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Where religion and art don't mix
MIDDLETOWN, New Jersey Culture wars over blasphemous art, like 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 with 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 crucified man, 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 ultraright 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 Shargunov, the Russian Parliament passed a resolution demanding that criminal charges be filed - against the exhibition's organizers. And so the Sakharov Museum director Yuri Samodurov, the exhibition curator Ludmila Vasilovskaya and the 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 has many farcical elements. One painting deemed criminal by the prosecution's experts satirized the 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 - like 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, the prosecutor, Kira Gudim, sought three years' detention 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, like the president of the Moscow Helsinki Watch group, Ludmila Alexeyeva, and the 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 the 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.
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 Americans 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 Americans face at home, too.
Tuesday, March 22, 2005