Russian art curators fined for controversial images of Jesus

Two Russian art curators were found guilty, after a 14 month trial, of violating Russia's tough hate-speech law. Some say the verdict protects religious values, but others decry it as censorship.

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    Yuri Samodurov, left, and Andrei Yerofeyev, Russian art curators who staged a 2007 exhibition that angered the powerful Russian Orthodox Church, listen to the court verdict on their case in Moscow, July 12. Both curators were convicted Monday of inciting religious hatred and fined, but escaped prison sentences. The two were ordered only to pay fines of up to 200,000 rubles ($6,500).
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A Moscow court' found two former museum curators guilty of "inciting hatred" against Christians. But some Russian analysts say the verdict will cast a chill over artistic freedom in Russia and encourage extreme nationalists to target a wider range of liberal voices.

At issue was a 2007 exhibition at the Sakharov Museum that featured "images which are derogatory and insulting to Christianity and religious people," which is a serious crime under Russian law.

Entitled "Forbidden Art," it aimed to challenge censorship and included several controversial images of Jesus – including one which replaced his head with that of Mickey Mouse, and another with the Soviet-era Order of Lenin medal.

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Moscow's Tagansky court ruled that the former director of the Andrei Sakharov Museum, Yury Samodurov, and the ex-head of the Tretyakov Gallery's modern art section, Andrei Yarofeyev, "committed actions aimed at inciting hatred." The 14-month trial included more than 134 witnesses for the prosecution, most of whom admitted they had never viewed the art works in question.

The pair could have faced jail terms of up to five years, but were instead handed fines. Mr. Samodurov must pay 200,000 roubles (about $6,500), while Mr. Yerofeyev was fined 150,000 roubles (about $5,000), RIA Novosti reported.

Censorship by the state, or the people?

The defendants and their supporters say that the law under which they were convicted, which is a tougher and broader version of hate-speech laws that are common in Western countries, is being abused by the very extremist forces whose activities should be scrutinized and curbed under the law.

At a press conference last week, Yerofeyev accused a shadowy religious-nationalist group, Narodny Sobor, of instigating the original complaint against the 2007 art show.

"We have the classic situation of a fascist party that is attacking contemporary culture," Yerofeyev told journalists. "Through destruction it is trying to get attention."

Representatives of Narodny Sobor – a small group that is not exactly a household name in Russia – made themselves easily available for comment following Monday's verdict.

"Glory to the court," says Alexander Lapin, head of the group's Moscow organization. "This is not about different tastes, but about the incitement of religious hatred... Yes, we filed the complaint against that exhibition, and we were supported by other religious confessions [apart from the Orthodox Church], including Muslims and Jews. In a country where 70 percent of the population are religious, no one can be allowed to wipe their feet on one of the principal religions."

"This may be informal censorship, not from the state but from society," he adds. "That's what civil society is for."

This is not the first time the Sakharov Museum has faced legal troubles over an art exhibit.

Samodurov was convicted under the same law in 2005 for a controversial display entitled "Caution: Religion," but was sentenced only to pay a fine of about $3,500. At the time, a group of ultrareligious vandals who had triggered the case by defacing the exhibit – by spray-painting the word "Blasphemy!" across some of the works – were released without charge by the court.

Cat's paws for Orthodox church?

Some analysts see Narodny Sobor and similar groups as cat's paws for forces within the resurgent Russian Orthodox church. In recent years, the church has used its increasingly close relations with the Kremlin to recover much of its Czarist-era property, formerly held by state museums, and has been assuming a more prominent political role as well.

"This trial reflects the growing clericalization of Russian society," says Andrei Piontkovsky, an independent analyst. "The fact is that inside the Church itself there are some very dark forces, who instigated this trial, and even the leaders of the Church are afraid of them."

A spokesman for the Orthodox Church hailed the verdict Monday, although he urged moderation in the punishment of the guilty.

"This is an important precedent, because society has to protect the national and religious sensibilities of its citizens, with the help of the law," Vladimir Vigilansky, head of the press service of the Moscow Patriarchate, told the Monitor. "Everyone must be responsible for their actions and words. But I'm against a prison term; I believe that would be excessive."

Religious intolerance considered a public matter

Iosif Bakshtein, an expert with the official Russian Institute of Cultural Studies, says the verdict threatens to drag Russia back into Soviet-era artistic intolerance.

"This will worsen the situation for all Russian artists," he says. "Artists and exhibition organizers will be fearful and on edge about whatever they do. It reminds of the past times in this country, when art was judged by criteria that had nothing to do with art.... Anybody can be accused."

But Alexander Dugin, a Moscow University professor who is regarded as one of the leading intellectuals of Russian nationalism, says the key issue behind the trial is not about art but Russia's essential differences with the West.

"In the West they take tolerance as the main principle, and see religion as a private matter," Mr. Dugin says. "But in Russia we consider it a public matter, and take any mockery of religion, or profane expression, as a crime against public opinion. These are our Russian standards, and Samodurov and Yerofeyev are Russians who committed their acts in Russia, and have been judged by a Russian court.... I would advise Western public opinion not to try to impose your values on us."

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