In January a gang of vandals wearing camouflage gear invaded the S.P.A.S. Gallery in St. Petersburg and splattered paint and ink over an exhibition of Oleg Yanushevsky’s constructions, called “Contemporary Icons.” Yanushevsky’s ironic message—that President George W. Bush, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, and other political and pop-culture celebrities were the modern equivalents of holy figures—was considered an insult to the Russian Orthodox Church and to the sensibilities of believers. Although the works were destroyed and the gallery seriously damaged, the St. Petersburg prosecutor refused even to investigate the vandalism.
A similar incident in Moscow, a year earlier, had more serious consequences. In January 2003, a gang of Russian Orthodox activists destroyed an exhibition in the Sakharov Museum and Public Center called “Caution! Religion.” Last December two Sakharov Museum officials and three of the exhibition organizers were charged by the state prosecutor with inciting religious hatred. They face prison terms of up to five years. The vandals, meanwhile, were hailed by church officials as heroes and martyrs, and all criminal charges against them were dismissed.
These alarming events in the art world have taken place against a background of rising nationalism and Orthodox assertiveness. The Russian Orthodox Church has acquired enormous political clout in recent years, and few politicians will risk offending it. The Sakharov Museum exhibition was subjected to a vituperative media campaign, and the matter was almost immediately taken up in the Duma, where nationalist deputies vied with each other to denounce the sacrilegious artists and laud the vandals.
In February 2003, the Duma passed a decree stating that the 1999 exhibition’s purpose had been to incite religious hatred and to insult the feelings of believers and the Orthodox Church. The state prosecutor was ordered to take action against the organizers, with 265 of 267 deputies present approving the measure. Sergei Yushenkov, leader of the Liberal Russia party and one of the two who voted against the measure, mounted the podium and stated sadly, “We are witnessing the origin of a totalitarian state led by the Orthodox Church.” (Yushenkov was murdered in Moscow a few weeks later. Four men were convicted of his murder in March.)
In April 2003, the Duma voted to toughen the law against inciting religious hatred by adding prison terms of up to five years for offenders. This was a direct reaction to the Sakharov Museum show. The law was invoked for the first time against Ter-Oganyan. It has never been used against anti-Semitic and neo-Nazi groups, which operate undisturbed.
“It’s a tragic situation,” Elena Bonner told ARTnews in a telephone interview from Boston, where she lives part of the time. Bonner, the widow of Nobel 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 fatwahcondemning Salman Rushdie to death discredited Islam,” she said. Bonner pointed out that the vandals had come to the museum prepared to be offended, with axes, hammers, and cans of spray paint in their pockets.
The organizers of “Caution! Religion” say that 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 of the identification of the state with religion.
The 40 participants included artists from the United States, Japan, and Cuba, as well as Russia. One of the works was Russian-born American artist Alexander Kosolapov’s image of Christ on a Coca-Cola advertisement along with the words “Coca-Cola. This is my blood.” The face of Christ was obliterated. “As the owner of the artwork, I’m upset,” Kosolapov told ARTnewsin a phone interview. “As an artist, I’m proud. I think their action adds value to my art—it still provokes such strong feelings.”
The vandals were locked in the gallery by an alert custodian and arrested by the police. But they had influential protectors. All of them were members of the congregation of St. Nicholas in Pyzhi, whose archpriest, Alexander Shargunov, is a well-known radical fundamentalist. A graduate of the Institute of Foreign Languages in Moscow and a former translator of poetry, Shargunov abandoned literature for the priesthood and since the early 1980s has been campaigning for the canonization of Russia’s last czar, Nicholas II, and his family. In 1997 he established a movement called the Social Committee “For the Moral Revival of the Fatherland.” In 2001 the committee’s Web site carried instructions on how to vandalize “immoral” billboards by splashing paint on them, and followers promptly destroyed 150 billboards in Moscow. Now the Social Committee is agitating against the ad campaign for the popular Red Devil Energy Drink, which Shargunov believes promotes Satanism.
A Social Committee activist, Olga Lochagina, filed a complaint accusing the exhibition organizers of “provoking national, racial, and religious hostility.”
A group of well-known nationalist intellectuals, including film director Nikita Mikhalkov, artist Ilya Glazunov, and writers Valentin Rasputin and Vasily Belov, weighed in with a petition calling the exhibition a “new stage of conscious Satanism.” They wrote that Russia’s enemies were bent on humiliating the powerless “Russian people, their objects of worship, and their historic values.”
Who, precisely, were these powerful enemies? The intellectuals didn’t identify them, but the fascist political party Pamyat (Memory) had no hesitation. The appeal posted on the party Web site called on Orthodox Christians to protect “our Lord Jesus Christ” from “Yid-degenerates,” using the most derogatory term for Jews.
After all this, no one was surprised when the vandals were acquitted of having committed any crime. It was a victory for the mob of believers and priests who had surrounded the courthouse throughout the trial, carrying icons and waving crosses.
It is the exhibition organizers who are likely to suffer. The investigator appointed by the prosecutor, Yuri Tsvetkov, looking for expert testimony that would confirm the guilt of the accused, consulted art historians at the State Center for Contemporary Art, but the experts didn’t find the artworks blasphemous. The relentless Lochagina, who had filed the original complaint, promptly filed another, against the art historians for providing what she called “false” expertise.
Tsvetkov looked elsewhere. He lined up another group of art historians and added a psychologist, a sociologist, and an ethnographer for scientific reinforcement. In November they presented their conclusions—nearly a hundred pages of expertise.
This time they provided the opinions Tsvetkov was looking for. All of them agreed that the exhibition had incited hatred. Natalia Markova, the sociologist, could hardly suppress her contempt for contemporary art, using such phrases in her expertise as the “sticky spiderweb of postmodernism.”
In December 2003, Sakharov Museum director Yuri Samodurov was charged with actions “leading to the provocation of hatred and enmity.” If he is found guilty, he could be sentenced to up to five years in prison. Church officials are not calling for that harsh a penalty. In March the Moscow Patriarchy’s External Relations Department issued a statement that surprised everyone. It asserted, in effect, that the Sakharov Museum exhibition organizers had committed an administrative rather than a criminal offense. The difference is that administrative offenses are punished, at most, by fines, not by prison terms.
Samodurov denies that he intended to offend anyone’s religious feelings and said that his freedom of expression had been violated. “Icons have one meaning when they are in a church,” he said in a press conference at the Sakharov Museum, “and a completely different meaning when they’re hanging in an exhibition hall.”
The Moscow journalist Aleksandr Averushkin titled his article on the Web site atheist.ru about the attack on the Sakharov Museum show “Orthodox Bulldozer,” referring to the infamous “bulldozer exhibition” of 1974, when KGB thugs, with the help of bulldozers, destroyed a show of “unofficial” art in a Moscow park.
Ironically, not long ago, during Soviet times, artists were imprisoned for depicting religious themes.
Anna Alchuk, an artist who participated in “Caution! Religion” and was later charged with conspiracy, told ARTnewsfrom Moscow that she had met Samodurov, with whom she was accused of conspiring, for the first time at the exhibition opening. She said she had read all 14 volumes of evidence collected by the prosecutor, and that 11 volumes consisted entirely of letters from “working people” expressing their outrage at the show and demanding that the artists be punished. Almost none of the writers had seen the exhibition—most had signed form letters—but they accused the artists of such sins as torturing Christ. “If this case actually goes to court,” Alchuk commented, “we will see a real theater of the absurd.”
Konstantin Akinsha is a contributing editor ofARTnews.
This article has been abridged for the Web site.