The suspended sentences handed down last week in the embezzlement trial of theater and film director Kirill Serebrennikov and his colleagues illustrate perfectly the deep schism within both Russian society and its ruling class. The main aim of the trial and the sentences was to put an end to state funding for subversive elements once and for all.

For critics of the director and his theater studio, the true crime was not the dubious embezzlement case against him, but the mere fact of state subsidies for contemporary art. Such subsidies are viewed by their detractors as embezzlement in themselves, and the fact that they were available is proof that the state system isn’t working properly and must be mended. People have been getting away with too much.

Modern Russia inherited from Soviet times an exaggerated importance attributed to artists and cultural figures. Since the Soviet Union lacked certain elements of the social structure, such as a bourgeoisie, aristocracy, public religious leaders, independent journalists, and rival politicians, those roles were performed by writers, artists, actors, and directors. There was no criticism at a political level, but it certainly existed at an artistic level. In Soviet times, everyone knew that criticism was to be found in theaters, films, and literature, not in newspapers, elections, or on TV.

In recent years, that defective social structure has started to return to Russia as the opposition, politicians, and free press have been squeezed out. Amid that silence, the independent and critical view of reality that artists permit themselves only echoes more loudly.

The partial re-Sovietization of the public space has amplified cultural voices, but it also means the return of the old risks associated with speaking out. The state doesn’t have many public opponents, and so views opposition through art as a serious threat, and fights cultural figures as though they were enemies on an equal footing, though they have nowhere near equal resources.  

People who don’t live a rich cultural life form their cultural canon at a young age, and it changes little later on. This is what gives rise to the classic view of culture held by many politicians: true culture is what they learned in school or encountered in childhood, and that which they experience later on in life seems dubious to them.

This also explains the phrase devoted to culture included in the recent constitutional amendments: “Culture in the Russian Federation is the unique legacy of its multiethnic people. Culture is supported and protected by the state.” In other words, culture was created in the past, and handed down to us for preservation.

This is the root of the conflict between the section of the elite that considers culture to be a thing of the past and those who believe it exists in the present. For the former, creating new cultural formats now is an attack on existing culture, which is perfect and should not be touched.

Serebrennikov found himself embodying the front line in that conflict as the result of some officials—some representatives of the elite—giving him funding and continuing to support him. That is something that simply shouldn’t happen in the Russia that its conservatives would like to see. After all, the patriotic isolation faction believes, it means that within the corridors of power, there are people who are enemies of Russia, because they have an incorrect understanding of the interests of the country and Russian society. Those people must be stopped, and they must be reprimanded.

Serebrennikov’s theater studio emerged during the presidency of Dmitry Medvedev, and that too was a factor: one of the goals of supporters of patriotic isolationism is to expunge Medvedev’s legacy. In their eyes, he relaxed the rules too much and demobilized the country.

So why were the defendants given suspended sentences rather than jail time? Of course the conservative patriots believe that Putin thinks like they do, and, mostly, they are right. But he doesn’t always act accordingly. His political instinct tells him that he should not share anyone’s worldview entirely.

Custodial sentences in the Serebrennikov case would have been too obvious a victory for one particular group. For the leader of a personalistic regime, the victory of one group would mean a loss of balance. He would no longer represent different groups, and would not be guided by them in equal measures, but would become dependent on the winners and risk losing the support of rival groups. 

A not-guilty verdict would have meant an ill-advised loss of face for the siloviki, whose services are far more crucial to Putin than those of cultural figures. Who will try to punish an enemy of the regime if they risk being shamed in court?

A prison sentence, on the other hand, would have created too deep a rift between Putin and the cultural intelligentsia, which can only now, following the suspended sentences, once again cooperate with the state with a more or less easy conscience. Neither group won outright, but the liberals were punished more, since sentences were handed down. But those who initiated the case didn’t get everything they wanted either, to make sure they know their place. 

The deciding argument, of course, was not the quality of the accused’s creative output, which is of little concern to the Kremlin, but the potential for martyrdom and the extra hassle that prison sentences would have added to Russia’s international relations.

Finally, any politician should have a sense of history, and that sense may suggest that the story of a tyrant and an artist is too dangerous for the tyrant. He may win a tactical battle in the present, but in the future, history will always remember him as the loser.

  • Alexander Baunov