RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
We go now to Moscow, where a museum director and a prominent curator who organized an art exhibition could face several years in jail. Two years ago, the two organized a show called forbidden art. It included works by some of Russia's best known contemporary artists, artists deemed too shocking for display by other museums or galleries. NPR's Anne Garrels reports from Moscow.
ANNE GARRELS: As freedom of artistic expression once again comes under attack in Russia, you can't help thinking time has been frozen. The scene at Moscow's Taganka Courthouse seems straight out of the 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 chummy relationship with the Kremlin get hammered. Yuri Samodurov is one of the two defendants.
Mr. YURI SAMODUROV (The Sakharov Museum): (Through translator) This says a lot about the way Russians now think, about attitudes to art, and to freedom.
GARRELS: The exhibition in question displayed Christians worshipping to Mickey Mouse instead of Jesus Christ. There were pornographic scenes painted on a crucifix. A general was depicted raping a young soldier. A similar mix of pornography, religion and sex caused an uproar in a sensation show at the Brooklyn Museum some years back. It's a familiar fight. But here broad laws against extremism can be used to prosecute anyone whose views the state deems unacceptable. Vladimir Sergeev, a schoolteacher and fervent supporter of the Orthodox Church, is one of those who brought suit against museum director Yuri Samodurov and curator Andrei Yerofeev.
Mr. VLADIMIR SERGEEV (The Sakharov Museum): (Through translator): They insulted Orthodox believers. And because Russia has historically been Orthodox, they insulted all Russians. They also mocked the army and other institutions.
GARRELS: He's been joined by other orthodox groups and nationalists, including some members of parliament. Appeals by Samodurov and Yerofeev to get the case dismissed on the grounds it violates constitutional guarantees have been denied. Andrei Yerofeev argues that in this legally secular society, it's not for the Orthodox Church to decide what constitutes art.
Mr. YEROFEEV: (Spanish spoken)
GARRELS: He also notes most of the prosecution's 162 witnesses never actually saw the exhibition. The usual human rights activists appeared at the resumption of the long drawn-out case to support the defendants. But the famous artists who Yerofeev and Samodurov had defended were striking by their absence, whether out of self-interest, fear, or because many now live abroad. Samodurov was clearly crestfallen.
Mr. SAMODUROV: (Through translator) The liberal establishment agrees there shouldn't be a case against us. 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.
GARRELS: Some young Moscow artists, however, did turn up.
Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)
GARRELS: Outside the courthouse, one artist, dressed as fascism, brutally whipped another artist, dressed in the robes of justice. This case coincides with another attempt to limit freedom of expression. President Dmitry Medvedev recently created a commission for counteracting attempts to falsify history to the detriment of Russia's interests. It's made up of Kremlin-friendly conservatives
Mr. SERGEI KOVALYOV (Human Rights Activist): (Foreign language spoken)
GARRELS: Long-time human rights activist Sergei Kovalyov says it's 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 Stalin as commander-in-chief during World War II could also find themselves in court on criminal charges.
Anne Garrels, NPR News, Moscow.