[Paleopsych] NYT: Russia Fines Museum Aides for Art Said to Ridicule Religion

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The New York Times > International > Europe > Russia Fines Museum Aides
for Art Said to Ridicule Religion
March 29, 2005


    MOSCOW, March 28 - A Russian court on Monday convicted a museum
    director and a curator of inciting religious hatred with an exhibition
    of paintings and sculptures that, to many, ridiculed the Russian
    Orthodox Church.

    In a criminal case that tested the boundaries of artistic expression
    in Russia, the court ruled that the exhibition at the Andrei Sakharov
    Museum was "openly insulting and blasphemous." It rejected the
    prosecutor's appeal to sentence the two defendants to prison, however,
    and instead fined them the equivalent of $3,600 each.

    The case against the exhibition, titled "Caution! Religion," has
    deeply divided Russia's religious and artistic groups ever since it
    opened briefly in January 2003, provoking alternate charges of
    censorship and animosity toward religious believers. Monday's verdict
    satisfied neither side entirely.

    Yuri V. Samodurov, director of the Sakharov Museum, which is named for
    the late Soviet dissident and human-rights advocate, said he was
    relieved by the nature of the punishment, though not by the court's
    ruling. He said he had gone to court with his prescription medicines,
    assuming that he would immediately be imprisoned.

    Still, he said, the court's verdict asserted the state's power to
    dictate the limits of artistic expression. "In essence," he said in a
    telephone interview, "the court declared a certain kind of art

    Aleksandr V. Chuyev, a member of the lower house of Parliament who
    played a role in pressing prosecutors to bring criminal charges
    against the museum, agreed that the verdict would set a precedent, but
    one he considered healthy.

    He said the case had established the legal foundation for prosecutions
    relating to other exhibitions, as well as pornography, films and other
    works that offend the faithful. He cited a recent exhibition by an
    artists' collective called Russia 2, which addressed similar themes at
    the First Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art last month and also
    prompted calls from Orthodox leaders for criminal prosecution.

    "The people and the authorities now understand that religion and the
    feelings of believers should not be touched on," Mr. Chuyev said in a
    telephone interview. "They should understand that their rights end
    where the other person's begin."

    The exhibition had been open only four days before six men from an
    Orthodox church in Moscow ransacked the museum, damaging or destroying
    many of the 45 works on display. Criminal charges against four of the
    men were dropped, while two others were acquitted last year in a trial
    that led to the new charges against Mr. Samodurov; the museum's
    curator, Lyudmila V. Vasilovskaya, who was also convicted and fined on
    Monday; and one of the artists, Anna Mikhalchuk.

    Ms. Mikhalchuk, who exhibits under the name Alchuk, was acquitted
    Monday. She said the verdict in effect erased the separation of church
    and state in today's Russia. "I am afraid the formulation of the
    court's ruling will be used as a precedent for the authorities," she
    said. "It practically crosses out Russia on the list of secular

    The works addressed spiritual and political aspects of the Orthodox
    Church, whose influence over politics, if not society generally, has
    grown since the Soviet Union collapsed.

    One sculpture depicted a church made of vodka bottles, a biting
    allusion to the tax exemption the church received in the 1990's to
    sell alcohol. A poster by Aleksandr Kosolapov, a Russian-born American
    artist whose work often satirizes state symbols, depicted Jesus on a
    Coca-Cola advertisement. "This is my blood," it said in English. The
    court refused a request by prosecutors to destroy the artworks,
    ordering that they be returned to the artists who created them.

    The Rev. Aleksandr Shargunov, a priest from the church, St. Nikolai in
    Pyzhi, whose parishioners attacked the exhibition, derided the fines
    as too lenient. He described the exhibition as a deliberate and
    hostile provocation and called for more stringent laws against
    desecration of icons and other sacred symbols.

    "The prophecies say that once God is insulted, expect trouble," he
    said. "And this is what happened."

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