All hell has broken loose in Moscow as a result of a controversial art exhibition, held last year at the Sakharov Centre in the Russian capital. The works on display unleashed the wrath of Russian Orthodox groups and prompted the Public Prosecutor to launch a criminal investigation. The trial is due to get under way in a matter of weeks.
Andrei Sakharov used to live a stone's throw from the middle of all this commotion. From his apartment, the Nobel peace laureate looked out at the site of the cultural centre that now bears his name. Sakharov, the standard-bearer of the dissident movement in the Soviet Union, died in 1989.
The Sakharov Centre is not just a museum of human rights. In the ten years since it opened, it has been the venue for over 60 diverse exhibitions. Two of these have provoked an outraged response from Russian Orthodox believers. 'Caution! Religion!' was the first, followed last year by 'Forbidden Art'. Spurred on by religious organisations, the Public Prosecutor has launched a criminal investigation into the case, which could result in which could result in the director of the Sakharov Centre, Yuri Samodurov, being put behind bars. Samodurov believes that
"If the case goes to court, a 'guilty' verdict will be the likely outcome. Even if the judge understands that there was nothing out of the ordinary going on, it is still unlikely that he will play the hero and risk his career in the process."
The political tide has turned in the favour of the exhibition's critics. Samodurov is afraid that the Russian Orthodox Church is increasingly becoming a state religion and taking on the role of the former Department of Ideology in the Communist era.
The 'Forbidden Art' exhibition was aimed at censorship in all its forms. Visitors were separated from the artworks by a white hardboard wall and had to peer through the cracks at works that were once banned by the authorities. Igor Kassin, head of a nationalist Russian Orthodox group, went to see the exhibition and was offended. He explains:
"There were paintings on display that were an affront to Christian ethics and morals. One painting depicted Jesus Christ on the cross with the Order of Lenin where His head should have been. Another portrayed Christ as Mickey Mouse."
Mr Kassin said the exhibition also featured obscene language and pornographic images. Armed with this evidence, he approached the Public Prosecutor and demanded an investigation. Members of his and other organisations held a protest outside the centre. Mr Kassin believes that the exhibition's organisers must be punished for their deeds.
Guest curator Andrei Yerofeyev has already felt the consequences of the current cultural climate. He used to be responsible for the modern art section of Russia's most celebrated art collection, the Tretyakov Gallery, but he was recently dismissed and his department was dissolved. The heads of the gallery say this has nothing to do with the controversy that has broken out at the Sakharov Centre. Samodurov emphasises the importance of modern art as a means of expression, as a special language.
"If you use that language to broach sensitive issues, such as the relationship between church and society and church and state, you have to bring contrasting images together, create a clash of ideas. It goes without saying that the artist is not using these images in a religious context; he is playing with them."
Many of the works from 'Forbidden Art' date from the Soviet Era. The religious symbols that were then used in the underground art circuit were primarily intended to mock the Communist regime and were not targeting religion, which was itself subject to state oppression. To openly profess your beliefs in those days took courage.
Critics of the Sakharov Centre dismiss these arguments and claim that the organisers of the exhibition were knowingly and deliberately ridiculing religion. The Russian Orthodox Church regards both the organisers and the participating artists as people who are "unworthy of a handshake".
Yuri Samodurov says he quite understands that the works exhibited might offend some.
"Many of these works are indeed provocative. Art used to be something that awakened a sense of beauty in people, a sense of a higher purpose. But this kind of art is different: its aim is to address a certain problem. It can spark strong emotions such as incomprehension and outrage."
* RNW translation (dd)