Russian art or religious hatred?

On orders from Russia's parliament, Moscow prosecutors are probing a question that could create new limits on free speech: When does artistic expression cross the line into criminality?

A group of artists are being charged with "inciting religious hatred" for lampooning religious ideology in a controversial exhibit. For the defendants, who face up to five years in prison if convicted, official reaction to the "Caution: Religion" show, held at Moscow's Andrei Sakharov Museum last year, suggests the return of Soviet-style control - where dissent is quashed and policemen stand in for art critics. In place of the former Communist Party, they say, the Russian Orthodox Church is fast becoming the Kremlin's chief guardian of ideological purity.

The church, backed by conservative politicians, says the case is about protecting the sensibilities of religious believers from deliberate mockery in the public arena. "Any provocation that insults the feelings of the faithful and stirs up religious discord must be classified as a crime," said Metropolitan Kirill, chair of the church's department of external relations, said in an official statement.

"I had no idea what I was starting when I authorized that exhibition," says Yuri Samodurov, the museum's director and lead defendant in the case. "But I'm grateful, in a way, because it's made me aware of what's really developing in this society. And it is scaring me."

The trial of Mr. Samodurov and two artists, Lyudmilla Vasilovskaya and Anna Mikhalchuk, opened in last month. The official charge sheet declared that the defendants entered "into a conspiracy with the intent to inflict humiliation and offense upon the Christian faith as a whole and the Russian Orthodox Church in particular."

Almost immediately, the judge halted proceedings and ordered prosecutors to "tighten up" the charges. In Russian courts, experts say, this tactic is often a sign that jurists are uncomfortable with the case but unwilling to anger authorities by throwing the charges out.

The art display at the center of this storm, held in February 2003, featured works by 42 artists. Controversial exhibits included an oversized icon with a vacant space where the viewer could insert his/her own face in place of the usual holy figure. A sculpture of an Orthodox church made entirely of vodka bottles may have been a dig at the Church's own profitable tax-free alcohol trade in the 1990s. A photo triptych depicted three men being crucified, on a cross, a red star, and a swastika, seemingly equating the belief systems of each symbol. Perhaps most provocative was a stylized Coca-Cola ad, with Jesus' face superimposed and the words: "This is my blood."

The show lasted just four days, and was seen by only a few dozen people before being shut down after a group of spray-painting vandals defaced several of the works. The attackers were followers of a local Orthodox priest, Alexander Shargunov, who has hailed them as "heroes."

Popular indignation against the exhibition appears to run deep. Prosecutors say they have received thousands of letters from people all over the country demanding the artists be punished. "[This show] really insulted the religious sensitivities of the people," says Nadezhda Bekenyova, head of the department of ancient Russian art at the Tretyakov Art Museum.

Samodurov admits that the backlash that wrecked his exhibit could happen almost anywhere. He cites recurrent public controversy over flag-burning in the US and a recent tempest in Sweden over an artwork that seemed to glorify suicide bombers. "But this is especially possible in Russia," he says, "where we have little experience with coexisting in a mixed society or living by secular values."

After coming to trial, the six alleged art vandals were acquitted by a Moscow court, even though they had been apprehended by police at the scene. Then Russia's lower house of parliament passed a resolution directing prosecutors to open a criminal investigation of the Sakharov Museum. "We thought the organizers of that exhibit were inciting religious hatred, which is a crime," says Alexander Chuyev, a nationalist Duma deputy. "Freedom of artistic expression ends where freedom of other people begins."

Critics see the hand of the Orthodox Church, seeking to regain its Czarist-era role as the champion of Russian values. "Though our constitution stipulates that Russia is a secular state, the Church's influence over our federal authorities is growing every year," says Lyudmilla Alexeyeva, head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, a human rights organization. "If Samodurov and the others are convicted, it means we have returned to the Middle Ages."

Anatoly Shabad, a board member of the Sakharov Museum and one of the first Soviet-era democratic parliamentarians, says the rising political power of the once-oppressed Orthodox Church "reflects the present state of mind in the community," he says. "People want some sort of state philosophy - the Church steps in here - and they feel it should be enforced."

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