The Economist reports:
It was bad enough that an art exhibition attracted the attention of Russia’s criminal-justice authorities. It was worse that the exhibition was in Moscow’s Sakharov centre and museum, one of the few institutions in Russia that stands squarely behind the tradition of human rights, exemplified by the saintly physicist and dissident for whom it is named. Now prosecutors have said that they want the organisers of the 2007 “Forbidden Art” exhibition, the director of the centre, Yuri Samodurov, and Andrei Yerofeev, an art historian (both pictured), to be sentenced to a three-year jail term for “debasing the religious beliefs of citizens and inciting religious hatred”. Many say that the exhibition’s real crime was to highlight the overlap between official orthodoxy and the religious version.
The prosecutors’ move has aroused a furious reaction from the dwindling ranks of Russia’s intelligentsia, and in the non-Kremlin media. In an open letter to the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, Mr Yerofeev apologises (link in Russian) for unintentionally hurting believers’ feelings, but also blasts the church for teaming up with hardline officials and rightwing extremists. Which, of course, was one of the messages of the exhibition.
A leading Russian intellectual and professor of Russian at Oxford Universiry, Andrei Zorin, has sent the following comment to Eastern Approaches. (The full Russian version is here.)
Today anyone remotely interested in Russian affairs is closely watching the drama of the trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky. However, another trial taking place in Moscow attracts much less public attention, but might potentially be no less consequential.
Three years ago one of the leading Russian contemporary art curators, Andrei Yerofeev, organised an exhibition called “Forbidden Art”, in the Andrei Sakharov centre in Moscow, where he presented a collection of art works banned from previous exhibitions. To draw attention to political censorship Yerofeev put all the works behind a curtain with one hole in it, above human height, so that in order to see the works one had to climb a stool and peep through the hole. Only people who really wanted to see the art works of art were able to. However, Yerofeev, as well as Yury Samodurov, the director of the Sakharov centre at the time, were accused of inciting hatred and insulting religious feelings, and prosecuted.
This week the prosecutors demanded a jail sentence of three years for each of them. The verdict will be announced on July 12th. The trial was instigated by the so called “People’s council”, a movement of militant religious radicals with strong anti-Semitic views which claims to have the official backing of the Orthodox church.
There can be no doubt that a guilty verdict will dramatically change the political climate in Russia and deal a powerful, if not a mortal, blow to the much-hyped modernisation plans of President Dmitry Medvedev. Whether economic and technological modernisation can succeed without political reforms is the subject of intense discussions in Russia. But no one can hope to modernise society without freedom of conscience and the freedom of thought.
Russia’s image abroad, which had just started to improve, will be ruined for at least another decade. The damage to the country’s reputation may prove even longer-lasting than in the Khodorkovsky case. Businessmen are pragmatic people and can sometimes be prepared to trade one of their own to save their investments. Artists and intellectuals are less forgiving.
The story of an art curator and human-rights activist jailed for arranging an exhibition will haunt Russia and all its projects of cultural integration with the West. In such an environment who needs grandiose events like the current “Russian year” in France?
Moreover, once the radicals and fundamentalists smell blood they will become even more aggressive and persistent in their efforts to turn Russia into a version of Ahmadinejad’s Iran. That will, in turn, provoke a powerful reaction from the educated public, especially among young people. To think that this trial would have no impact on the lives of people in Russia is as naïve as it was to imagine seven years ago that the arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky would have no impact on business and politics.
The well-known Russian gallery owner Marat Gelman has already announced that the day after a guilty verdict is handed down, he will reopen “Forbidden Art” in his gallery. Mr Yerofeev and Mr Samodurov had never intended to incite hatred or to insult anyone. They had carefully shielded the exhibition from the eyes of those who might take offence. Their trial will reinforce tensions and animosities that already tear Russia society apart. The reputation of the Russian Orthodox church, which is being used as a cover for persecuting innocent people, will suffer too. One can only wonder who in the corridors of power is interested in such a result.