Russian Art Exhibitors Face Five Years for Clash With Orthodox Fundamentalists

Just as Christianity Today reports on the persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia (a subject of this blog here), the AP provides details on the “anti-religious trial” currently underway in Moscow:

Yuri Samodurov, who manages the Andrei Sakharov Museum, was charged after holding an exhibit titled “Caution, Religion” in January 2003.

Samodurov and his colleague, Lyudmila Vasilovskaya, face up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $17,000 if found guilty of inciting religious hatred, while artist Anna Mikhalchuk faces a prison term of up to four years and a fine…

And what exactly did they exhibit to face such a heavy penalty?

Exhibited works by about 40 artists included a Russian Orthodox-style icon with a hole instead of a head where visitors could insert their faces.

Another work featured a Coca-Cola logo against the usual red background but with Jesus’ face drawn next to it and the words, “This is my blood.”

The AP also adds that:

The exhibit was vandalized four days after its opening. The six attackers were detained and charged with hooliganism, but the charges were dropped after a publicity campaign conducted by a Russian Orthodox priest.

And who would the priest be? Art News Online reports:

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…

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.

Shargunov, as it happens, was a subject of the very first day of this blog, where I noted both his pamphlet about the soldier Evgeny Rodionov and his compilation about Tsar Nicolas II, that states that:

Even if many will become silent out of fear of the Jews about the murder of the Royal passion-bearers, the rocks will cry out.

Funnily, that doesn’t count as inciting religious hatred…

The outcome of the trial would appear to be a foregone conclusion, their guilt having already been affirmed by the Russian Parliament:

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.)

However, Art News notes also that the Patriarchate itself is not calling for the harsh penalty against Samodurov. Probably his defence of Chechen human rights is the real reason the government wants him put away: the outrage of religious fundamentalists is just a means to an end.