Making Art a Crime

On Monday, a museum's director and curator, and an artist, may well be found guilty of, and sentenced to multi-year prison terms for inciting hostility toward, and humiliating, religious believers.

Saudi Arabia? No, Russia.

Tragically, after seven decades of official and systematic hostility toward, and humiliation of, religious believers – and after an inspiring struggle to build a democratic and free society atop the debris of centuries of despotic rule by czars and commissars – Russia seems to be sliding back.

And the prosecutorial noose that Russia's political and judicial authorities are about to place around the neck of its nascent democracy is braided from strands they've drawn directly from the worst of the despotic traditions that preceded them.

The case grows out of an art exhibition put on in 2003 by the Andrei Sakharov Museum and Public Center in Moscow. That exhibition, titled "Caution! Religion," included one piece that showed the image of Christ on a Coca-Cola ad, another that showed human figures nailed to crosses and a swastika and yet another that showed a church made of vodka bottles.

Russian Orthodox activists vandalized the exhibition as soon as it opened, spray-painting some works and breaking others. The activists were charged but then acquitted. And after Orthodox church officials condemned the show, Russia's parliament overwhelmingly passed a decree ordering the state prosecutor to act against the exhibit's organizers.

The trial ended early in March, with the prosecutor demanding that the museum's director, Yuri Samodurov, be sentenced to a penal colony for three years, that a curator and an artist be sentenced for two years, that all be barred from administrative jobs forever, and that the remaining artworks be destroyed. On Monday, the judge will issue the verdicts (and sentences).

The trial was an open one, unlike some other recent trials in Russia. But the zeal of the prosecutor, and the tenor of the courtroom, which was packed with visitors hostile to the defendants and clearly anti-Semitic in their views, don't inspire confidence about the trial's outcome.

Moreover, the defendants and their lawyers strongly believe that the court has been under enormous pressure from top officials of the Prosecutor General's office as well as from the hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church.

A finding of innocence on Monday will keep the post-Soviet effort to bring Russia out of centuries of despotism on its brittle but still-existing track.

But a finding of guilt will shatter that track and push the courageous train of Russian democratization toward its age-old abyss.

Walter Reich is the Yitzhak Rabin Memorial Professor of International Affairs, Ethics and Human Behavior at George Washington University and a former director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

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