The head of Russia's world-famous Hermitage Museum has denounced the destruction of a renowned Soviet artist's sculptures by militant Orthodox activists as evidence of a "sick" society and called for legislation to protect cultural institutions from such attacks.
Hermitage director Mikhail Piotrovsky’s statement this week follows the activists’ August 14 rampage through an exhibit of Soviet avant-garde sculptures. Kremlin critics have called the incident a product of the religious and social conservatism that Russian President Vladimir Putin has increasingly cultivated as a pillar of his power in recent years.
Piotrovsky said the attack was organized by “marginal forces against cultural rights” and criticized the public reaction to the incident, concluding that Russia is suffering from societal corrosion.
“Our society is sick,” Piotrovsky said in the August 17 statement on the Hermitage’s official Facebook page, and the website of the Russia’s Union of Museums, which he also heads.
The attack was carried out by activists from the group God’s Will, which is led by radical Russian Orthodox activist Dmitry Tsorionov, known widely under the pseudonym Enteo, who has called Putin a divinely inspired leader of whom Russians are “unworthy.”
The Interfax news agency quoted Tsorionov, who along with his adherents is facing potential criminal charges in connection with the incident, as saying that exhibition included an "indecent" depiction of Jesus Christ and was a "dirty, harsh mockery of Jesus Christ and the saints."
Organizers of the exhibition, called "Sculptures that We Don't See," said the attackers damaged several works by Soviet sculptor Vadim Sidur, whose nonconformist works were censored by Soviet authorities.
A video posted on YouTube shows a female activist together with Tsorionov tearing Sidur’s linoleum engraving of a naked Jesus Christ from its platform and stomping on it. It also shows Tsorionov smashing a plate holding one of the cloth heads that comprises a work by Megasoma Mars called "Beheading of St. John the Baptist #2."
Piotrovsky said in the statement that the Union of Museums has started hammering out potential legislation aimed at protecting cultural institutions and ensuring adequate punishment for those who commit crimes against them.
‘Weapon In The Hands Of Pogromists’
Other prominent voices in the world of Russian art and politics say an earlier legislative drive served as an accessory to the attack on the exhibition, namely a so-called blasphemy law signed by Putin in 2013 that makes it a criminal offense to insult individuals’ religious sensibilities.
Under the law, which was enacted after members of the Pussy Riot art collective were imprisoned for performing a "Punk Prayer" in Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral, offenders can be punished with up to three years in prison and fined up to 500,000 rubles ($7,600).
It was one of several controversial laws supported by Putin’s conservative base -- including one banning homosexual "propaganda” in the presence of children -- that the Russian leader enacted following his return to the Kremlin in 2012 after a four-year stint as premier.
Prior to the law’s passage, members of Russia’s art community had been targeted by authorities over religiously charged shows. A Moscow court in 2007 convicted Andrei Yerofeyev and Yury Samodurov of “inciting hatred” with an exhibit that included a works depicting Jesus Christ with the head of Mickey Mouse and a Russian Orthodox icon filled with black caviar.
But the law on offending religious believers signed by Putin marked a sharp escalation in the dangers faced by the Russian art world, becoming “the main weapon in the hands of the pogromists,” says Moscow-based sociologist and art historian Anatoly Golubovsky.
“At the same time, this very law is the guarantee of their immunity,” Golubovsky wrote in a recent Facebook thread.
The prominent Russian gallerist Marat Guelman, who last year was sacked as director of the Perm Museum for Contemporary Art after he staged exhibition satirizing the Sochi Winter Olympics, said the law allows “every believer to decide for himself what offends him and what to smash up.
“People are surprised that Sidur’s work angered people,” Guelman wrote on Facebook. “But that’s the deal: If provocative exhibitions that offend can be smashed up, then they’ll smash up any [exhibitions].”
The Russian Orthodox church in Moscow, which has become an influential political player during Putin’s 15 years in power, alluded to the law on offending religious believers when commenting on the attack on the exhibition.
Church spokesman Vsevolod Chaplin told Interfax that “everyone should obey the law.”
“If Tsorionov violated the law, let them throw the book at him,” Chaplin was quoted as saying. “But the law should apply to those who organize exhibitions as well.”
Piotrovsky, the Hermitage director, called the August 14 attack on the Soviet avant-garde exhibition a “provocation” against the Russian Orthodox church aimed at interfering with its “search for harmony” in its relationship with museums.
He also offered an ambiguous rebuke of the public discussion of the incident, refraining from identifying the targets of his criticism.
“We are surprised about the style of the public reaction to these events: the vagueness of the information, the inappropriate smears, and the uncertainty and nervousness of the tone,” Piotrovsky wrote.
With reporting by AFP, Interfax, and The Moscow Times