Two Trials, One Issue: The Face of Modern Russia ; One Case Involves an Oil Millionaire, the Other a Respected Museum. but Both Raise the Same Question: Exactly What Sort of Liberty Does Russia Enjoy? Andrew Osborn Reports
Osborn, Andrew, The Independent (London, England)
The day the Soviet flag rattled down the Kremlin flagpole for the last time was supposed to be the day when Russians won what they had been deprived of for over seventy years: freedom.
The hardliners' audacious coup had failed, the Soviet empire and all it stood for was unravelling at a rate of knots and Boris Yeltin, Russia's first post-Soviet president, promised all things to all men. His message was clear - the time for repression and fear was over.
But, 13 years later, freedom, if human rights activists are to be believed, is once again under attack and Russia's government is embracing the very thing its people thought they had consigned to the past: authoritarianism.
This week alone sees two alarming court cases, one an attack on artistic and religious freedom, and the other an overt onslaught on the freedom to participate in politics and criticise the Kremlin.
Modern art often shocks, but its creators are not usually thrown into jail for any offence they cause, particularly in self- proclaimed democracies. But in Vladimir Putin's Russia, wannabe Damien Hirsts have learnt that they need to tread carefully. An ill- judged painting or installation could see the maker tried, jailed and fined if an extraordinary new court case is anything to go by.
Yesterday, two museum workers and an artist went on trial in Moscow for inciting religious hatred. The main defendant in the case could face up to five years in prison if found guilty, be fined up to 500,000 roubles (pounds 9,500) and be banned from holding a position of responsibility for a further five years. His crime: staging an exhibition of modern art which focused on Jesus Christ and the increasingly powerful Russian Orthodox Church.
The exhibition, Ostorojno religiya! (Beware religion!), shocked and angered the church's followers (who technically account for almost two thirds of Russia's 144 million- population) when it first opened in January last year. Like most modern art, it was provocative and uncompromising.
One piece, a poster by a Russian-born American artist called Alexander Kosolapov, had an image of Jesus in a doctored Coca-Cola advertisement poster with the legend "This is my blood." Another, by an artist called Alina Gurevich, featured a church made from vodka bottles in an overt dig at the tax exemption the church used to benefit from when it came to selling alcohol.
Yet another depicted men nailed to a cross, a Swastika and a Soviet star, while a piece by an artist called Alisa Zrazhevskaya gave a controversial twist to the traditional Russian religious symbol of an icon.
In fairground style, the artist removed the saint's head, hands and bible and invited the public to put their own head and hands through the holes.
Inscribed on the installation was the word "vipers". The exhibition included the work of 40 artists and was held in Moscow's Andrei Sakharov museum, an institution that was founded to champion human rights and promote democracy as espoused by the late Soviet dissident and Nobel peace prize-winner whose name it bears.
Supposed to stimulate debate about religion and fanaticism, it quickly whipped up a storm of protest with Orthodox followers, who called it "blasphemous". On day four the exhibition was trashed.
Six Orthodox followers used paint and their fists to damage many of the installations. Two of the men later stood trial for vandalism, but were acquitted and hailed as heroes by the church. Then the tables were turned, dramatically.
The lower house of parliament passed a resolution urging the authorities to investigate whether the exhibition itself had incited religious hatred and to "take the necessary measures". A special commission of experts was duly set up and found that that was the effect of the art. The Russian prosecutor's office swiftly drew up charges. Three people were charged. …