Tania Goryucheva on Wed, 16 Feb 2005 23:30:18 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Russian artists and curators need support

Organisers of an art exhibition "Beware religion!", Moscow, face the
prosecution under the pressure of religious fanatics and politicians.
Please find bellow the story and letter of support.

More information:

Send your reactions to Anna Alchuk (participant): anna@gnosis.ru
or visit the web-site:

"Orthodox Bulldozer"

Konstantin Akinsha, Artnews.Com

Artists whose works deal with religious themes are reviled by the
Russian Orthodox Church, while the vandals who destroy their works are
hailed as martyrs

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

Vandals sprayed "Vermin" and "Scum, you are devils" over works by Alisa
Zrazhevskaya and Alexander Dorokhov at the Sakharov Museum.


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 i=
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

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

"It's a tragic situation," Elena Bonner told ARTnews in a telepho=
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 fatwah
condemning 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 i=
s 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

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 ARTnews in a phone interview. "As an artist, I=E2=80=
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 estab=
a movement called the Social Committee "For the Moral Revival of the
Fatherland." In 2001 the committee's Web site carried instruction=
s 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

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 enemi=
es 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=E2=80=
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, w=
ho 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

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 statem=
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 fe=
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'=
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 ARTnews from 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."

Open letter concerning the trial on the exhibition "Beware religi=

The criminal case instigated by the Office of Public Prosecution against
the director of Sakharov Centre Ju. Samodurov, the employee of the
Museum of the Centre L. Veselovskaia and the artist A. Alchiuk
(Michalchiuk) concerning the exhibition "Watch out religion!", which is
now taking place in Moscow court, is a shocking proof that the
fundamental statute of Russia as secular democratic state, where the
Church is detached from the State, as it is declared in its Constitution
is not respected. The principle of the freedom of expressing one's views
has been totally violated and has made the artists a victim of an
ideological vision of religious state which some clerical circles in
Russian Orthodoxy Church are attempting to impose on Russian society.
The shameful fact, that instead of "pious pogrom-makers, who destroyed
the objects of art, we see on the dock the victims of vandalism,
testifies that the Office of Public Prosecutor has yielded to pressure
of certain fundamentalistic forces trying to impose their medieval ideas
on our society and to assume the right on religious themes and symbols,
which are the common property of human culture, whether religious or
secular, and which has been included in universal culture Thesaurus for
centuries-old development of European civilization. Civic freedoms are
not created in order that they may serve one ideology. Such a state of
affairs has, we hope, changed with the end of totalitarianism. We all
have the right to live and function in this country and to express our
own views freely. Every culture needs its own sphere of freedom,
incorrectness and difference. Contemporary art is one of such sphere.
Art is not created in order to decorate walls; it is above all a
testimony to its own time and it expresses that which public discourse
cannot perhaps express in any other form. Art is living and volatile
manifestation and its boundaries cannot be regulated by the clauses of
the penal code. This has clearly been testified to by the judgments of
the Human Rights Tribunal in Strasbourg .

Our society is not homogeneous. We can talk about majorities and
minorities belonging to the same society. The artists participated in
the exhibition in dealing with one of the problems which is presented in
this society are expressing their right to be different.

  We demand the respecting of the right to freedom of expression as it
is guaranteed by the Constitution of Russian Federation.

As for suggestion that the artists by their artworks have insulted the
senses of believers and sown dissension between peoples it is nonsense
because the exhibition took place on the territory of secular museum. It
could be a subject of public discussion and criticism but not an object
of court examination.

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