A Moscow district court has found two prominent members of the city's art community guilty of inciting religious hatred with an exhibition that critics called an anti-Christian provocation.
But the court stopped short of ordering jail time for the men, and instead fined them between $6,500 and $4,900 and ordered their release.
Art expert Andrei Yerofeyev and former museum director Yury Samodurov were on trial in connection with a 2007 exhibit that included a depiction of Jesus Christ with the head of Mickey Mouse and a Russian Orthodox icon filled with black caviar.
The judge at the Tagansky court ruled today that Yerofeyev and Samodurov had "committed actions aimed at inciting hatred." (See some of the images here
.) They could have faced up to three years in jail.
The light sentence raised an audible cheer from Yerofeyev and Samodurov's supporters, who had complained the case was politically motivated and that prosecutors had presented no solid evidence.
The lawyer for the two men, Anna Stavitskaya, told RFE/RL's Russian Service she was pleased with the outcome despite what she characterized as the poor performance of the court.
"Of course we're going to appeal this verdict in the appeals courts, but from our perspective, this sentence can be considered the same as an acquittal," Stavitskaya said.
"From a judicial point of view, naturally we're not satisfied, insofar as there are an enormous number of [procedural] violations we're going to appeal. But you can practically call this a 'not guilty' verdict."
The relatively lenient punishment appears to reflect the state's uneasiness over a case that had pitted the country's secular intelligentsia against a particularly zealous strain of the Russian Orthodox Church.
All the same, the guilty verdict hands a certain victory to Russia's religious nationalists.
One of the "Forbidden Art" works showing Disney's iconic Mickey Mouse as Jesus Christ
It also sends a chilling message to Russia's rights community and contemporary arts advocates at a time when free-expression rights are increasingly under attack in the country.
Speaking after the sentencing, Yerofeyev, a onetime curator for the world-famous Tretyakov Gallery, said confidently that Russian art "will only get stronger" as a result of the case -- but that society would suffer.
"Because now everyone will need to check everything 10 times, they'll run to the patriarchy to ask for permission, thinking maybe some exhibits won't be allowed. So our exhibits are going to get more and more bland," Yerofeyev said.
"But that will be mainly in the state institutions," he added. "When it comes to private galleries, or those that are protected -- those, for example, like the Garazh exhibit hall, which has powerful guardians in the government [Garazh was founded by Dasha Zhukova, the heiress and girlfriend of billionaire Roman Abramovich] -- there, freedom will remain." 'Anti-Christian Provocation'?
Yerofeyev and Samodurov were charged in 2008 after an ultranationalist Russian Orthodox group, the People's Council, filed a complaint about the pair's "Forbidden Art" exhibit.
The exhibition was held at Moscow's Andrei Sakharov Museum, a hub of human rights activity where Samodurov was the director. Yerofeyev, who had had previous exhibits banned as controversial, emphasized the "forbidden" nature of the Sakharov exhibition by placing them behind a fake wall and forcing visitors to view them through a peephole.
The Russian Orthodox Church was not the only institution targeted in the exhibition. The military also comes under fire, with an image of a Russian general raping a soldier above the slogan "Glory to Russia."
Another work casts a critical eye on Islamic fundamentalism, showing a female suicide bomber pulling up her robes to reveal high heels and shapely legs.
But the People's Council condemned the exhibit as "anti-Christian," with representatives saying that the sentiments represented in its works, once displayed in public, were "no longer art but a provocation." No Laws Broken
The verdict adds heat to a slow-simmering confrontation between the Russian Orthodox Church and the contemporary art world.
Samodurov in 2003 came under fire from church members for a similar exhibit of sculptures and paintings at the Sakharov Museum titled "Caution, Religion!" The exhibition was on display for just four days before it was attacked by a group of six church members, who destroyed many of the works and defaced others with spray paint.
The men were quickly cleared of charges related to the attack, and in the end it was Samodurov, not the church, that was denounced for staging the exhibition in the first place.
The priest who led the campaign against the museum, Aleksandr Shargunov, is seen as one of the most conservative members of the Orthodox Church, and has been tied to the current case against Yerofeyev and Samodurov.
Gleb Yakunin, a member of the Moscow Helsinki rights group and a priest with the Apostolic Orthodox Church, a splinter group that has broken with the Russian Orthodox Church, blames Shargunov with orchestrating the case against the two men.
Yury Samodurov holds replicas of some of the exhibited works on July 9.
The trial has shown the complete emptiness of the indictment," Yakunin said. "It was all fabricated, and a few priests in the Aleksandr Shargunov entourage in their parishes told people, 'This is such a disgrace, so sign [a petition] and tell everyone you have seen it all and you were offended.' In short, there was an attempt to say that this [complaint represented] the mass of religious believers, and, namely, the Orthodox. "
Russia's Culture Ministry has said Yerofeyev and Samodurov broke no laws in staging the exhibition.
Even members of the Russian Orthodox Church have sought to distance themselves from the case, with a spokesman telling Ekho Moskvy radio the prosecutor's demands seemed "excessive for our society, unjustified, and possibly even harmful."
All the same, the ruling appears to bolster fears among rights activists that the Russian Orthodox Church is playing an increasingly dominant role in Russian politics and society.
Speaking today before the verdict and sentencing, Yerofeyev said the case against him and Samodurov was just part of a larger wave of right-wing sentiment washing through Russia.
"The state supports the People's Council. Of course, this People's Council doesn't represent itself independently," Yerofeyev said. "They claim that they protect the interest of various strata of society -- the Orthodox people of Russia, their traditional values -- but these are all demagogic statements, behind which stands the desire to break into the broad field of political life in Russia."
Yerofeyev described a "right-wing wave that is beginning to swamp our country."
"While this is not a tsunami, it has reached our feet. Why should the state supports it? By all means, this is the big question."based on RFE/RL's Russian Service and agency reports