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In ruling on artistic expression, some Russians see signs of broader crackdown

A Moscow court's ruling that curbs artistic expression, as well as fresh legislation to strengthen the KGB's successor and limit rights of public assembly, appear to some Russians to presage a broader crackdown.

By Correspondent / July 16, 2010

Russian artist Pyotr Verzilov is detained after storming the courtroom where the curators of the 2007 ‘Forbidden Art’ exhibit were convicted of ‘inciting hatred.’

Denis Sinyakov/Reuters


Russians are enjoying freer private lives than ever before. Russia appears to have weathered the global financial crisis, and unemployment and poverty rates are relatively low.

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But some see a shadow approaching.

A court case that curbs artistic expression, and fresh legislation to strengthen the KGB’s successor and limit the right of public assembly, have some anticipating a crackdown on freedom.

The “government appears to be preparing itself to deal with large-scale public protests,” says Nikolai Petrov, with the Carnegie Center in Moscow. “It may not look like it on the surface, but there is a feeling that bad times are coming. The mechanisms are being put in place now to ensure that any social tensions or dissent within the elite can be quashed.”

Critics warn that the social contract created by former President Vladimir Putin – in which the Kremlin redistributed oil revenues via social programs in exchange for silence and political consent – is fraying.

Exhibit A is a Moscow court’s July 12 decision to fine former museum curators Yury Samodurov and Andrei Yerofeyev over “Forbidden Art,” a 2007 art exhibit. It displayed controversial images of Jesus, including one that replaced his head with Mickey Mouse’s face, and another with the Soviet-era Order of Lenin medal.

Many intellectuals had hoped for an acquittal. “It’s not just a particular art exhibit that was condemned ... but all social criticism as expressed through art,” says Yevgeny Ikhlov of the Moscow-based group For Human Rights. “It says we are not moving toward a normal society, with tolerant attitudes, but in another direction.”

'Inciting hatred'

The defendants were convicted of “inciting hatred” under a tougher and broader version of Western hate-speech laws. Alexander Dugin, one of the leading intellectuals of Russian nationalism, defends the court decision as standing up for Russian values.

“In Russia we consider [religion] a public matter, and take any mockery ... or profane expression as a crime against public opinion,” says Mr. Dugin. “These are our standards, and Samodurov and Yerofeyev are Russians who committed their acts in Russia.”

But Mr. Samodurov, former director of the Andrei Sakharov Museum in Moscow, says the social atmosphere is deteriorating, while hard-liners in government and the Russian Orthodox Church appear to be gaining.