Journalists gather outside Kirill Serebrennikov's Gogol Center theater in Moscow. Russian investigators have launched an investigation into the alleged embezzlement of state funds. (VASILY MAXIMOV/AFP/Getty Images)

A sensational embezzlement investigation involving a theater company has sparked a protest among prominent figures in Russia’s arts community, pitting directors and actors against powerful Russian law enforcement agencies and prompting appeals to Russian President Vladimir Putin to intervene.

At the storm’s center is Kirill Serebrennikov, the virtuoso Russian stage director behind Moscow’s innovative, and often controversial, Gogol Center theater, who awoke on Tuesday to find agents of the Russian Federal Security Service, the sprawling law enforcement and intelligence agency, raiding both his theater and his apartment.

The reason? Accusations that a theater collective he founded called “Seventh Studio” had been involved in an embezzlement scheme, siphoning off $3.5 million in government funding from 2011 to 2014.

 For now, Serebrennikov, who did not answer repeated calls to his mobile phone, is a witness and not a suspect in the case, which formally does not concern the Gogol Center. A former administrative director and accountant for the studio were detained on Wednesday, and on Thursday the accountant’s lawyer said she had admitted her guilt and was cooperating with investigators.

But supporters of Serebrennikov, including the head of the Bolshoi Theater, see ulterior motives behind the case: an attempt to force Serebrennikov out of the Gogol Center, which he has transformed since 2012 from a dramaturgical backwater into Russia’s leading avant-garde theater. 

It has not been a smooth ride, fraught with conflicts with conservative activists and a 2015 brush with financial problems.

With the company’s actors still detained by masked officers in the theater on Tuesday, hundreds of supporters from artist and journalist circles began gathering outside, among them former members of the punk protest band Pussy Riot and loyalist film directors like Fyodr Bandarchuk.

Mikhail Baryshnikov, the prominent ballet dancer, said that for a man with Serebrennikov’s publicly expressed dissident views, “these sudden repressions look particularly nasty.”

Marina Davydova, a veteran theater critic who also believed the case had political motivations, said in an interview that while there are plenty of cultural figures skeptical of the Russian government, it was Serebrennikov’s “aesthetics” that put him in the “group at risk.”

“He’s always been an irritant, independent and unconventional, and that irritates people in power,” Davydova said. “If you ask me, I think the goal of this probe is simple: so that Kirill leaves the country and to create a fog over the Gogol Center.”

 The center’s 2014 play “Muchenik,” the martyr, a difficult production about a student’s religious transformation in a Russian school, was considered by some critics to run afoul of Russia’s newly adopted laws on offending religious views. A 2013 play called “Thugs” was reviewed by the Moscow police for possibly inciting extremism.

The current investigation is the latest cause celebre in a series of political demonstrations that have bubbled up in Russia in recent months, an unusual period of opposition activity.

Ahead of the 2018 Russian presidential elections, where Putin will likely run for a fourth term in power, politics is back in Russia. Thousands of homeowners turned out for protest rallies this month against the expected demolition of Soviet-era apartment houses, part of a city beautification effort that opponents believe is a handout to construction companies tied to the government.

An unsanctioned March rally led by anti-corruption whistleblower Alexei Navalny brought out tens of thousands of protesters, and led to 1,000 detentions in Moscow alone.

Outwardly, the Kremlin’s goal in the Gogol Center case has been to tamp down political speculation surrounding the investigation.

 “There is no need to make this political, there’s no reason for the Kremlin to be informed about this,” Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s personal spokesman, told reporters on Tuesday.

 But prominent figures in the theater community, including Vladi­mir Urin, the director of the Bolshoi Theater, have written directly to Putin, asking him to review the investigation.

Another theater director, Yevgeny Mironov, who runs the popular Theater of Nations, addressed Putin directly with a separate letter in support of Serebrennikov at an awards ceremony on Wednesday. 

According to Andrei Kolesnikov, a political journalist close to Putin who has reported from the president’s pool for more than a decade, Mironov told Putin that the investigation could undermine his trip to France slated for Monday, where Putin will meet with French President Emmanuel Macron. 

 Putin, according to the report, agreed. “Yes, they’re idiots,” he said, according to Kolesnikov. 

 For Davydova, the case recalled the troubles of Anatoly Vasiliev, the founder and former director of the School of Dramatic Arts, a well-funded laboratory for inventive theater who was pushed out by the government and left for France in 2006.

 Others have recalled a darker case: that of Vsevolod Meyerhold, the pioneering Soviet theater director, whose unusual style at first propelled his career, and then led to his arrest, torture, and death in 1940 under Stalin.

Serebrennikov himself was asked what he would do in place of Vasiliev, the director who was forced out of his School of Dramatic Arts by jealous city bureaucrats. But he played his cards characteristically close to the chest. 

“You can’t answer this question,” Serebrennikov said then, in a collection of responses for the “Theater” newsletter. “We don’t know his situation all the way through.”