Russian Art Curators Fined for Controversial Images of Jesus

Article excerpt

Two Russian art curators were found guilty, after a 14 month trial, of violating Russia's tough hate-speech law. Some say the verdict protects religious values, but others decry it as censorship.

A Moscow court' found two former museum curators guilty of "inciting hatred" against Christians. But some Russian analysts say the verdict will cast a chill over artistic freedom in Russia and encourage extreme nationalists to target a wider range of liberal voices.

At issue was a 2007 exhibition at the Sakharov Museum that featured "images which are derogatory and insulting to Christianity and religious people," which is a serious crime under Russian law.

Entitled "Forbidden Art," it aimed to challenge censorship and included several controversial images of Jesus - including one which replaced his head with that of Mickey Mouse, and another with the Soviet-era Order of Lenin medal.

Moscow's Tagansky court ruled that the former director of the Andrei Sakharov Museum, Yury Samodurov, and the ex-head of the Tretyakov Gallery's modern art section, Andrei Yarofeyev, "committed actions aimed at inciting hatred." The 14-month trial included more than 134 witnesses for the prosecution, most of whom admitted they had never viewed the art works in question.

The pair could have faced jail terms of up to five years, but were instead handed fines. Mr. Samodurov must pay 200,000 roubles (about $6,500), while Mr. Yerofeyev was fined 150,000 roubles (about $5,000), RIA Novosti reported.

Censorship by the state, or the people?

The defendants and their supporters say that the law under which they were convicted, which is a tougher and broader version of hate- speech laws that are common in Western countries, is being abused by the very extremist forces whose activities should be scrutinized and curbed under the law.

At a press conference last week, Yerofeyev accused a shadowy religious-nationalist group, Narodny Sobor, of instigating the original complaint against the 2007 art show.

"We have the classic situation of a fascist party that is attacking contemporary culture," Yerofeyev told journalists. "Through destruction it is trying to get attention."

Representatives of Narodny Sobor - a small group that is not exactly a household name in Russia - made themselves easily available for comment following Monday's verdict.

"Glory to the court," says Alexander Lapin, head of the group's Moscow organization. "This is not about different tastes, but about the incitement of religious hatred... Yes, we filed the complaint against that exhibition, and we were supported by other religious confessions [apart from the Orthodox Church], including Muslims and Jews. In a country where 70 percent of the population are religious, no one can be allowed to wipe their feet on one of the principal religions."

"This may be informal censorship, not from the state but from society," he adds. "That's what civil society is for."

This is not the first time the Sakharov Museum has faced legal troubles over an art exhibit. …