June will be a cruel month in Russia's courts. On June 16th, the rebellious oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his comrade-in-arms Platon Lebedev finally began to face the judges of the Meshchansky district court. No doubt, this case will attract the Russian and international press. Hearings began just the day before Khodorkovsky's trial opened in another case that is no less significant. But this case is not about oligarchs trying to interfere in politics; it is about a group of artists and curators whose professional activities have unexpectedly turned into a political hot potato.
In January 2003, a gang of Russian Orthodox activists destroyed an exhibition in the Sakharov Museum and Public Center called "Caution! Religion." The organizers of the exhibition stated that they wanted to attract attention to the new role of religious institutions in Russian life. But the Orthodox fundamentalists found the art blasphemous and offensive, and some trashed the exhibition.
Last December, prosecutors charged two Sakharov Museum officials and three of the exhibition's organizers with inciting religious hatred. They now face prison terms of up to five years. The vandals, meanwhile, were hailed by church officials as heroes. All charges against them were dismissed.
The vandals 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. 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. Followers promptly destroyed 150 billboards in Moscow.
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) did not hesitate. The appeal posted on its Web site called on Orthodox Christians to protect "our Lord Jesus Christ" from "Yid-degenerates," using the most derogatory Russian term for Jews.
These alarming events in the art world have taken place against a background of rising nationalism and Orthodox assertiveness in Russia. The Orthodox Church has acquired enormous political clout in recent years, and few politicians 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 artists and laud the vandals.
In February 2003, the Duma passed a decree stating that the Sakharov museum exhibition's purpose was to incite religious hatred and to insult believers and the Orthodox Church. The state prosecutor was ordered to take action against the organizers, with 265 of 267 deputies approving the measure. 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.
In December 2003, Sakharov Museum director Yuri Samodurov was charged with actions "leading to the provocation of hatred and enmity." If 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 2004, 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 with fines, at most, not prison terms.
Such a softening of the church's position was probably the result of the public outcry in Russia's liberal press. Yet the pogrom at the Sakharov museum provoked a chain reaction of similar attacks on contemporary art by Orthodox fundamentalists whom the church has been unable to control.
Anna Alchuk, an artist who participated in the exhibition in the Sakaharov Center and was later charged, 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 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. "The events around the exhibition discredit the Russian Orthodox Church, just as the fatwah condemning Salman Rushdie to death discredited Islam," said Elena Bonner, Andrei Sakharov's widow.
The outcome of the court hearings is difficult to predict, but it will answer the question of whether Russians have lost the freedom artistic self-expression that they gained after communism's fall. Disillusion with "democracy Boris Yeltsin-style" has pushed President Vladimir Putin to search for an ideology based on nationalism and the glorification of the state. Putin calls it "managed pluralism." As we can now see, the Social Committee For the Moral Revival of the Fatherland wants to be among the managers.