Censorship and Insensibility: A Brief Update on the State of Free Expression in Russia


If we view freedom of expression through the performing, fine, and literary arts as a litmus test for a fair and free society, the extended house arrest of Russian Theatre director Kirill S. Serebrennikov becomes further indication that the Russian government is once again circling around a harsher and more direct form of arts censorship.

Serebrennikov is the artistic director of the Gogol Center, one of Moscow’s foremost avant-garde arts institution, as well as the director of dance company Seventh Studio.

According to a January 16 article by the New York Times, Serebrennikov is “accused of embezzling government funds that had been allocated for one of his theatrical projects” in the amount of $2.3m. In May 2017, law enforcement agencies raided Serebrinnikov’s apartment, as well as the Gogol Center, as part of the investigation. Serebrennikov was known as a critic of the Russian government, speaking out in favor of LGBT rights as well as the Russian annexation of Crimea, so it is believed by the arts community that the embezzlement charge is part of a larger political gesture against dissent through the arts. He has not yet been charged, and will remain under house arrest until his trial in March.

In 2014, The Play Company relayed news of the sudden shutdown of influential theater Teatr.doc. In their comprehensive 2016 report “Discourse in Danger: Attacks on Free Expression in Putin’s Russia”, PEN America references this event, calling it an attack on the cultural spaces of the “vital organs of Russia’s rich intellectual and artistic history.” Within the past few years, the state has also gone to great lengths to censor productions at the Bolshoi, the publishing of children’s literature, and the unregulated use of online media in general.

In particular, violence against journalists and independent media figures in Russia and surrounding countries has made headlines frequently in recent years, including the 2006 murder of award-winning journalist Anna Politkovskaya, the 2009 murder of Natalya Estemirova, and the more recent attack on radio reporter Tatyana Felgenhauer\ last October. This has led to what many Russian advocates, artists, and journalists consider an impulse towards self-censorship as many weigh their freedom of expression against their ability to continue moving about their daily lives.

For updates on Serebrennikov’s case, you can follow PEN America’s coverage here.