In 2007, Yuri Samodurov and Andrei Erofeev curated an art exhibition at Moscow's Sakharov Center titled "Forbidden Art 2006." On Monday, a Moscow court convicted them of public actions aimed at inciting hatred and hostility on religious grounds, marking the latest battle in a long war that pits Russia's Orthodox Christian "patriotic" right against a liberal left often seen as Western-leaning and even "anti-Russian."
At the time of the exhibition, Erofeev, a well-known art critic and curator, was chief of the Tretiakov Gallery's New Directions department, and Samodurov was director of the Sakharov Center. Since charges were first brought against the two in May 2007, Samodurov has resigned and Erofeev has been sacked. The court fined Samodurov $6,000 and Erofeev $5,000; both have said they would appeal the verdict both in Russia and before the European Court of Human Rights.
Many of the works on display in the exhibit contained foul language or sexually explicit imagery. Of those containing religious themes, most were decades old and target the Soviet regime rather than the religion it forbade. Vagrich Bakhchanyan, for instance, one of several Soviet-era underground artists featured in the show, overlaid a crucifixion with an image of Lenin's face, and Mikhail Roshal fashioned an icon whose saint holds a book with the words "we shall exceed planned production of coal!"
More objectionable in the eyes of the prosecution were biblical images of Christ with Mickey Mouse's head, or a work called "Chechen Marilyn," which showed a woman in traditional Chechen garb with her skirts lifted. The curators argued that these works, like Aleksandr Kapsalov's faux McDonald's ad with Jesus and the words "This Is My Body," were attacking not religion but the commercialization of contemporary society.
The conflict has flared before. At the "Art Manege" show in December 1998, avant-garde artist Avdey Ter-Oganyan hacked icons to pieces and offered passers-by the opportunity to do the same. Orthodox Christians, for whom an icon is a conceptual window to another world, were not amused. Ter-Oganyan's art was, to many, the equivalent of entering a church and chopping sacred relics with his ax. His work provoked the post-Soviet era's first legal charges regarding art, but his trial stalled when he fled the country.
So frustrated cultural conservatives were primed to react with hostility to an exhibition titled "Warning: Religion!" at the Sakharov Center in January 2003. Members of an Orthodox right-wing group called "For the Moral Renaissance of the Fatherland" burst in the exhibit and splattered the artworks with paint. A lawsuit against them was dismissed, but another court found Samodurov guilty under the same statute invoked on Monday.
Samodurov was unrepentant. "[T]he problem is that the Russian Orthodox Church, in contrast to other confessions, it seems to me, aims to occupy the chief position in contemporary society," he said on the TV show "Meanwhile." "The Sakharov Museum, as a civic organization, raises the issue of resisting and countering that desire to take everything possible under its control."
That background helps explain the passion around the trial that ended this week on "Forbidden Art 2006." The prosecution sought not merely a fine, but three years' jail time for the exhibition's curators. According to art critic Ekaterina Degot, the experts they called to evaluate the show were psychologists and religious historians rather than recognized art scholars.
In the days leading up to the decision, even some of the defendants' critics argued for leniency. "The prosecution's demand of three years in prison seems to me excessive for our society, unjustified and, perhaps, even harmful," said Vladimir Vigiliansky, head of the press service of the Moscow Patriarchate. Russia's minister of culture, Aleksandr Avdeev, declared that the criminal code should not be applied to the case: "Such attempts have always failed in Russia and have afterwards been embarrassments."
The court's decision only sharpened the polarization of Russian society. On "Meanwhile," Orthdox priest Igor Pchelintsev, a member of an advisory commission to the Moscow Patriarchate, told Samodurov that "if your exhibition had wounded the religious sensitivities of Muslims, the reaction would have been entirely different. If it had wounded -- God forbid! -- Jews' religious sensibilities, it would have been a worldwide scandal. Here, we see a degree of tolerance on the part of Orthodox believers."
On the other side of the debate, the art group "War" released 3,500 Madagascar cockroaches in the courthouse, decrying the proceedings as "cockroach justice." Human Rights Watch called for the courts to reverse the decision, arguing that "The authorities have misused legislation targeting extremism to stifle artistic expression and independent civic activity." One artist in the show, Ilya Kabakov, went overboard, equating this case with the infamous Soviet sentence that sent the writers Andrei Sinyavsky and Iulii Daniel to Siberian labor camps in 1966.
The debate in Moscow is a variation, of course, of a broader one over how religious concerns can be squared with artistic freedom. It flared in 2000, when New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani attempted to suppress a controversial exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum, and again after 2005, when Muslims expressed outrage at editorial cartoons depicting Muhammad in a Danish newspaper.