Religion in Art? Nyet!

Casualties in Russia's culture wars


Culture wars over blasphemous art, such as Andres Serrano's urine-dipped crucifix or Chris Ofili's elephant dung-decorated Madonna, have flared up periodically in the United States in recent years. A similar conflict is now raging in post-Soviet Russia. But there, the debate is not about whether taxpayer money should be used for museum displays that offend some people's religious beliefs. It's about whether a provocative exhibition at a privately owned museum should be a crime with harsh penalties for the accused blasphemers.

The exhibition, called "Caution: Religion!" opened in January 2003 at the Andrei Sakharov Museum and Center in Moscow. The works on display were pretty tame compared to some of their American counterparts. One controversial exhibit superimposed an image of Christ on a Coca-Cola logo, with the words, "Coca-Cola. This is my blood"—arguably, a pointed commentary on the commercialization of religion, not a mockery of faith itself. A triptych called In the Beginning Was the Word juxtaposed images of a man crucified on a cross, a five-pointed star and a swastika, with accompanying quotations from the Gospels, The Communist Manifesto, and Mein Kampf.

Just a few days after its opening, the exhibition was vandalized by several followers of the ultra-right Russian Orthodox priest Alexander Shargunov. Exhibits were smashed and defaced, the walls spray-painted with curses. The assailants were detained by the police but quickly released and cleared. Meanwhile, acting on a complaint from Father Shargunov, the Russian parliament passed a resolution demanding that criminal charges be filed—against the exhibition's organizers. And so Sakharov Museum director Yuri Samodurov, exhibition curator Ludmila Vasilovskaya, and artist Anna Mikhalchuk found themselves in the dock for "incitement of ethnic, racial, or religious hatred." The trial ended on March 7, though the court decision will not be issued until March 28.

The case, which has received scant attention in the Western press, has many farcical elements. Thus, one painting deemed criminal by the prosecution's experts satirized the 19th-century Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky, a champion of nationalism and religious orthodoxy—and now, it seems, a saint by government fiat, though he has yet to be canonized by any church. A work illustrating the seven deadly sins with scenes from the life of a typical Russian family (such as the "sloth" of sitting in front of the television) was labeled as defamatory toward ethnic Russians. All this would be funny if the possible consequences weren't so serious.

In her closing statement, prosecutor Kira Gudim asked for three years' imprisonment in a penal colony for Samodurov and two-year sentences for his codefendants. She also asked that all three be barred for life from holding administrative jobs and that the offending artworks be destroyed.

Notably, Russia's Constitution includes ostensible protections for freedom of speech and conscience. Russian law specifically forbids displays insulting to religious sensibilities in close proximity to places of worship, which implies that they are legal elsewhere. But the Russian Constitution's guarantees may be on their way to becoming as meaningless as the Soviet Constitution was in its day.

Russia's human rights activists, such as Moscow Helsinki Watch group president Ludmila Alexeyeva and former Human Rights Commission chairman Sergei Kovalev, see the prosecution as a dangerous sign of Russia's descent into authoritarianism. They note that this is the first time since the 1966 trial of writers Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel that individuals in Russia have faced criminal charges solely for the content of their artistic works. However, political motivation is likely as well: The center has hosted numerous exhibitions critical of the war in Chechnya—a fact that Father Shargunov's letter to the parliament cited as further proof of its subversive nature.

To Elena Bonner, Sakharov's widow and a human rights activist in her own right, these latest developments signal the rise of a new fascist state in Russia. If the case ends in conviction, it will be hard to dispute her pessimistic assessment. The old Soviet state vilified and persecuted religion; the new one is converting it into a quasi-official ideology. The hostility to true freedom remains a constant.

The absurd witch-hunt in Russia is a cautionary tale for the United States as well. If nothing else, it should show us the true worth of President Vladimir Putin's protestations that Russia is firmly on the road to democracy. It is also a demonstration of the dangers of hate speech laws, of criminalizing expression that offends people's sensibilities, and of equating criticism of religion with bigotry. These are relevant issues we face at home, too.