Russian court frees actor Pavel Ustinov after public backlash

Pavel Ustinov, who was detained at last month’s anti-government protests, still faces three and a half years in prison for allegedly injuring a police officer during his arrest, but analysts expect a judge will suspend the sentence, effectively granting Ustinov parole.

A Russian court has released an actor from jail after a public backlash led by Moscow’s theatre community turned his case into a cause celebre.

The decision marks a victory for activists, who have experienced a wave of success over the past few months in freeing several prominent journalists and student protesters charged on flimsy evidence.

In Ustinov’s case, a court refused to review video evidence that showed he was not taking part in the demonstration when he was arrested, nor did he attack a police officer who suffered a dislocated shoulder.

The opposition to the case was led by Moscow’s actors and directors, who picketed Russia’s presidential administration and gave fiery speeches from theatre stages in support of Ustinov’s release.

“We didn’t expect this case to have this kind of resonance, for us it was a shock,” Ustinov’s sister Yulia told journalists at a Moscow city court. “But thanks to the publicity, people found out about the case.”

Russian police have dropped charges against several students and other protesters in the so-called “Moscow case”, a series of criminal cases for rioting that followed the eruption of protests in July over flawed city council elections. In June, police arrested then released investigative reporter Ivan Golunov in a drug case that quickly collapsed under public scrutiny.

A woman holds a poster saying ‘Freedom for Pavel Ustinov’ at a protest near the Russian presidential administration building in Moscow this week. Photograph: Maxim Shipenkov/EPA

The series of reversals in Russia’s justice system has given activists momentum and created a near-formula for the release of political prisoners, with protests and online memes carrying over from one case to the next.

“Journalists defended Golunov, rappers defended Husky,” said Alexander Molochnikov, an actor and director at the popular MKhT theatre. Husky, a popular rapper, was arrested at a concert earlier this year. “Let’s not stay silent at our curtain calls today, tomorrow, and in the coming days.”

The backlash against the case came largely from Moscow’s theatre community, which carries plenty of social capital with government elites who seek to co-opt and befriend popular actors and directors. Vladislav Surkov, a former presidential administration official responsible for domestic politics, is a noted theatre fanatic who had his own play staged by Kirill Serebrennikov, the country’s premier avant-garde theatre director, in 2011.

Dmitry Peskov and ice dancer Tatiana Navka attending the premiere of Kirill Serebrennikov’s Nureyev ballet at the Bolshoi theatre in December 2017. Photograph: Valery Sharifulin/TASS

There is a fuzzy line between theatre and state in Russia. Because live theatre is seen as an elite pastime, there is more freedom to express dissent on stage than in film or on television. But even avant-garde theatres rely on money doled out by the Kremlin, which keeps its own stable of loyal actors and directors.

As tensions grew over the Ustinov case this month, some actors called for their colleagues to further cut themselves off from the state’s largesse.

“I recommend not cooperating with film companies, with producers, with directors who suggest to you openly propagandist projects,” said Nikita Kukushkin, an outspoken actor who performs at Gogol Centre. “Not to perform in those plays or put on shows in theatres where space is given to those who express their loyalty to the government. Because we, with our talents and our energy, are feeding this system.”

“Don’t work with the presidential administration,” he said.

Ksenia Sobchak and theatre director Konstantin Bogomolov provided the celebrity wedding of the summer, attended by political figures. Photograph: Vyacheslav Prokofyev/TASS

The state’s treatment of avant-garde theatre can seem wildly inconsistent. Serebrennikov missed the premiere of his controversial ballet about the gay ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev at the Bolshoi theatre because he was under house arrest. But it was well-attended by the elite set, including powerful oligarchs and Vladimir Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov.

And both Peskov and Surkov attended the celebrity wedding of the summer, when socialite and politician Ksenia Sobchak married Konstantin Bogomolov, a provocative theatre director who has increasingly supported the government and the Moscow mayor, Sergei Sobyanin. Both bride and groom called for Ustinov’s release days after the ceremony.

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