MOSCOW -- A Russian artist who painted President Vladimir Putin in lingerie stroking the hair of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said threatening phone calls and the fear of arrest compelled him to flee St. Petersburg for France.
In a telephone interview with RFE/RL, Konstantin Altunin said he does not want to return to Russia.
"Today, I appealed to the French prefecture in Paris because I have no other [option]. I would gladly get [local residence and work permits] so that I can be useful to France and to work and pay taxes," he said. "But now, I am forced to request political asylum because I fled very quickly without luggage or money."
On August 26, police seized several of Altunin's paintings that poked fun at the head of the Russian Orthodox Church and lawmakers who promoted controversial legislation against "gay propaganda."
Altunin defended his artistic freedom and described the Russian authorities' response to his paintings as "very unpleasant and very ugly."
Police closed the Museum of Authorities, an art gallery converted from an apartment where the pictures were exhibited.
Altunin told RFE/RL that the gallery's organizers were harassed by the authorities.
"The organizers have been arrested, although they have nothing to do with this as it is I who is to blame," Altunin said. "They detained them until 3 o'clock at night, then took them to a police station. There was a young woman among them and they were practically bullying her. What is this?"
A visitor looks at Konstantin Altunin's controversial painting of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev in the Museum of Authorities in St. Petersburg.
He says several incidents caused him to become fearful that he might be arrested.
"I had unpleasant phone calls, which I simply hung up on," Altunin said. "Then, when I had already decided to leave for France -- a few hours after I had made this decision [and left], my wife called and said that there was a police truck beneath the window and that they were asking for me. That's why I didn't stay at home. Yes, you can say that I fled. It is probably shameful, but there is also an esthetic value to it. After all, I am in Paris."
In an open letter to Putin published on Vkontakte on August 29, Altunin demanded an end to censorship in art and for the return of his paintings.
Altunin says he does not know his future plans and is now living "day by day." Altunin dismissed critics in St. Petersburg who said his controversial paintings were a bid for publicity.
"My wife is in tears and my 2-year-old child keeps asking where daddy is," he said. "What kind of PR can we talk about here? Of course, deputies simply have nothing better to do than close exhibits and confiscate pictures. This needs no further comment, really. Such a situation is possible only in Russia.”
Police did not specify which laws may have been violated by Altunin's works. Russia has a law against insulting authorities, an offense that carries a maximum one-year prison sentence.
Aleksandr Donskoi, the owner of the Museum of Authorities, told RFE/RL earlier this week that the police instructed him not to publicize the incident ahead of the G20 summit that will be held next week in St. Petersburg.
The museum has held several other opposition-themed events since opening on August 15, including a performance in support of opposition leader Aleksei Navalny.
-- Written by Tom Balmforth based on an interview by Richard Solash with Konstantin Altunin