Trial for acclaimed theater director opens in Russia

First row from right, Russian theatre and film director Kirill Serebrennikov, former director of Moscow's Gogol Center Alexei Malobrodsky, and Director of the Russian Academic Youth Theater Sofia Apfelbaum, wait for the start of a court hearing in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2018. Serebrennikov has been under house arrest since August 2017 on charges of embezzling 133 million rubles (1bout $2 million) of state funding for a theater project, accusations he denies. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin)
Russian theatre and film director Kirill Serebrennikov waits for a start of court hearing in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2018. Serebrennikov has been under house arrest since August 2017 on charges of embezzling 133 million rubles (1bout $2 million) of state funding for a theater project, accusations he denies. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin)

MOSCOW — Russia's arguably best-known contemporary theater and film director pleaded not guilty Wednesday as his fraud trial opened in Moscow.

Kirill Serebrennikov's midnight arrest during a movie shoot in August last year sent shockwaves through Russia's art circles and was seen by some as a chilling omen of a return to Soviet-style censorship.

Serebrennikov's work both on stage and on the screen challenged the establishment, its values and lifestyle. But despite that, his productions have enjoyed lavish state funding and his plays are still frequented by top Russian officials.

A Moscow court on Wednesday opened the trial against Serebrennikov, three of his associates and an accountant who has pleaded guilty in the case and testified against him.

Serebrennikov, 49, is accused of embezzling 133 million rubles (about $2 million) of state funding. Investigators initially claimed that the director and his associates stole the funds allocated for staging several productions, claiming that one of these plays never saw the light of day — when in fact it was staged to critical acclaim. The investigators later withdrew that claim, and have not clarified where they believe money was stolen from.

Serebrennikov and the three people who worked for his projects pleaded not guilty on Wednesday, all of them saying that the indictment is too vague and does not explain how the money was embezzled.

Speaking at the start of the trial Serebrennikov said he has "never stolen anything from anyone."

He called on the Culture Ministry which is the injured party in the case to explain why it believes that he swindled them.

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