A Russian museum director has fallen foul of both church and state by organising a controversial exhibition that has been accused of offending Orthodox beliefs.
The director of the Sakharov museum, named after the Soviet-era dissident Andrei Sakharov, has been charged with inciting religious hatred for staging the exhibition entitled Look out, Religion!. If found guilty, Yuri Samodurov faces up to five years in jail or a fine of up to 500,000 roubles (£9,369), and could be moved out of his job for five years. “I realised it was a contentious topic, but I thought we could discuss it openly,” he said yesterday.
Most of the artists have been questioned, three have been charged, and the museum curator, Armenian Arutyun Zulumyan, is in hiding.
The exhibition of the work of 40 artists opened early last year but almost all the exhibits were damaged by vandals who poured red paint on the walls and smashed windows four days after it opened. Criminal charges were dropped for lack of evidence, although six men were arrested in the building.
The works – which are now in the prosecutor’s office – included a poster by Aleksandr Kosolapov, a Russian-born American, which depicts the image of Jesus on a Coca-Cola advertisement. “This is my blood,” it said in English. Another was a Russian Orthodox-style icon with a hole as a head through which visitors could poke their heads. Its title came from the Second Commandment: “Thou shalt not carve idols unto Thee.”
Mr Samodorov has always said that the exhibition was not anti-religious. “The artists spoke both about treating religion cautiously, as something that had been outlawed in Soviet times, and about being cautious so as not to become fanatics,” he said. “Actually, most of those artists had been baptised and were believers.”
The criminal charges against him stem from a decision made by a commission set up to decide whether the exhibition incited inter-ethnic or religious hatred.
However, many see the hand of the Orthodox church establishment behind the move, as it has strong ties with the political leadership.