Artistic Freedoms Under Fire In Russian Trial

Yuri Samodurov, then director of Russia's Sakharov Museum i i

hide captionYuri Samodurov, then-director of the Sakharov Museum, holds up pictures from the exhibition "Forbidden Art" during a press conference in Moscow on May 14, 2008. Now, Samodurov and curator Andrei Yerofeev face a trial and up to five years in prison on charges of inciting hatred and offending human dignity, stemming from the controversial art exhibit.

Alexey Sazonov/AFP/Getty Images
Yuri Samodurov, then director of Russia's Sakharov Museum

Yuri Samodurov, then-director of the Sakharov Museum, holds up pictures from the exhibition "Forbidden Art" during a press conference in Moscow on May 14, 2008. Now, Samodurov and curator Andrei Yerofeev face a trial and up to five years in prison on charges of inciting hatred and offending human dignity, stemming from the controversial art exhibit.

Alexey Sazonov/AFP/Getty Images

A Moscow museum director and a prominent curator seeking to protest Russia's renewed censorship could face up to five years in prison in a criminal case that international human rights groups say targets freedom of expression in Russia. They are charged with inciting hatred and offending human dignity.

Two years ago, the two men organized a show called "Forbidden Art" at Moscow's Sakharov Museum. It included works by some of Russia's best-known contemporary artists that had been deemed too shocking for display by other museums or galleries.

"This says a lot about the way Russians now think, about attitudes to art, and to freedom," says former museum director Yuri Samodurov, one of the two defendants.

The ongoing trial at Moscow's Taganka district court seems straight from Russia's Soviet past.

In the Soviet Union, pro-religious artists were persecuted. Now, artists who question the resurgent power of the Russian Orthodox Church and its close relationship with the Kremlin are under pressure.

The exhibition in question displayed Christians worshipping to Mickey Mouse instead of Jesus. There were sexually explicit scenes painted on a crucifix. A general was depicted raping a young soldier.

The debate over artistic freedom of expression and good taste is a familiar fight. A similar mix of artwork exploring the themes of pornography, religion and sex, called "Sensation," caused an uproar in a show at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in 1999.

But in Russia, broad laws against extremism can be used to prosecute anyone whose views the state deems unacceptable.

The case coincides with another attempt to limit freedom of expression. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev recently created a commission for "counteracting attempts to falsify history to the detriment of Russia's interests." It is made up of Kremlin-friendly conservatives.

Longtime human rights activist Sergei Kovalyov says it is impossible to impose one view on Russia's complex and tragic past.

But if some leading members of parliament get their way, anyone who doubts the "genius" of Josef Stalin as Soviet commander in chief during World War II could also wind up in court on criminal charges.

Vladimir Sergeev, a schoolteacher and fervent supporter of the Russian Orthodox Church, is among the activists who support the criminal case against Samodurov and curator Andrei Yerofeev.

"They insulted Orthodox believers. And because Russia has historically been Orthodox, they insulted all Russians. They also mocked the army and other institutions," Sergeev says.

He has been joined by other Russian Orthodox Christian groups and nationalists, including some members of parliament. Lawyers for Samodurov and Yerofeev have tried to get the case dismissed on the grounds that it violates constitutional guarantees, but have been denied.

Yerofeev argues that Russia is a legally secular society, and it is not for the Orthodox Church to decide what constitutes art. He also notes that most of the prosecution's 162 witnesses never actually saw the exhibition.

During the trial, human rights activists have supported the defendants.

And some young Moscow artists have shown up at the courthouse to protest the case. Outside the courthouse on a recent day, one artist portraying fascism brutally whipped another artist dressed in the robes of justice.

But Samodurov clearly feels abandoned by his old friends. Famous artists whom Yerofeev and Samodurov once defended have been striking in their absence, whether out of self-interest, fear, or because many live abroad.

"The liberal establishment agrees there shouldn't be a case against us," says Samodurov. "But some now say, 'Well, maybe the exhibition wasn't a good idea.' They miss [the] whole point and just throw flames on the fire of extremism."

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