MOSCOW -- Investigators searched a Moscow theater and the home of a prominent director who has protested against the government and voiced concern about the increasing influence of the Russian Orthodox Church.
The Russian Investigative Committee said the Gogol Center theater and the apartment of its art director, Kirill Serebrennikov, were searched on May 23 in connection with an embezzlement case.
Dozens of cultural figures came to Serbrennikov's defense, signing a statement calling him "an honest, fair, and open person."
Ballet great Mikhail Baryshnikov suggested political motives were behind what he called the "repression" of an outspoken advocate of freedom.
"An artist of whom Russia should be proud is being debased and humiliated," Baryshnikov said.
Investigative Committee spokeswoman Yulia Ivanova said the searches were linked to a case of suspected embezzlement in 2014. She said there were also searches being conducted at other locations around Russia.
Ivanova later said that Serebrennikov was questioned as a witness, indicating that he is not a suspect.
"I'm tired. I'm a witness," Serebrennikov said when he emerged from the Investigative Committee building late on May 23.
Gogol Center spokeswoman Nina Gruzdeva said earlier in the day that law-enforcement officers searched the theater without allowing actors and other employees to leave the building.
The Gogol Center theater is known for staging plays, showing films, holding concerts, and hosting lectures and other events.
Serebrennikov, 47, has participated in protests against President Vladimir Putin's government and criticized the growing clout of the Russian Orthodox Church, which Putin has held out as a beacon of values.
Outside the Gogol Center, popular actress Chulpan Khamatova read out a statement in defense of Serebrennikov that was signed by dozens of people including actors and other creative artists.
"We know Kirill Serebrennikov as one of Russia's brightest and best directors. He is an honest, fair and open person," Khamatova said.
"We want to express our full support for our colleagues and hope that no violence will be conducted against individuals involved in the investigations," she said. "We are also admire the Gogol Center actors' decision to perform tonight, not to cancel the play despite the sudden impediments."
A well-known fellow Russian theater and film director, Vladimir Mirzoyev, told RFE/RL on May 23 that he does not rule out a political motivation in the investigation.
Critics of the Kremlin say the Russian authorities have used trumped-up investigations and prosecutions -- sometimes for alleged financial crimes -- to target political opponents and quash dissent.
Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, claimed that was not the case, saying the searches had "nothing to do with politics or art" and were thus not a matter for the Kremlin to comment on.
Baryshnikov, who defected from the Soviet Union in the 1970s and has U.S. and Latvian citizenship, sharply criticized the Russian authorities over the searches.
In a statement, he said that, because Serebrennikov "is a person who is known for his independence and love of freedom; a person who has more than once made brave political declarations, these sudden repressions look particularly foul."
With reporting by Ekho Moskvy, Dozhd, Interfax, TASS, and RBK