeans, a T-shirt and a hat – all black – and purple sneakers.

The courtroom was packed with dozens of supporters as judge Irina Akkuratova opened the hearing.

Serebrennikov’s three co-defendants – Sofia Apfelbaum, Yuri Itin and Alexei Malobrodsky – were also in court.

The award-winning director is accused of embezzling more than $2 million of state funding for a theatre project. He has insisted the money was used properly.

- ‘Criminal group’ -

The prosecution claims that Serebrennikov and his co-defendants stole part of the funds allocated for the Platforma interdisciplinary modern art project between 2011 and 2014.

They are accused of signing fake contracts for “imaginary services” and then using the money “for their personal needs” while filing sham financial reports to the government.

Prosecutor Oleg Lavrov, speaking in court on Wednesday, alleged Serebrennikov coordinated the work of “a criminal group” and misled the culture ministry by providing “false information”.

Serebrennikov was arrested in August 2017 in Saint Petersburg, where he was shooting a film about a Soviet rock band, and brought to Moscow in a move that sent shivers through the Russian art community.

His high-profile trial began last month with a closed hearing.

The director’s supporters see his case as part of a growing clampdown on artistic freedoms under President Vladimir Putin and have staged multiple campaigns calling for the release of Serebrennikov.

Hollywood actress Cate Blanchett has been among those calling for the charges against him to be dropped.

The free-wheeling director has fallen foul of Russian conservatives for daring productions including a ballet about legendary gay dancer Rudolf Nureyev at the Bolshoi Theatre where he used a full-frontal nude of the icon by photographer Richard Avedon.

Nikita Mikhalkov, a powerful Oscar-winning film director who is believed to be close to Putin, has said Serebrennikov should not have been allowed to hang the picture in the country’s most important theatre.

Serebrennikov’s defence last month asked the judge to call as witnesses the 400 people involved in the Platforma project, but said the request was refused.

While under house arrest, Serebrennikov missed premieres of two of his major theatrical productions while continuing to work despite a ban on phone or internet usage.

Shooting and editing on his film “Leto” (Summer), about the Kino rock band and its legendary frontman Viktor Tsoi, had to be completed without him. It was given a standing ovation in Cannes before it was even shown at the film festival.

- ‘Soviet practices’ -

He managed to produce the opera “Cosi Fan Tutte”, which premiered in Zurich on Sunday, by recording videos with instructions on memory sticks which were then sent to Switzerland, and received rehearsal recordings back.

Last week, Serebrennikov was nominated in three different categories for Russia’s prestigious Golden Mask theatre award, with both of his 2017 theatrical premieres up for prizes.

One was a modern take on a collection of small plays by Alexander Pushkin called “Little Tragedies” at the Gogol Centre theatre, the other was the acclaimed production of “Nureyev”.

In recent years, he has criticised growing censorship of the arts in Russia, warning that “everything is returning to the most pathetic Soviet practices”.