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Art on Trial: the Case of Samodurov, Vasilovskaya and Mikhalchuk
On March 2, after an extended trial in Moscow's Taganskaya District Court, the prosecutor Kira Gudim demanded sentences of 3 years deprivation of freedom for Yuri Samodurov, director of the Andrei Sakharov Museum and Public Center; 2 years deprivation of freedom for Ludmila Vasilovskaya, curator of the Sakharov museum; and 2 years deprivation of freedom for artist Anna Mikhalchuk. They were charged under Article 282 of the Criminal Code with "inciting religious hatred" and offending the feelings of religious believers for their role in organizing the art exhibition "Caution! Religion" at the Sakharov Center in January 2003. Prosecutor Gudim also asked, as additional punishment, that Samodurov and Vasilovskaya be banned from working in their profession and that the paintings from the exhibition held by the court as material evidence be destroyed.
The verdict in the case will be pronounced by Judge Vladimir Proshchenko on March 28.
"Caution! Religion," the exhibition at the center of the trial, opened on January 14, 2003, with paintings and other works contributed by thirty-nine artists. The exhibition was seen by some 70 visitors before it closed four days later on January 18 after a group of young acolytes from the Russian Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas in Pyzhi defaced many of the paintings with spray paint and graffiti. The vandals were detained by police but a judge subsequently acquitted them of hooliganism on the grounds that their actions had been provoked by the exhibition. On February, 3, 2003, at the urging of Russian Orthodox Church officials, the Russian State Duma adopted a resolution which asked the Procurator General "to take the necessary measures" against the organizers of the exhibition.
The district procurator's office on February 28, 2003, initiated an investigation of the exhibition. Ten months later, on December 25, 2003, Samodurov, Vasilovskaya, Mikhalchuk, Narine Zolyan, and Arutyun Zulumyan were indicted as the organizers of an exhibition which was "insulting and offensive to Christianity in general and to Orthodox Christianity and the Russian Orthodox Church in particular." (Zolyan and Zulumyan, Armenian citizens, having fled Moscow, were dropped from the case.)
After further investigation and one false start in June 2004, when Judge Natalia Larina criticized the indictment and returned the case to the procurator's office, the trial of Samodurov, Vasilovskaya, and Mikhalchuk reopened on September 30, 2004, with Judge Vladimir Proshchenko presiding. After several months of sporadic court sessions, during which the court heard the testimony of witnesses both for the prosecution and the defense, the trial concluded on March 2.
Since January, 2003, more than 300 articles have appeared in Russia and abroad discussing the case and its implications for freedom of expression in Russia.
Anatoly Shabad, a member of the Russian parliament from 1990 to 1995, wrote in The Moscow Times on June 16 "As chairman of the Sakharov Museum's governing board, I can state unequivocally that the exhibition was not intended to make a political statement. A group of artists were simply given the opportunity to share the fruits of their creative labors with one another and the public in a venue designed for this purpose. The organizers did not discuss, vet, or censor the works submitted for exhibition." (Samodurov in his final plea on March 2, 2005, reaffirmed that it was not his intention nor the intention of the other defendants to offend religious believers.)
In the London Times Literary Supplement of August 13, 2004, Zinovy Zinik wrote that
an ominous court hearing is taking place in Moscow. It started last year with an ostensibly marginal show of conceptual art installations called Beware, Religion!, held in the Sakharov Human Rights Centre. Most of the exhibits were parodies, pop-art style, of the mass perception of religious doctrine and its iconography in contemporary Russia, where the influential Russian Orthodox Church has gradually replaced the old Communist Party of the USSR as moral arbiter and chief censor in matters spiritual and ideological. Perhaps the most striking work, to a Western eye, would have been the painting by Alexander Kosolapov, who added the sacramental slogan 'This is my blood' to a Coke label. …
Earlier, in its May 2003 issue, the magazine ARTnews had published a lengthy article by Konstantin Akinsha about the Caution! Religion exhibition entitled "Orthodox Bulldozer" - the title refers to the infamous incident when the KGB used bulldozers to destroy a 1974 outdoor Moscow show of "unofficial" art. Akinsha wrote:
'It's a tragic situation,' Elena Bonner told ARTnews in a telephone interview from Boston. Bonner, the widow of Nobel Peace Prize-winning physicist and famous dissident Andrei Sakharov, is chair of the Sakharov Center, which was founded to educate Russians about their totalitarian past. 'The events around the exhibition discredit the Russian Orthodox Church, just as the fatwah condemning Salman Rushdie to death discredited Islam' she said. Bonner pointed out that the vandals had come to the museum prepared to be offended, with cans of spray paint in their pockets. The organizers of 'Caution! Religion' say they wanted to attract attention to the new role of religious institutions in Russian life.
In his speech at the show's opening, curator Arutyun Zulumyan, who is now in hiding, called for a careful and respectful treatment of religion, but he also warned of the danger of religious fundamentalism, both Muslim and Russian Orthodox, and the identification of the state with religion.
Political scientist Vladimir Pribylovsky, speaking to Radio Liberty, said that the growing support for 'nationalistic-conservative' ideals represents a turn away from the tolerance of the first post-Soviet decade. 'Ten years ago it would have been unthinkable for Samodurov to be charged or for kids to be allowed to burn books on the street,' Pribylovsky said. 'Now it's allowed. It's the spirit of the times.'
It is indisputable that the Russian Orthodox Church has played a unique role in the creation and history of the Russian state. It is equally indisputable that the Russian Constitution in Article 14 stipulates that "The Russian Federation is a secular state. No religion may be designated the official state religion or be made mandatory." Moreover, Article 29 declares that "Censorship is prohibited," and Article 44 states that "Everyone shall be guaranteed freedom of literary, artistic, scientific, technical and other kinds of creative activity." Legal safeguards for freedom of expression are not needed for books, paintings and other works of art that are conventional in form and content. They are needed to protect works that disturb generally accepted ideas, that challenge traditional custom and practice. It is wrong to make such works grounds for criminal prosecutions.
Opinions have varied about the artistic merits of the works displayed in the "Caution! Religion" exhibition. And questions have been raised about where the line should be drawn in conflicts between the right of free expression and the prohibition against "advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence." But there is general agreement among informed, objective observers that the exhibition "Caution! Religion" should not have become the subject of a criminal trial and that incarcerating Samodurov, Vasilovskaya, or Mikhalchuk would be a flagrant violation of the prohibition on "cruel or degrading punishment" contained in Article 21 of the Russian Constitution and Article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
Serge Schmemann, the son of an eminent Russian Orthodox theologian and currently an editor of The International Herald Tribune, published an article on the editorial page of the New York Times (February 23, 2004) entitled "Balancing Art, the State and Religion Without Calling the Police." It is worth quoting at length.
My first reaction [to the indictment of Samodurov] was indignation and incredulity. The Russian Orthodox Church has become heavily identified with Russian nationalism and reaction, and some priests and believers have even found common cause with disgruntled old Communists. For someone who had spent a few years as a reporter in the old Soviet Union, the greater dismay came with seeing artists again treated as enemies of the state.
Art had been one of the major vehicles of resistance to the Soviet dictatorship: the closing of an exhibition of unofficial art in 1962 by Nikita Khrushchev and the bulldozing of an exhibition of unofficial art in 1974 were among the milestones of the dissident movement. Sadder still, religion had been one of the major targets of Soviet repression, especially public demonstrations of belief, or religious imagery in art or literature. No doubt these memories were in the minds of the 39 artists who raised their works in the Sakharov Museum to warn against a state that has enforced "scientific atheism" so recently now embracing a national church with the same ardor.
O.K. argued the defender of Russia in me, but nobody has been convicted of anything yet, and the debate prompted by the trashing of the exhibition has been at least as lively and creative as the one over the Madonna with elephant dung at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. To be frank, I too become indignant at deliberately provocative uses of hallowed religious or national symbols. Insults may be protected as free speech but not under the canon of good taste or cultural tolerance - there is a line beyond which shock becomes offense and even anguish, and it is not one that should be casually crossed.
Still, there's something medieval about summoning a commission of experts, as the Russian prosecutor did, to determine whether the exhibition "used verbal or visual methods" that were demeaning to "any ethnic, racial or religious group." Letting the state decide what's good or bad for society led to the suppression of all the best Russian artists and writers in the Soviet Union.
Basically, the contents of art are none of the state's business. A mature society should be able to tolerate even offensive art, or at least find ways of coping with it that do not involve the police. That is especially true in a country like Russia, which is painfully emerging from 70 years of brutal state control over all intellectual and artistic life. The same Sakharov Museum has vast panels of small, black-and-white mug shots of people who perished under the Soviet Union's forced cultural and political orthodoxy. Many are of museum curators and artists.
It is evident that one of the motives for the passionate attacks on the exhibition is anger at the Sakharov Center's support for liberal causes generally and for a peaceful political settlement of the conflict in Chechnya in particular. The Public Committee for the Moral Revival of the Fatherland, chaired by Alexander Shargunov, archpriest of St. Nicholas in Pyzhi (whose parishioners vandalized the art exhibition), on February 2, 2003, wrote to President Putin as follows:
The Andrei Sakharov Public Center and Museum has functioned for several years in Moscow under the direction of Elena Bonner and Yuri Samodurov. For the entire period of its existence the Center has promoted anti-social values and defended bandits and criminals, especially Chechens. The Center's activities are clearly aimed at corrupting the morals of Russian society and the Russian army. They cunningly use the slogan "Stop the War in Chechnya" for this purpose. The very peak of the Center's anti-social activity was the blasphemous exhibition "Caution! Religion." In our view, it was not accidental that marginal "politicians" offered their Museum's exhibition hall to marginal "artists."
… We urge you, Mr. President, to take measures to close the Sakharov Center and Museum, particularly since this organization has forfeited the right to its connection with Andrei Sakharov. Sakharov, an atheist, defended the rights of persons persecuted for their religious beliefs and never had anything in common with blasphemous actions like the antireligious campaigns of the Soviet era.
The public debate concerning "Caution! Religion" has elicited speculation in Russia on Sakharov's religious views and whether it was appropriate for an institution dedicated to his legacy to host such an exhibition. Sakharov's reflections related to these subjects are in his Memoirs.
Today, deep in my heart, I do not know where I stand on religion. I don't believe in any dogma and I dislike official churches, especially those closely tied to the state, those of a predominantly ceremonial character, or those tainted by fanaticism or intolerance. And yet I am unable to imagine the universe and human life without some guiding principle, without a source of spiritual "warmth" that is nonmaterial and not bound by physical laws. Probably this sort of thing could be called "religion."
…For me, religious liberty is part of the general issue of freedom of opinion. If I lived in a clerical state, I would speak out in defense of heretics and atheists.
Yuri Schmidt, Samodurov's defense counsel, has stated that "in the case of the Sakharov Center, the indictment does not conform to the Code of Criminal Procedure and violates many articles of the Constitution [including] the right to freedom of conscience, freedom of expression, and freedom of creative activity, as well as the right to seek, receive and impart information. I have to emphasize the charge's complete lack of specificity and its vagueness. At least in the 1965 Sinyavsky-Daniel case the prosecutor specified those lines written by the authors which were allegedly anti-Soviet. In this case, we have only a list of the art works, and it is impossible to understand what is criminal about a given work and how each work incites religious hatred."
Another defense attorney, Sergei Nasonov, in his summation on March 2, described in detail the legal defects of the prosecution's case. The significance of this trial, however, lies not in the technical legal details, but in the idea of imprisoning artists for their works and curators for displaying them, which is reminiscent of the imprisonment of Sinyavsky and Daniel for works of fiction. The prosecutor's call for destroying the works displayed in the exhibit is grotesque and is reminiscent of book-burning by Nazis in Hitler's Germany.
The outcome of this trial will be an important indicator of the extent to which the Russian state is reverting to the authoritarian practices of Soviet times.
The Andrei Sakharov Museum, Public Center and Archive
After Andrei Sakharov's death in December 1989, Elena Bonner founded the Public Commission for the Preservation of the Legacy of Academician Sakharov.
In 1994, the Sakharov Archive was organized, and in 1996 the Andrei Sakharov Museum and Public Center was established in two buildings provided by the city of Moscow. The Museum in the main building has exhibits on Andrei Sakharov, and on the history of repression and resistance in the Soviet Union. The exhibition hall is used for temporary exhibits on human rights and other public issues.
The Public Center conducts lectures and conferences on Russian society today and makes its auditorium and conference room available for non-commercial groups to hold events consistent with the mission of the Center. It has an open-shelf library, a research and publication program, and an outreach program that sponsors a local group, the Top-Sambo Youth Club.
The Sakharov Center, rooted in the human rights movement of the 1970s and 1980s and Sakharov's ideals of tolerance, democracy, and civil liberties, strives to serve as a sorely needed rallying point for Russia's developing civil society.
Yuri Samodurov was born in Moscow in 1951. From 1969 to 1971, he served in the Soviet army as a corporal. In 1978 he graduated from the Moscow Institute of Geological Surveying (MIGS), and in 1985 he was awarded the degree of Candidate of Science for his thesis on the geology of phosphate rock in Transcaucasia. When Gorbachev came to power in 1985, Samodurov was working in the economic department of MIGS on the development of democratic management practices. Samodurov played an active role in the Perestroika Club, and he was a founder of the Memorial Society, serving from 1987 to 1989 as a member of its governing board. Since 1990, Samodurov has been executive director of the Andrei Sakharov Archive, Museum, and Public Center.
compiled by Edward Kline