ST. PETERSBURG, Russia -- The Kremlin is not exactly known for its sense of humor.
But it seems to have taken a particularly dim view of an exhibition in a St. Petersburg gallery showcasing satirical portraits of high-ranking officials, including one of President Vladimir Putin in women's underwear.
Police raided the Museum of Authorities
late on August 27 and seized four paintings before shutting down the venue.
Gallery owner Aleksandr Donskoi said the raid was initiated by Vitaly Milonov, a local lawmaker who has actively backed a new law targeting homosexuals in Russia.
"Vitaly Milonov arrived with a group of police officers, FSB officials, and representatives of the Prosecutor-General's Office," he said. "They shut down the museum on the grounds that it displayed works that are blasphemous and extremist."
One of the seized paintings depicts Milonov himself -- who has described the images as "pornographic" -- against a backdrop of the gay-rights movement's rainbow flag.
In Putin's portrait, the president is depicted in a tight-fitting slip while playing with the hair of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who's wearing an embroidered bra and matching underpants.
The two other paintings removed by the police are portraits of Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill with tattoos on his chest and lawmaker Yelena Mizulina -- another staunch backer of the controversial law banning so-called homosexual propaganda.
The exhibition, titled "Leaders," also included images of Soviet leaders Josef Stalin and Vladimir Lenin.
The museum has held several other opposition-themed events since opening on August 15 in a private apartment, including a performance in support of opposition leader Aleksei Navalny.
Donskoi said police had threatened to open a criminal case against him and the paintings' author, Konstantin Altunin, on unspecified charges.
Police confirmed the raid on August 27, saying they had acted after receiving reports that the pictures violated Russian laws.
Insulting the authorities is an offense in Russia that is punishable by up to one year in prison.
Donskoi, however, insisted he was simply exercising his right to free speech and plans to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France.
"I don't know where to file a complaint because all the power structures work together," he said. "The judicial defers to the executive, and so on. This was a sanctioned move. So I hope I can find a lawyer who will help me lodge an application in Strasbourg. This is the only court that would consider this case, which is riddled with violations."
The gallery owner said the police instructed him not to publicize the incident ahead of the Group of 20 summit that will be held next week in St. Petersburg.
Donskoi, who has a child, said he was now "scared" for himself and his family.
The paintings' artist, Altunin, told RFE/RL later on August 28 that he was requesting political asylum in France. He said he decided to flee after his wife told him over the phone that a police van was parked outside their home "waiting for him."
Written by Claire Bigg based on reporting by Tatyana Voltskaya in St. Petersburg, with additional reporting by Richard Solash