During the Brezhnev years, when “unofficial” artists were under constant surveillance by “art critics wearing civilian clothes,” as the secret police were euphemistically called, Soviet intellectuals had a favorite joke: Bolshevik leader Lenin and Commissar of Enlightenment Lunacharsky pay a visit to an art exhibition in Moscow.
Lenin looks at a painting by Malevich and asks, “What is this? Squares? Triangles? What does it mean? I can’t understand this art.”
Lunacharsky replies, “To be honest, Vladimir Ilyich, I can’t understand it either.”
That was the last Soviet government that didn’t understand art, goes the ironic punch line. Ironic because every Soviet government understood art very well: they understood that it had to be tightly controlled.
For a while, in the late 1980s and the ’90s, art life was virtually free of censorship or other governmental intervention. That period ended in 1998, when the artist Avdei Ter-Oganian was charged with breaking a prerevolutionary law against provoking religious tension, reactivated just for this case, after he used Orthodox Christian icons in a performance. Faced with a jail term, he fled to the Czech Republic, where he was granted political asylum.
Since then art-world figures have been more or less constantly under attack by authorities. Right now two prominent figures are on trial in a Moscow courtroom, accused of breaking a law passed in 1996 against inciting religious hatred. Andrei Erofeev, the critic, scholar, and former head of the Tretyakov Gallery’s department of current trends, and Yuri Samodurov, the former director of the Andrei Sakharov Museum and Public Center, face fines and/or prison terms of up to five years if they are convicted.
These controversial Moscow curators aren’t the only recent victims. Attacks on contemporary art are becoming more frequent as young artists all over the country are creating a new wave of actionism, often verging on political provocation.
The troubles of Erofeev and Samodurov stem from an exhibition they organized at the Sakharov Museum in March 2007. Titled “Forbidden Art— 2006,” it brought together about 20 works that had been banned from exhibition in that year because they were considered pornographic, antireligious, or otherwise objectionable. One, for example, showed Christian worshippers praying to Mickey Mouse instead of Jesus Christ. Immediately after the opening, activists belonging to a right-wing nationalist organization calling itself the People’s Synod complained and began sending requests to the Moscow prosecutor’s office to investigate Erofeev and Samodurov, asserting that the art in the show insulted the religious feelings of believers. The prosecutor agreed and sent the case to court.
This is Samodurov’s second run-in with the law. He was found guilty of inciting religious hatred in 2005, in connection with another exhibition at the Sakharov Museum called “Caution! Religion!” He was fined then, and observers say he is likely to face a prison term if he is convicted a second time.
Witnesses for the prosecution in the current case have contributed sometimes bizarre revelations. One witness stated that his wife died after visiting the “Forbidden Art” exhibition because the sight of such blasphemy took away her will to live. An Orthodox priest began his testimony by calling Erofeev “a servant of Satan.” When the judge tried to interrupt, spectators booed him. Many witnesses stated that if the court didn’t punish Erofeev and Samodurov, they would do it themselves.
Erofeev’s departure from the Tretyakov last year was the result of yet another exhibition. “Sots Art—Political Art in Russia from 1972 to Today” was shown without incident at the Tretyakov in 2007, but scandal flared up when then–culture minister Alexander Sokolov tried to prevent the show from traveling to France, calling it “a disgrace to Russia.” It took the personal intervention of then–president Putin, at the request of French president Nicolas Sarkozy, to get the show to Paris.
Erofeev subsequently lost his job, and Tretyakov director Valentin Rodionov resigned. He was replaced by his deputy, Irina Lebedeva. She was frequently at odds with Erofeev and has stated that she will not show artworks that “insult the feelings of religious believers, contravene society’s moral standards, or are extremist in nature.”
Erofeev is held in great esteem by artists and was able to persuade many to give their works to the museum as long-term loans, hoping that one day culture officials would agree to buy them. He amassed a collection of Soviet and Russian art that would be impossible to match today. Because the pieces were on loan, regulations didn’t prevent their return to the artists or their heirs. For a few days the Tretyakov’s cafeteria became the place where artists came to reclaim their works, which they could then sell. As a result the early works of the prominent Odessa artist Sergei Anufriev went to the private collection of Pierre Broche, a French banker living in Moscow, and the oeuvre of the visionary architect Vyacheslav Loktev went to the Shchusev Museum of Architecture in Moscow and the Russian Museum in Saint Petersburg.
Political art controversies aren’t confined to Moscow. A case that has sparked protests all over Russia is that of Artem Loskutov, a 22-year- old student and artist in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk, who was arrested in May by operatives from the Interior Ministry’s Center for the Prevention of Extremism. According to the official account, he was carrying eleven grams of marijuana. Loskutov and his friends, however, say that he does not use drugs and that the marijuana was planted on him. He is now awaiting trial.
Loskutov was apprehended not by the police but by members of a special elite unit created to fight terrorism and political crimes. Loskutov and his group—they now go by the name Grandmother After the Funeral— have irritated local authorities for years with their flash-mob street parties, called Monstrations, in which they march carrying such absurdist messages as “Where am I?” “Return me to Mars!” and “Pigs are humans too.” According to the Web site kissmybabushka.com, Loskutov has been charged not only with drug possession but also with “organizing a criminal group for mass disturbances, vandalism of shops and offices, arson, and the defacement of private property.”
Another highly publicized case was that of German (Garik) Vinogradov. In April Yuri Luzhkov, the powerful mayor of Moscow, sued Vinogradov for libel. Vinogradov composes poems, anagrams, and other plays on words. The one Luzhkov objected to was dedicated to him: Vinogradov rearranged the letters in Luzhkov’s name to create the anagram “ukluzhii vor,” which means “skillful thief.” The anagram caught the public’s eye when it was used as a slogan in a political action that took place in front of the Central House of Artists in Moscow in February.
This huge building is the most important exhibition facility in Moscow. It also houses the Tretyakov Gallery’s department of modern and contemporary art—it’s the only place in the city where the museum can show its rich 20th-century collection. The grounds are also important: Soviet-era sculptures thrown from their pedestals after the USSR’s collapse were collected here and are displayed along with contemporary works.
Thus there was a storm of protest when the developer Elena Baturina, president of Inteco, announced that her company intended to demolish the building. Baturina, the richest woman in Russia and coincidentally the wife of Mayor Luzhkov, usually gets her way. Her idea is to replace the present building with a commercial-residential-hotel complex, which will include space for museum facilities. The planned structure, designed by the British architect Norman Foster (the favorite of the Russian political and financial elite), looks something like a gigantic orange cut in half.
A group of Moscow artists organized a protest demonstration. They gathered outside the Central House of Artists very early one morning and made a couple dozen snowmen standing in rows alongside the path to the building, each armed with a poster and some with a rhyming slogan. One slogan read, “Luzhkov is a skillful thief,” and was signed “Garik Vinogradov.”
The riot police confiscated the posters from the unresisting snowmen. The newspaper Kommersant reported the incident, and Luzhkov retaliated with his suit against Vinogradov, who had not even been present during the demonstration. Even the Moscow court found the case strange, and in June it declared Vinogradov not guilty. This was the first time Luzhkov had lost a case in a Moscow courtroom.
Other conflicts with power have ended less happily. The best-known provocateurs are a group called Voina, or War, formed by students in the philosophy department of Moscow State University and led by Petr Verzilov and Oleg Vorotnikov. The group received enormous cyberpublicity after they staged an action called Fuck for Your Heir the Little Bear, in the Timiryazev Museum of Biology in Moscow last year. The reference was to Dmitry Medvedev, whose last name means “bear,” and it took place on the eve of Medvedev’s election as president of the Russian Federation. The performance consisted of a bunch of young people having group sex. Its point was not clear.
The participants, who risked expulsion from the university, received prestigious support. Andrei Monastyrsky, a founding father of the legendary Collective Actions group of the ’70s, said of their performance, “If not for the Voina group, contemporary Russian art would be terrible, provincial, a commercial fuckoff.”
Voina’s recent provocations are sharper. Last year they organized a performance called A Cop in a Priest’s Robe—a commentary on the powerful new role of the Orthodox Church in Russian society. Vorotnikov, wearing a priest’s robe and a police officer’s hat, walked into a supermarket, loaded a trolley, and left without paying. Store personnel didn’t protest this seeming demonstration of priestly and police invulnerability.
A provocative action called In Memory of the Decembrists—A Present to Yuri Luzhkov referred to the killings of Central Asians that have become an everyday reality in Moscow, as well as to the mayor’s openly homophobic politics. The group staged the mock hanging of two gay men and three Central Asian guest workers in the Ashan department store. (The Decembrists, led by five noble officers, revolted against Czar Nicholas I in December 1825. The czar ordered the five leaders to be hanged.)
Voina members may soon need support themselves. The People’s Synod has become very interested in the group’s activities and has supplied the prosecutor’s office with denunciations of their “violations of public morale.”
The right-wingers have also adopted provocative performances. But while the young radicals define their actions as art, the pro- government youth organizations—collectively nicknamed Putin Jugend— have frankly political ends. Thousands of members of the pro-Putin group Nashi, or Ours, all dressed as Santa Claus, delivered presents to World War II veterans at Christmas and marched past the American embassy on Halloween carrying candlelit pumpkins representing the victims of American aggression. In April Nashi installed three basketball poles in the center of Moscow with attached portraits of the presidents of Ukraine, Georgia, and the United States—all the subjects of Russian nationalist rage. Passersby were invited to throw their shoes in the presidents’ faces, imitating the “heroic” deed of the Iraqi journalist who threw his shoes at President Bush during a press conference in Baghdad.
Speaking of the “Forbidden Art” trial, Erofeev told ARTnews: “I’m not optimistic about the outcome. What’s interesting is the position of power [the state]. On one hand, this idiotic and barbaric trial is an obvious liability; on the other hand, the support of the ultraright is obvious. The minister of culture is silent. The leadership of the Orthodox Church is silent. I feel that some invisible official who has the power to decide our fate is frozen in hesitation, holding his fountain pen over an order and undecided what to write.”
It seems that the only person who has time to make statements connected to art is Prime Minister Putin. Visiting the gallery of the nationalist painter Ilya Glazunov in June, the former president advised the 79-year-old realist to lengthen Prince Oleg’s sword in a painting of the medieval princes Oleg and Igor. Putin thought the sword looked more like a knife for cutting sausage. Glazunov said he would take the prime minister’s suggestion.
So it seems that despite the silence of the Ministry of Culture and the Orthodox Church, the Russian government once more understands art.
Konstantin Akinsha is a contributing editor of ARTnews.