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.