A provocative painting by Lena Hades, a Moscow artist, depicts a double-headed eagle holding a vodka bottle, an anti-Semitic banner, a harmonica, a satellite and a Dostoevsky novel.
Another of her works shows Petrushka, a folklore character, peeking from behind a curtain, half of which bears obscenities and the other half a prayer.
These pictures might land her in jail on charges of extremism for inciting hatred against Russians.
Or they might lead to the repeal of a clause in the Criminal Code that makes it a crime to incite ethnic hatred — which is exactly what ultranationalists want.
Ultranationalists, who have been harshly targeted for inciting ethnic hatred, said they had filed complaints against Hades in hope that a criminal case would change the law.
Moscow's Basmanny District branch of the Investigative Committee has opened a preliminary case against Hades, spokeswoman Natalya Leontyeva said.
Hades, 50, faces up to two years in prison on charges of inciting ethnic hatred and an additional three years for “organizing a group to violate human rights,” she said.
Hades said she had no idea what the group she is charged with creating could be and that an investigator who interviewed her on Monday only mentioned the charge of inciting ethnic hatred.
The investigation was opened "on the request of a group of citizens" who submitted their complaint about Hades more than two years ago, Leontyeva said. She refused to identify them, citing "ethical reasons."
In July 2008, Basmanny investigators held a preliminary inquiry into the complaint and refused to open a criminal case, but in May, Moscow city investigators ordered a new preliminary examination of the complaint, Leontyeva said. She did not explain what prompted the reopening.
Hades has posted images of her paintings, including “Chimera of the Mysterious Russian Soul” with the double-headed eagle and “Our Russia” with the obscenity-strewn curtain, on her LiveJournal blog.
Hades told The Moscow Times that her artwork aimed to depict "the inconsistencies of the mysterious Russian soul."
"Only a Russian can pray and curse simultaneously," Hades said. "A Russian is a saint and a sinner all at once."
Hades said her paintings were "partly self-criticism" because she was "half-Russian." She said she was born in the Kemerovo region and also has Jewish and Tatar roots.
Hades said ultranationalist individuals and groups filed some 300 complaints against her back in 2008 and linked the investigation to a campaign against her that was started in the blogosphere by ultranationalists hoping to use her case to push the public into rallying against Article 282 of the Criminal Code on inciting ethnic hatred, which is often used against ultranationalists.
She said the campaign was started by Natalya Kholmogorova, executive director of the ultranationalist Russian Public Movement, and Anastasia Ivanova, a writer for DPNI.org, the web site of the similarly ultranationalist Movement Against Illegal Immigration.
Kholmogorova confirmed by telephone Sunday that ultranationalists have "actively discussed" the idea of using Hades' art as a pretext to launch a campaign against Article 282.
Ivanova said the campaign aimed to fight the “discriminative” approach when “they jail anti-Semites and ultranationalists but do not jail Russophobes.”
Ivanova said she could not remember who came up with the idea to target Hades, saying it was born "as a spontaneous process on the LiveJournal" and "supported by many people at once."
Hades said she got “very scared” when an investigator, Olga Tatarinova, called her last week and asked her to come in for an interview Monday. Tatarinova said she "personally" found the paintings "offensive," Hades said.
Tatarinova could not be reached for comment Friday or Monday.
Hades said she wrote an explanation about the meaning of her paintings during Monday's interview.
Art experts denounced the case against Hades as an infringement on the constitutional right of free speech.
"How an opinion can be a reason for a criminal case is beyond me," prominent Moscow artist Dmitry Vrubel said.
Independent art historian Anastasia Yurchenko said the number of criminal cases against activist-minded artists has grown over the past three years.
Perhaps the highest-profile case was opened against Yury Samodurov, former curator of the Sakharov Museum, and Andrei Yerofeyev, former head of the contemporary art department of the Tretyakov Gallery, who were accused of inciting religious hatred by organizing the "Forbidden Art" exhibit in 2007. The exhibit, which drew harsh criticism from the Russian Orthodox Church, featured a painting showing Jesus with the head of Mickey Mouse and a crucifix with Lenin on it.
Samodurov and Yerofeyev are currently on trial and face up to five years in prison if convicted. Samodurov was convicted in 2005 on identical charges for an exhibition titled "Watch Out, Religion!" and fined 100,000 rubles ($3,220).
Last June, a Moscow court refused to fine artist German Vinogradov for creating the anagram "nimble thief" out of Mayor Yury Luzhkov's name, but convicted the Kommersant publishing house and its reporter of libel and fined them for reprinting the “nimble thief” slogan used at an anti-Luzhkov rally.
In 2002, a probe was opened against contemporary novelist Vladimir Sorokin for his book "Goluboye Salo," which can be translated as "Light Blue Salo," or "Gay Salo," and describes Josef Stalin and Leonid Brezhnev having sex. Sorokin faced no charges, but Moving Together, a pro-Kremlin youth group, flushed his books down a mock toilet they erected in front of the Bolshoi Theater.
The first post-Soviet artist to become a recognized political emigre was Avdei Ter-Oganyan, who had a criminal case opened against him on charges of inciting religious hatred after he smashed Christian icons with an ax at an art performance at Moscow’s Manezh Central Exhibition Hall in 1998. Ter-Oganyan fled to the Czech Republic.
What will become of charges in the new case involving Hades is unclear, but the ultranationalists are in a militant mood.
"The skin of L. Hades will be made into a sacred banner under which the revolutionary masses are banishing the foul regime of St. Petersburg KGB men into history's basement," read a recent comment on Hades' blog.
"Amen. For our freedom and yours, so to say," Ivanova responded on her own blog, citing a famous patriotic slogan popularized by Poles during their 1830-31 war with Russia.