Eye to Eye

The six orthodox believers who vandalized the exhibit claim that Samodurov, below, incited them to do it.

The six orthodox believers who vandalized the exhibit claim that Samodurov, below, incited them to do it.

Just two decades ago in the Soviet Union, few would have been surprised to hear talk of a work of art being brought to trial for offending the ideological beliefs of the majority of the population. Such things happened not once, but many times, most famously in 1966, when writers Yuly Daniel and Andrei Sinyavsky were declared guilty of publishing anti-Soviet works. At the time, Western observers were unanimous in their condemnation.

And yet, in a trial that puts freedom of expression to the test today, prosecutors and the State Duma have come out on the side of the Orthodox Church to charge three organizers of a controversial art exhibition at the Andrei Sakharov Museum and Public Center with intent to insult Orthodox believers. Yury Samodurov, the executive director of the Sakharov Center, Lyudmila Vasilovskaya, the center's exhibitions organizer, and Anna Mikhalchuk, a member of the Literary Union of Russia, took the stand last Tuesday at the Tagansky District Court for their role in the January 2003 exhibition, titled "Caution, Religion," which set sacred symbols in unusual contexts.

A victory over the organizers, who face up to five years in prison, will mean that Russia's do-minant religion has emerged as a force capable of limiting artistic expression, as communists did for most of the last century, Samodurov said Monday.

Mike Solovyanov / MT

Yury Samodurov

But Alexander Chuyev, a Duma deputy from the nationalist Rodina bloc, said in an interview last week that limits are placed on freedom of expression not by the Orthodox Church, but by a law that prohibits insulting religious feelings. Last year, Chuyev convinced the Duma to pass a resolution calling on the prosecutors to investigate the exhibition.

Common targets among the 42 contentious photographs and installations at the exhibition included the mass commercialization of religious beliefs, and the increasingly powerful role that the church has been playing in state affairs. The exhibits included a mock Coca-Cola advertisement, with Christ's face juxtaposed against the words "This is My Blood"; an oversized Orthodox-style icon into which viewers could insert their own heads; and a triptych showing three men crucified on a cross, a red star and a swastika.

Four days after the exhibition opened, six Orthodox followers of Father Alexander Shargunov, a priest who has been leading a nationwide drive for a revival of morality, paid a visit to the museum, smearing paint on the artworks and walls, and scrawling the words "Vermin," "Sacrilege" and "You Hate Orthodoxy." The Sakharov Center attempted to sue the vandals for damages, but charges were dropped in the wake of the Duma resolution and a massive showing of support from the church. In December and January, prosecutors accused Samodurov and the other organizers of conspiring to incite national and religious hatred, and the vandals are now witnesses in their trial.

Answering the charges at Tuesday's opening session, Samodurov and the other two defendants said that it was unclear whom the exhibition had hurt other than the artists and the center's employees, and their lawyers argued the charges were improperly filed and nebulous. In a small victory for the defense, Judge Natalia Larina ruled Wednesday that prosecutors have five days to specify the charges.

The inability of the prosecution and defense to agree on the substance of the case reflected an ongoing disagreement as to the context in which the trial should be viewed. According to Samodurov and the Sakharov Center, the case is a test of Russia's fledgling right to free expression, artistic and otherwise. But in the opinion of Chuyev, the Duma legislator, what's at stake is an equally newborn privilege -- the freedom to practice one's religion unhindered.

When the trial resumes, Samodurov plans to defend the exhibition as an effort to provoke thought, not hatred, through artistic expression. "There was no anti-religious intention," he commented. "The purpose was to give the artists the chance to express their attitudes toward religious institutions and manifestations of religiousness, both positive and negative."

According to Samodurov, the triptych with the crucifix, red star and swastika was intended as a warning against religious fundamentalism. The image of Christ on the Coca-Cola logo was meant as a protest against the commercialization of religion. "What else is it when people in cassocks -- I beg your pardon for calling them 'priests' -- bless restaurants?" he asked.

Religion has experienced a revival in the post-Soviet period, with many destroyed churches rebuilt and top officials, including President Vladimir Putin and his predecessor Boris Yeltsin, shown on television attending church services. During a visit to the Duma last week, Patriarch Alexy II told lawmakers of a prayer that had been developed especially for them.

Yet Chuyev dismissed criticism of the Church's rising influence, saying that school curricula do not require lessons on religious subjects, and that the media "propagate the cult of wealth." What angered the museum's attackers, he said, was the "improper" use of religious symbols. According to the indictment, the juxtaposition of images such as the cross and swastika caused an involuntary and natural reaction on the part of believers like Nikolai Smakhtin, who took part in the attack and is now a witness in the trial.

"The methods used to insult the sacred objects of the Christian faith were intolerable for the psyche of a faithful Christian, and, as [Smakhtin] believes, of any normal nonbeliever," the indictment reads.

Prosecutors backed up this line of argument with an expert opinion from a psychologist, Vera Abramenkova, who testified in the indictment that "the sacrilegious comparison of a sanctity and a mass product, of the high and the low, contains a provocation, and causes reciprocal hostile actions on the part of the recipient, the development of affective reactions, and aggressive and intolerant relations between individuals and social groups on the grounds of their religious beliefs."

Chuyev approved of the attack, saying that the men had done what they could to stop a crime. "The freedom of expression ends where the rights of other people begin," he said. "If you draw sexual acts or pornography, then you will also be condemned because there are norms of morality. Any freedom of expression should be regulated by law."

Samodurov denied that the artists' use of religious symbols was an insult. "Contemporary art has long been using Christian symbols that are meaningful for believers," he said, adding that the images of God, the Virgin and the saints belong to believers and nonbelievers to equal extents. "Religious censorship is absolutely impossible and unacceptable for works of art that aren't intended for temples," he argued.

Samodurov, who said that he had once made a contribution to a restoration fund for a Moscow church destroyed by the Bolsheviks, admitted that some of the works had, indeed, shocked him, "but I took pains to understand their point. You shouldn't say that artists create their works to insult someone."

He also suggested that the exhibition's critical take on growing Orthodox clout had angered the church more than it would care to admit. Most of the artworks at the exhibition faulted the church for attempting to establish itself in "a leading ideological and political role in the country" -- a position that had formerly been occupied by the Communist Party. And it is precisely that growing influence that has made it possible to prosecute the artists in a trial that "wouldn't have been possible several years ago," Samodurov said.