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 freedom.

The 49-year-old, who has challenged social norms and modernised the Russian art scene, made the remarks at his first open hearing in Moscow’s Meshchansky court after spending more than a year under house arrest.

The artistic director of the Gogol Centre theatre said he did not understand the meaning of the prosecution’s indictment, which he compared to a “broken printer” that repeats “absurd” claims over and over.

“I never stole or embezzled anything,” he said, sporting his trademark black hat and purple sneakers.

“I have not and do not consider myself guilty,” he told the court, adding he had never been involved in financial matters.

The court was packed with dozens of supporters including award-winning film director Andrei Zvyagintsev, writer Lyudmila Ulitskaya and actress Kseniya Rappoport.

Some wore t-shirts with the faces of Serebrennikov and his three co-defendants Sofia Apfelbaum, Yuri Itin and Alexei Malobrodsky, who also came from their house arrests to a trial set to continue for weeks at least.

In recent years, Serebrennikov criticised growing censorship of the arts in Russia, warning that "everything is returning to the most pathetic Soviet practices"

The director is accused of creating an organised criminal group with his colleagues, embezzling more than $2 million (1.75 million euros) of state funding for a theatre project called Platforma.

He has insisted the money was used properly after the project was backed by the Kremlin in 2011.

The director’s supporters see his case as part of a growing clampdown on artistic independence under President Vladimir Putin.

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

Serebrennikov had been a critic of growing censorship of the arts in Russia, warning that “everything is returning to the most pathetic Soviet practices” and Gogol Centre had been a target of smear attacks prior to the case.

- ‘Destroying intelligentsia’ -

“This trial is aimed at destroying the authority of the creative intelligentsia,” Russian actress Julia Aug wrote on Facebook ahead of the hearing.

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

Russian and European actors have staged multiple campaigns calling for Serebrennikov's release

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 on Wednesday alleged Serebrennikov coordinated the “criminal group” and misled the culture ministry by providing “false information”.

But Serebrennikov told the court that government funding was “always late”, forcing him and others to inject cash into the project which was then returned.

He said he did not know if these transactions went through an accountant but insisted that Platforma made every production that was planned and said the project was audited multiple times by the government without problems.

Oscar-nominated film director Andrei Zvyagintsev said that he did not believe “one word of the prosecutor”.

The way Serebrennikov handled the Platforma project is typical of the workings of the cultural sphere in Russia, Zvyagintsev told AFP outside the courtroom.

“It is clear to me that he is innocent and that truth is on his side,” he said.

Wednesday’s hearing lasted for more than five hours and was adjourned until Thursday.

- Working under house arrest -

The free-wheeling director has fallen foul of Russian conservatives, with culture minister Vladimir Medinsky known to dislike his daring interpretations of Russian classics.

His ballet “Nureyev” was delayed by months for mysterious reasons, and reports claimed the minister found the production too controversial, particularly for hanging a nude portrait of the legendary dancer as part of the set.

However the ballet eventually premiered in the Bolshoi theatre, with the audience including several government officials and even Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov.

Serebrennikov has continued to work even under house arrest: his movie “Leto” (Summer) about legendary Soviet rocker Viktor Tsoi, was completed without his physical presence after he was arrested during filming in St. Petersburg.

He also 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.

The international cast of the opera came out for the curtain call wearing “Free Kirill” T-shirts.

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.