MOSCOW -- Photographer Alyaksandr Vasyukovich says the vandalism and subsequent raid this week on an exhibition of his and a colleague's images of Ukrainian soldiers is a "sign of the times" in the Russian capital.
The disruption and destruction marked the second time in a week that a photo exhibition in Moscow was forced by shadowy, ultraconservative, pro-Kremlin groups to shut down.
"The situation is fairly bad when someone can simply come and carry out an act of vandalism or block the work of an exhibition because they don't like something," Vasyukovich told RFE/RL's Russian Service.
On September 28, a man described as an "artist" and identified as Anton Belikov was shown by Ren TV defacing the photographs -- which were taken by Vasyukovich and fellow journalist Sergei Loiko while covering the conflict in eastern Ukraine that pits Russia-backed separatists against Ukrainian national forces -- reportedly because they showed "Ukrainian Nazis." He called Vasyukovich a "shamefaced fascist."
The next day, more than a dozen activists in military and Cossack uniforms raided the Sakharov Center that was hosting the exhibition, carrying red liquid that they said symbolized the "blood of Donbas's children killed by the Ukrainian Army," further alleging to accompanying TV crews that the organizers were supporting "fascist" killers by displaying photographs.
Moscow questions the legitimacy of the government that took power after Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych fled amid unrest in February 2014, shortly before Russia forcibly annexed Crimea, and Russian officials routinely accuse Kyiv of "fascist" sympathies. More than 9,600 people have been killed since the fighting in eastern Ukraine began.
Polina Filippova, a staff member at the Sakharov Center, told RFE/RL's Russian Service during the raid that the activists "are demanding the closure of the exhibition, even though in the actual exhibition, there are no more works, or even the texts that covered these works."
The exhibition was intended to celebrate the winners of the First View-2016 (Prymoi Vzglyad) documentary-photography competition, including Loiko and Vasyukovich, who were finalists in the "conflict" category.
Vasyukovich says that while he was covering the fighting, Ukrainian volunteers had asked him to send copies of his photographs to relatives. He later discovered that many of those photographs were being used for war propaganda, but he says he wanted to tell the story behind the images.
Photographs showing Ukrainians who were later killed in the fighting were marked with a cross for the First View project, conveying an antiwar message. The images earned Vasyukovich first place in the competition.
Loiko, a journalist who reported at length from the conflict in eastern Ukraine for the LA Times and has contributed to RFE/RL, expressed anger at the exhibition's disruptors but said at least they had attracted attention to the photographs. "And now, yes, they sprayed them with paint, but this isn't Rembrandt, some kind of Danae, they're just photo prints," Loiko said. "More will be printed. They are on the Internet, and what's more, now a huge number of people will want to see these photographs on the Internet [and] they will want to read my book."
The Interfax news agency reported on September 30 that the exhibition had reopened but without the photo series by Vasyukovich and Loiko.
The Sakharov Center is a museum, cultural center, and discussion venue named after Soviet physicist and Nobel prize-winning dissident Andrei Sakharov. It has been vandalized several times in the last two decades, and was branded a "foreign agent" by authorities in December 2014.
The dual attacks were the second on a Russian photo exhibition this week.
WATCH: Protests Force Moscow Photography Exhibition To Close
A man on September 25 was detained at a photo display in Moscow for spraying images with a liquid identified by Russian media as urine. The exhibition showed photos by U.S. photographer Jock Sturges, which included images of nude adolescents. A little-known group calling itself the Officers of Russia blocked the exhibit, which was later closed down amid claims it was "propaganda of pedophilia."
"The rudest and most unceremonious people practically without punishment, with the silent acquiescence of the majority and the authorities do things like this," said Vasyukovich. "That is to say come splash work with paint, or some kind of 'Officers of Russia' can come and check if an exhibition is pedophilia or not."
A petition posted online praising Belikov's vandalism had so far on September 30 been signed by 325 people and was given little media coverage. But Belikov appeared confident he would not be punished severely, writing on a social-network page that he would be happy to turn himself into the police if he was being sought.