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Convictions of museum officials spark debate over artistic freedom in Russia

MOSCOW—A Moscow art show that depicted a naked woman being crucified and Jesus Christ appearing in a Coca-Cola ad with the words "This is my blood" so angered some Orthodox Christians that they attacked the exhibit with black paint.

The attackers weren't prosecuted, but the director of the Andrei Sakharov Museum and the curator of the exhibition, which was called "Caution! Religion," were convicted last week of inciting religious hatred.

They appealed that verdict on Monday, vowing to press their case all the way to the European Court of Human Rights.

The Sakharov Museum case is considered an important early test of freedom of expression in Russia, pitting artists, authors and journalists against the state and the Russian Orthodox Church, whose influence has grown steadily since the demise of the Soviet Union. Even President Vladimir Putin acknowledged he could not override the church's wish to prevent Pope John Paul II from visiting Russia.

International rights groups have assailed the verdict, and former Czech President Vaclav Havel, well known as an advocate of human rights, called the case "a deplorable attack on freedom of speech."

The museum director, Yuri Samodurov, who was fined $3,600—half a year's salary—said, "This ruling sets up a religious and cultural fence between Russia and the rest of Europe.

"In the Soviet Union, I always felt like I was living in a hostile country. And now I feel that way again, like I'm living in a hostile nation," he said in an interview in his museum office.

Church officials and some Russian politicians support the verdict. A church spokesman said the church was "satisfied that a crime has been called a crime," though the church was disappointed that the prosecutor's request that the artworks be destroyed was refused and that neither the museum director nor curator received jail time.

"This was the first trial of its kind, and the aim was to show that there are limits to freedom," said Alexander Chuyev, a member of the Duma, the Russian parliament, who demanded that prosecutors take the case. Chuyev said the verdict sent "the correct message."

"Russia is still finding and testing the limits on freedom of expression, that's perfectly true, but freedom and a free-for-all are two different things," he said.

In organizing the January 2003 exhibition, Samodurov and curator Ludmila Vasilovskaya invited more than 40 artists to contribute works showing their attitudes toward religion. (Only one of the participating artists was charged in the case, Anna Mikhalchuk, and she was acquitted.)

The museum show had been open only four days when six men from the St. Nicholas church near the Kremlin arrived with plastic bags of paint and spray cans. Security cameras didn't show them touring the exhibition or viewing the works; instead, they seemed to go right to work.

On one piece, the St. Nicholas parishioners spray-painted the words, "Sacrilege! You Hate Orthodox Christians. You Are Cursed." On another they wrote, "Scum! You Are Devils."

They also destroyed a piece that let museumgoers pose for photographs while poking their heads through a hole where Jesus' face should have been.

"Even under the Soviets, when religion was controlled, believers were never humiliated like this," said Chuyev, the Duma member. "Exhibits that ridicule the sacred symbols of the Russian faith should not be publicly shown."

Father Alexander Shargunov, the parish priest at St. Nicholas, said he hadn't encouraged the men: "I didn't have to. If you see a child is being raped or if your mother is being beaten up in front of you, there can be only one reaction."

Samodurov said he thought the government pressed the court case so strongly because the Kremlin is angry at the museum's criticism of the Russian military campaign in the breakaway republic of Chechnya.

The museum, named after the late Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov, maintains a permanent exhibit about Soviet-era oppression and human-rights abuses. It staged a controversial film series about the war in Chechnya last year, and a large banner over the museum entryway reads, "Enough!", the slogan of peace advocates.

But Samodurov said he hasn't had enough: He's planning a new exhibition about Russian political prisoners—not prisoners from the past, not from the dark days of communism.

"Political prisoners today," he said with a sly smile, emphasizing the word "today."

"We're still deciding who exactly qualifies as a political prisoner. So far we've counted 43 of them."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): RUSSIA-ART

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