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Russia: Artists Facing Prison For Controversial, Religious-Themed Work

  • Sophie Lambroschini

One year after a Moscow museum ran a provocative art exhibit challenging the sanctity of Russian Orthodox Christianity, two museum officials and three artists are facing charges of up to five years in prison for inciting religious hatred. As RFE/RL reports, the case has spurred a debate on the limits of free expression in Russia and has many wondering about the political undertones.

Moscow, 7 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- A year ago, the talk of the Moscow art community was an exhibit at the city's Andrei Sakharov Museum titled, "Caution -- religion!"

The exhibit featured paintings of human figures nailed to crosses and even to a swastika. A larger display featured a model of a church fashioned out of vodka bottles -- an allusion to the Russian Orthodox Church's tax breaks on alcohol imports. Another showed an Orthodox icon with its face cut out.

In short, it was provocative -- as modern art can often be. But Yurii Samodurov, the director of the Sakharov museum, had little idea at the time to what degree it would provoke the authorities.

He found out late last month, when the Prosecutor-General's Office leveled charges that might earn Samodurov up to five years in prison. The charges are based on Article 282 of Russia's Criminal Code, which prohibits the "inciting of national, interracial, and religious hatred."

In an interview with RFE/RL's Russian Service, Samodurov read from the official notification of the charges leveled against him, the museum's artistic director and three artists who contributed to the exhibit. They are being charged with "the public exhibition in the museum of specially collected displays that incite hatred and hostility and offend the dignity of people on the basis of their belonging to the Christian faith in general, and Orthodox Christianity, and the Russian Orthodox Church in particular."

The "Caution -- religion!" exhibit was causing controversy just days after its opening, when members of a radical religious organization entered the museum, breaking some of the displays and covering others with spray paint. The assailants -- whose vandalism cases were later dismissed -- explained that the exhibit had insulted their faith.

The museum quickly closed the exhibit, but not soon enough to stem a wave of protests from political and religious groups. A representative from the Moscow Patriarchate called the exhibition "illegal." Writers and artists like film director Nikita Mikhalkov wrote open letters condemning the exhibit. And the Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament, demanded that prosecutors take legal action against the museum's director.

Samodurov firmly rejects any suggestion that the exhibit amounted to religious heresy and says the charges violate his freedom of expression.

"It is clear that religious symbols like icons have one meaning when they're in a church, but a completely different meaning when they're hanging in an exhibit hall, when they're represented in the works of secular artists that may often express some criticism, including of the church," Samodurov said.

Aleksandr Verkhovskii, the editor of the "Sova" religious affairs website, says the outcome of the case is uncertain.

"There is a precedent in such cases -- not here [in Russia], but in the West -- cases of insulting people's beliefs. And it did happen that sometimes the artists or the organizations that organized the events would lose, even in front of the European Court [of Human Rights]. So it's difficult to say a priori what is justified and what is not," Verkhovskii said.

But the cases rejected by the Strasbourg court involved the simple banning of provocative films and exhibits -- not criminal charges. Verkhovskii says such cases in Russia usually die "a natural death" in the prosecutor's office. But now, he says, the atmosphere in Russia appears to have changed. And pro-Orthodoxy factions, which often keep close company with nationalist groups, have been on the rise since the Duma elections in early December.

"Part of those people who insisted on opening a criminal case [against Samodurov] have now become Duma deputies from the Motherland [Party] bloc. And I guess [their stance] is now considered to be a more respectable public position," Verkhovskii said.

Motherland, which emerged from the relative political wilderness to come in fourth place in last month's election, is supported by a number of groups seeking a more prominent role for the Russian Orthodox Church. Motherland leader Sergei Glazev is a prominent member of a group called the Union of Orthodox Citizens, which has been a vocal critic of the Sakharov museum. And a recent article in the "Nezavisimaya gazeta" newspaper noted what it called the new Duma's "unprecedented loyalty" to the church.

Pro-Orthodoxy trends, feeding on the nationalistic belief that faith is key to Russia's identity, have been an undercurrent in Russian affairs for over a decade. They compete with factions who believe that strict state neutrality in matters of religion is the only way for multiethnic Russia to exist.

But the church has appeared to make certain gains in recent years. Instruction in "Orthodox culture" in schools was recently pushed through after years of lobbying by the church. And Russian President Vladimir Putin is often shown attending church services. Speaking today during a visit to a monastery outside Moscow on the occasion of Orthodox Christmas, the president said that in Russia the state and church are separate, "but in the people's souls, they are one."

Aleksandr Chuev, a Motherland deputy, says Russia needs to do more to punish what he calls religious blasphemy, and that the Duma should adopt an amendment specifically aimed at punishing those who insult religious beliefs.

"You know, if we judge and send people to jail for inciting war, if we judge and send people to jail for racist propaganda, and if we think that is a normal and democratic thing to do, then why aren't religious believers also protected in our country? I don't think that's right. It shouldn't be like that," Chuev said.

Political scientist Vladimir Pribylovskii says the Samodurov case reflects a trend that reaches even beyond the growing role of the church, comparing it to initiatives by a pro-Putin youth organization to ban and even burn famous avant-garde novels they deem to be provocative or pornographic.

Pribylovskii says such trends reflect the growing support of "nationalistic-conservative" ideals that represent a swing of the pendulum away from the openness of the first post-Soviet decade. "Ten years ago, it would have been unthinkable for Samodurov to be charged, or for kids to be allowed to burn books on the street," he said. "Now it's allowed. It's the spirit of the times."