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Art Trial Reveals Clash of Russian Cultures


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Two prominent intellectuals, facing a verdict of up to three years’ imprisonment over a museum exhibition in 2007, issued dire warnings on Thursday that Russia was starting to resemble Nazi Germany, contemporary Iran and the Soviet Union in the harshness of its growing nationalism, dominance of the Russian Orthodox church and fear of modern art.

Yuri Samodurov, former director of Moscow’s Sakharov Museum, and Andrei Yerofeyev, a former curator of the Tretyakov Gallery, have been on trial for nearly two years on charges of fomenting ethnic and religious hatred. The verdict in the case is due Monday. It has sharply divided the Moscow intelligentsia and become a lightning rod for feelings about the church, whose power has grown steadily since Communist rule crumbled two decades ago.

Mr. Yerofeyev opened a news conference on Thursday by showing a video against contemporary art produced by Narodny Sobor, or People’s Council, a nationalist organization that he said was the driving force in the charges against him and Mr. Samodurov. “We have the classic situation of a fascist party that is attacking contemporary culture,” he said. “Through destruction it is trying to get attention, your attention.

”Viktor Yerofeyev, a writer and the older brother of the curator, depicted the trial as having the same impact on the future of Russian cultural life as the prosecution of the former oil magnate Mikhail B. Khodorkovsky on Russian business.

“The verdict will be a verdict on our whole future, on our current authorities,” he said. He defended the works shown at the exhibition, saying “Iron-Caviar,” by Alexander Kosolapov, which depicts an icon of the Mother of God made out of caviar, is an indictment of post-Soviet materialism and a call to spirituality rather than an attack on the Russian Orthodox Church.

The prosecutor stated during oral arguments that he regarded Mr. Samodurov’s and Mr. Yerofeyev’s activities as extremist and directed at inflaming religious strife, and that they intentionally sought to offend believers.

There have already been signs that top officials are concerned about the effect a guilty verdict could have on Russia’s image and international exchanges. The culture minister, Aleksandr Avdeyev, told the Itar-Tass news agency last month that he did not like the exhibition, but that criminal charges were excessive.

Oleg Kassin, the leader of Narodny Sobor, repeatedly petitioned for Mr. Samodurov’s and Mr. Yerofeyev’s prosecution over the 2007 exhibition at the Sakharov Museum, called “Forbidden Art,” which showed works that had been banned from Russia’s museums in 2006 on religious and nationalist pretexts.

Mr. Samodurov was convicted and fined on similar charges in 2005 for a 2003 exhibition at the museum called “Caution, Religion!” which he said was meant to provoke discussion about religion and modern society, but enraged the Russian Orthodox Church and was vandalized by fundamentalists, who damaged some of the art on display.

Underscoring the political passions around the trial, Mr. Samodurov said that the Solidarity opposition movement, led by Boris Nemtsov, who was a government minister under Boris N. Yeltsin, paid for the press conference venue on Thursday.

The Narodny Sobor video shown by Mr. Yerofeyev juxtaposed images of traditional, realist art and Slavic faces with contemporary art and pointedly non-Russian faces. Mr. Yerofeyev, who said he found the video on YouTube, compared the philosophy behind it to that of Nazi Germany attacking art in the 1930s.

“Neo-fascists, wherever they are, fight contemporary art,” Mr. Yerofeyev said.

The trial, held in Moscow’s Tagansky District Court, has become almost a site of pilgrimage for fundamentalist Russian Orthodox believers. Women attend in head scarves and with prayer books to express support for the prosecution.

Viktor Yerofeyev said that he had just returned from a visit to Iran to promote his book about life under Stalin, and found on returning to Moscow that there was “less and less difference” between the Russian capital and the Islamic Republic.

He warned that Russia had not shed the shackles of Soviet ideology and called for some understanding among liberals toward the Kremlin, where some officials, he said, are just as concerned about the nationalists.

“We have the grounds for a spiritual leader to take power here,” he said. “According to our canons, you know who this is.”

Mr. Yerofeyev did not name Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church, but he and the influence of the church were constantly referenced at the news conference.

During the earlier “Caution, Religion!” scandal and trial, Kirill, who was then chairman of the Moscow Patriarchate’s Department of External Church Relations, spoke out against contemporary art that he said was offensive to religious sensibilities.

His top aides have denounced the “Forbidden Art” exhibition as the verdict approaches and said the defendants deserved to be prosecuted. The Rev. Vsevolod Chaplin, who heads the patriarchate’s department on church and society relations, said Thursday that he pitied the defendants, adding that they should be condemned, but not imprisoned.

Under Kirill, there has been growing discussion on the place of contemporary art and culture in church life. The church now blesses rock concerts and leather-jacketed bikers as a means of reaching out to people, and hierarchs have spoken out against enforcing a strict dress code in churches lest it scare away the young, curious and new believers.

In June, the Church of St. Tatiana the Great Martyr, the parish church of Moscow State University, held a contemporary art exhibition that included artists who had been shown in the “Caution, Religion!” exhibition. Mr. Vrubel, the artist who spoke at Thursday’s press conference in defense of Mr. Yerofeyev and Mr. Samodurov, showed part of his “Gospel Project” at the church, a contemporary take on Scripture painted with his wife Viktoria Timofeyeva. Mr. Vrubel became famous with an iconic image of Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Honecker kissing, painted on the Berlin Wall.

The opening night of the exhibition, which was held in the church foyer, looked like it could have been in any cutting edge contemporary gallery in Moscow, with wine served, women in spaghetti strap dresses, and not a head scarf in sight, although there were several priests.

At the opening, and a later round table held in the church basement, the Rev. Maksim Kozlov, the parish rector, said that contemporary Orthodox iconography and church architecture in Russia had reached an impasse and needed an injection of modernity.

Gor Chahal, an artist and the curator of the show, expressed similar sentiments about contemporary art.

“Secular society — and as a result secular art — is entering into a dead end,” he said.

The exhibition highlighted fissures within the church and society: some condemned it as sacrilegious and others accused the artists of selling out to the church.

Father Kozlov said last month that Mr. Yerofeyev and Mr. Samodurov are being rightfully tried for the “Forbidden Art” exhibition, which he found offensive, but that they should be sentenced with caution.

“The main thing is that they not be turned into martyrs by an excessively harsh verdict,” he said.

Sophia Kishkovsky
New York Times
Moscow, 8 July 2010


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