Russian police raided a St. Petersburg art gallery Monday, seizing several "offensive" paintings that appeared to taunt Russian leaders for their alleged homophobia, including one that depicted President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev in lingerie, and another that presented the coauthor of a recent law against homosexual "propaganda," Vitaly Milonov, against the backdrop of a rainbow flag.
The seizure comes as St. Petersburg is set to host a Group of 20 summit, to be attended by Mr. Putin and President Obama, in just over a week's time.
The gallery, the Museum of (the) Authorities, remains closed two days after the raid, which was apparently instigated by Mr. Milonov, a religious-conservative St. Petersburg legislator. The artist who created the satirical series of works called "The Rulers" has fled abroad; Konstantin Altunin told Russian journalists that he will be applying for political asylum in France because he fears arrest if he returns to Russia.
St. Petersburg police said in a terse statement that they confiscated several of the works because they might "violate existing legislation," although they did not specify which laws. According to standard procedure, the works will be examined by experts to determine whether or not they have "extremist" or other illegal content, and then the matter may go to court.
The gallery's owner, Alexander Donskoy, said that police launched the search-and-seizure operation without warrants and proceeded to seal the entire exhibition, which also included risqué depictions of Mr. Obama, former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, and former Soviet leaders Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin. The entire exhibit can be viewed online.
The gallery director, Tatiana Titova, reached by telephone Wednesday, said the actions of the police during the raid struck her as "completely lawless."
"A group of people gathered [at the gallery], and then Deputy Milonov came. He looked at the pictures. He expressed his indignation. After that, they blocked the entrance to the gallery, not allowing the press to enter or myself to leave," Ms. Titova says.
"There were some people in police uniform. Two of them showed me their documents, and there was a person with a gun. They seized several paintings and took them away without presenting any warrant. They left no receipt for what they took. I had to stay for six hours with them, and then I was taken to a police station and held" for several hours more, she says. "I don't think there was anything insulting in Deputy Milonov's portrait against the background of a rainbow flag. We were made to understand that the orders [to seize the paintings] came from the top, and also that we will not get the works back. I think the whole operation was absolutely groundless and illegal."
Critics say this is a small but telling example of how new Russian legislation such as the anti-gay law is already being applied in ways Russian authorities have insisted it was not intended to be, such as censoring artistic expression. Official explanations of the law have made clear that it does not "outlaw homosexuality," as some Western reports have mistakenly suggested, nor is it a license for police to crack down on private tastes and activities of citizens, as long as they don't affect minors.
Mikhail Krasnov, chair of constitutional law at Moscow's Higher School of Economics, says it's not at all clear what laws may have been violated by the paintings. Even though they do seem to be lampooning Russian leaders and legislators for their public homophobia, that shouldn't be a criminal matter in Russia, he says.
"We have an article about insulting a representative of authority in the criminal code, but I don't see how this case has any implications under criminal law. On the other hand, we have Article 13 of the Russian Constitution that guarantees ideological and political diversity, and another article that protects the freedom of creative expression.... Article 55 mentions 'violations of morals' but contains no norm concerning insults to authorities. Some post-Soviet states have such laws, but we don't," he says.
"Therefore, these actions in St. Petersburg look very strange to me," he adds.
The ultraconservative St. Petersburg Deputy Milonov, who has moved on from co-writing the "homosexual propaganda" law to advocating tougher legislation against "false information" in social media, insists that the seizure of the paintings was done properly.
"I was there at the gallery at that time and I can say that everything was done in a legal, correct manner and without using any force," he told the Monitor by phone Wednesday.
"As to the paintings in question, they were taken to a special place where experts will make their decision. After that the court will make its decision as to whether these paintings can be exhibited in a public space. Maybe the right place for them is a sex shop or a gay club. Not that I care about my own portrait, I have a Christian attitude to such things. It is up to the painter himself. It is his spiritual emptiness that is reflected.... I don't think over there in America they would act in such a correct way as the police did in St. Petersburg. America is a hypocritical state and they have completely forgotten their Christian roots," he said.
"This small case in St. Petersburg demonstrates the wider trend of reactive official policy," says Alexei Makarkin, deputy director of the independent Center for Political Technologies in Moscow.
"The message to everyone is that, if you decide to display any artworks that have an ironic or sarcastic edge, you are running a risk. Just a hint of suspicion will be enough for police to take the pictures and send them for 'expertise.' Even if the experts finally decide that the pictures have no shade of extremism, the exhibition and the gallery will not likely be able to go on functioning. Anyway, the authorities can always find experts who will see extremism in your pictures, and declare that they undermine social stability or violate state security," Mr. Makarkin says.
"You can always go and complain to the European human rights commission, but that takes a lot of time and effort, and there is no legal requirement in Russia for the authorities to compensate you for damages even if the commission finds in your favor."