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‘What is a victory for Ukraine?’ - self-exiled Russian director Kirill Serebrennikov on war

Director Kirill Serebrennikov
Director Kirill Serebrennikov Copyright Donogh McCabe
Copyright Donogh McCabe
By Donogh McCabeLiv Stroud
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Director Kirill Serebrennikov was a political prisoner in Russia before the war. Now he lives in Berlin. He tells Euronews about his protests, art and how the war changed everything for him.

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For someone who neither studied film nor opera, Russian director Kirill Serebrennikov has done a remarkable job of making a name for himself. Having directed well over 100 performances, received standing ovation from the renowned Cannes film festival for his film ‘Leto,’ Serebrennikov is one of the most respected and daring directors of this century. He has worked directing in Moscow and operas across Europe including Amsterdam and Vienna.

Having spent almost two years under house arrest for allegedly embezzling funds – which he defends as a politically motivated trumped-up charge, Serebrennikov now lives in Berlin.

The director is a staunch critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, not just for the war, but also for Russia’s crippling stance on LGBTQ rights. Before he left Russia, he took part in anti-Putin protests and staged an opera that satirised corrupt Kremlin politics.

After he was denied state funding for a biopic that deals with Tchaikovsky’s closeted homosexuality, Serebrennikov secured financing for his 2016 film ‘The Student’ from the sanctioned Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich.

In 2017, the following year, he was accused of fraud relating to a performance of an arts project, which prosecutors allege didn’t take place. According to Human Rights Watch, the show was indeed staged. These charges led to a three-year legal ordeal, where charges were dropped and then restarted. Serebrennikov was placed under house arrest, until he was handed a three-year suspended jail sentence, and ordered to pay back 129 million rubles (€1.8m).

Serebrennikov was still in Moscow when the war broke out, managing to leave a week or later, in early March, as soon as he got his passport back, that had been confiscated as part of his punishment into the alleged fraud charges.

But what exactly does he look forward to the most when the war in Ukraine ends?

“That is a good question,” he says as he ponders.

We are in his studio in the heart of Berlin. As we arrived, aggressive shouting seeped out of the next room. For a short moment, we wondered what on earth could be going on behind the closed door, but then we came to realise that the voices were only recorded, and he was editing one of the films he will release this year.

After thinking about our question for a moment about what he’ll do when the war ends, eyes darting around the room behind his glasses, cogs whirring around in his brain, he looks at us earnestly.

War is good for Russia

“If I am frank with you and with myself, I would say that [the war] might continue for longer. Because for the Russian power state, a war is very good. It is something which is of real importance.”

There is something very melancholic about hearing this from the former director of Moscow’s celebrated Avant Garde Gogol Theatre. The theatre is regarded by many to have been a beacon of freedom. Serebrennikov led the artistic direction of the theatre for 9 years until 2021. The final play, before doors closed in 2022 and the theatre was rebranded as a drama theatre, was called ‘I Don't Take Part In War.’

“It it's not possible to have it like we do in film and just cut and everything comes back to the day of 23 February 2022. It's not possible. After this war, Russia will be a completely different country. After this war Europe will be a completely other place. I think the world will be completely different,” Serebrennikov shakes his head. The gravity of the situation hangs in the air.

Too many people are dead, too many lives are completely crashed.
Kirill Serebrennikov
Director

But what about those still in Russia? But what do those people who are still there think?

“They are surviving. They are pretending that there is no pain. Everything is OK,” he says many of them are unable to leave because of family, business or political reasons. “They keep smiling. Sometimes they are dancing, they are going to the clubs, they are sitting in the restaurants. But I understand and I feel it by speaking with them or by some hints that the pain is becoming stronger and stronger. And this this discomfort or how to say, cognitive dissonance, is becoming huge. Absolutely massive. And to the people try to do something with this depression or some psychological issues and so on. It can't be so easy as propaganda describes, where everyone votes for what the power says. No, it's on the level of personal being, of personal existence. It's much more complicated.”

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He says he needed to leave when he felt like the ideas he was hearing within Russia were the opposite to what he felt, and because he couldn’t bear to be part of a state that destroys another state.

What does he miss most about his life in Russia?

“The Russia I knew doesn’t exist anymore.”

“I'm afraid the Russia I lived in and I know, I knew, doesn't exist anymore. It's now it's a state of violence, full of military people,” he adds. “The war always comes back, and it transforms normally into civil war or into self-killing or into something terrible happening inside the country.”

He loves his life in Germany and says he’s never had work cancelled here or oppressed, that people can protest and that ideas are free. He particularly appreciates how multicultural and international it is in Berlin.

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His outlook on the future of Russia is bleak. He says Russia is often in stages of war, including a “hot phase.” He counts on his ringed fingers the number of ways he believes the Russian state profits a lot from the war.

“They get a lot from the war. I mean, business wise, controlling the country wise, how they organise the society into in this way of war. Everything is much better for them. That's why I would say that there are a lot of people who, who have a huge interest in what's happening in the war state. And less people who are war who are wishing to stop it. War kills everything. War kills everything alive.”

What about his family?

He has a 90-year-old father who can't leave because of his age and lives with a nurse. Serebrennikov speaks to him every day on Zoom or WhatsApp. "I worry that I can't hold his hand or can't hug him or kiss him.”

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He ponders for a moment, keeping his hands clasped on his lap, massaging one thumb with the other.

What does victory look like?

“What is the victory for Ukraine? To take Moscow or to destroy Russia? I think all of us are quite lost in terms and we don't understand what a victory would look like for both sides." The other thumb now massages the one underneath.

"The people are killing each other for what? For strange places I can't even remember the I don't know the names of this tiny cities they are killing each other for. It's terrible what when I watch the all the pictures with it, abandoned to tiny cities with a crashed to buildings with a like, like surrealistic landscape, is what happening.” Serebrennikov’s mother was from Ukraine.

Official figures from the OHCHR in September put the number of civilian casualties in Ukraine at over 10,000, and that’s not including the soldiers on both sides, where the figures are murky.

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Serebrennikov also says that the scale of this war surprised many, including him.

“How is it possible to sell your sons for money to the army or how it's possible to not understand that all propaganda is bullshit and terrible lie. How is it possible? I thought that to the people in Russia are smart or can divide, lie from the truth or truth from the lie or can figure out what power makes to them.”

Serebrennikov, who grew up in the former Soviet Union, in Rostov-on-Don to be precise, which is located near the Ukrainian border, explains to us why he felt he absolutely could not stay in modern day Russia when the war broke out. It draws comparisons with the reaction in German politics ever since the Nazis.

“Never again. Never again. It was a main motto. If you ask me what war is and never again it was said in Soviet in all Soviet books and all Soviet films. I was kind of formed by very nice Russian films against [the war]. It's war dramas, but all of them were against the war, saying never again, war is the most terrible thing ever. And now the new power in Russia. They try to erase or to forget all this experience and to replace it by new ideology. About militarisation, that we have to fight to war is a very good if you have something to die for, then you are lucky.” He calls this war the Cold War 2.0.

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Russia’s complicated relationship with freedom

Fast forward a few decades, following the collapse of the Soviet Union and Serebrennikov believes Russia simply wasn’t ready for the level of freedom and liberalism that the West enjoy.

“The freedom was not a feature that normally belongs to Russia in general. The idea of freedom was quite complex,” he says, adding that the concept of freedom should have been introduced slowly and carefully. “Now it's all destroyed. Freedom for them doesn't exist.”

Instead, he feels, many in Russia feel like it’s better to have power over freedom. “Nothing but power can rule Russia. It's the main idea and of course it's completely opposite to what we expected and to what we were working on while being there. The ideal war is opposite to ideal freedom. Being in the war, in the state of war, you can mobilise all the society against, as they say, the Fifth Column, the people who are not with us.”

And what about those who tried desperately to hold on to the idea of freedom, people including Serebrennikov, who famously directed an opera via smuggled out USB sticks through his lawyer whilst sitting under house arrest.

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The state decided to “kick them out or put them into the prisons or to call them the foreign agents and so on. And so help the power to stay. All the people who hold the power, are on the top of this pyramid.”

But Serebrennikov doesn’t believe this war is the biggest threat humans are facing.

All this war is very 20th century, but climate change is the change we need to stop.
Serebrennikov
Director

“We need to work on it. It's for me it's much more important and dangerous than all wars and conflicts and local conflicts or global conflicts.” One thumb massages the other again.

He urges the world to “stop what you're doing. Stop it. Because climate change is coming and all your fighting for will be completely in vain." Serebrennikov sees climate change as the "most terrible thing we need to figure out.”

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But he also sees hope for the people as part of his purpose:

“My job is to use art or use music or theatre to make the people think. That's it, my main job. For me to look [at the world] we live in – in a terrible, stressful situation. We live in anxiety. It's really important to help ourselves, to overcome all this and probably theatre, music, contemporary art, dance, or something else is the best tools to, to not to turn mad completely, or remind ourselves that we are humans and we have to stay human.”

He says the power in Russia is determined to make the people forget their humans, but other artists also have a responsibility “to explain to people that the main value is human's life. Each person is very important for this world.” It’s beautiful and bittersweet, an antidote to the horrors of the world.

"We need to create more beauty. We need to create more music, something which gives the people the feeling of something valuable and not terrible and disgusting.”

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