06/24/2004, 00.00
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Freedom of expression on trial

Moscow (AsiaNews/Agencies) –  Freedom of expression is on trial more than 10 years after the collapse of the totalitarian Soviet regime. Charges of  'insulting Orthodox believers' and 'inciting religious hatred" have been filed by the state and the Orthodox Church against three organizers of  the "Caution, Religion" art exhibit which targeted the commercialisation and abuses of religion. Yury Samodurov, Lyudmila Vasilovskaya, and Anna Mikhalchuk face five years in prison and a fine equivalent to 27,100 US dollars for their involvement in the January 2003 exhibition at the Andrej Sakharov Museum and Public Center. On Wednesday June 15, they took the stand at Tagansky District Court in Moscow.

"The victory over the organizers will mean that the Orthodox Church has emerged as a force capable of limiting artistic expression, as communists did for most of the last century," stated Samodurov, executive director of the Sakharov Center.

But Alexander Chuyev, a Duma (lower Parliament) deputy from the nationalist Rodina bloc, stated that 'limits placed on freedom of expression came not from the Orthodox Church, but by a law that prohibits insulting religious feelings." Chuyev initiated the investigation of the exhibition last year.

Among the 42 photographs and presentations meant, Samodurov explains, to "provoke thought, not hatred, through artistic expression" are a mock Coca-Cola advertisement with Christ's face juxtaposed with the words 'This is my blood', an oversized Orthodox style icon into which viewers could insert their own heads, and a triptych showing three men crucified on a cross, a red star, and a swastika.

 "There was no anti-religious intention. The purpose was to give the artists the chance to express their attitudes towards religious institutions and manifestations of religiousness, both positive and negative." According to Samordurov, the triptych was intended as a warning against religious fundamentalism, while the image of Christ and the Coca Cola logo was meant as a protest against the commercialisation of religion.

Yet four days after the exhibit opened, six Orthodox radicals raided the museum, smearing paint and writing condemnations on the  displays. The Center filed charges of vandalism against the men, who were acquitted after a massive showing of  support by the Orthodox Church. Chuyev and others approved of the attack, saying that the men had done what they could to stop a crime. Several of these men have now been called as witnesses for the prosecution. "Any freedom of expression should be regulated by law," Chuyev argued.

Samodurov denies that the artists' use of religious symbols was an insult, but admitted that some of the works had shocked him as well. "I took pains to understand their point," he explained. Most of the artworks faulted the Orthodox Church for attempting to establish itself as a "leading ideological and political role in the country", a position formerly occupied by the Communist Party.

The exhibition's critical look at growing Orthodox clout angered the church more than it cared to admit, Samodurov suggested. 

Chuyev's opinion is that while Samodurov and the Sakharov Center are fighting for Russia's new found right to free expression, the freedom to practice one's religion unhindered is also a newly born privilege at stake.

The Sakharov Center trial comes just days after the government began enforcing a ban on Jehovah's Witnesses, decided by a Moscow Court in March and supported by Orthodox officials.  (JC)


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