[artinfo] Russian artists and curators need support

Tania Goryucheva tangor at xs4all.nl
Wed Feb 16 18:40:36 CET 2005

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 at 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 vandalism.

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 
insult 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 March.)

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 undisturbed.

"It's a tragic situation," Elena Bonner told ARTnews in a telephone 
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 is 
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 religion.

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'm 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 established a movement called the Social 
Committee "For the Moral Revival of the Fatherland." In 2001 the 
committee's Web site carried instructions 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 hostility."

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 enemies 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't 
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, who 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 
statement 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 
feelings 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're 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 religion!"

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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