Tania Goryucheva on Thu, 17 Feb 2005 09:02:36 +0100 (CET)

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[Nettime-ro] [spectre] Russian artists and curators need support

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@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 

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 

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 

"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 

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 

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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