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The Separation of Church and Art

The Moscow Times

By Andrei Zolotov Jr.

I am glad I did not have to cover the Sakharov Museum exhibit case as a reporter Ц it would have been very hard for me to be impartial. But as an Orthodox Christian and a concerned Russian citizen, I followed the debate thoroughly. At stake for me were not just my personal feelings as a believer, not just another clash between traditionalist and modernist worldviews, but also the prospects of building civil society in my country.

If, under pressure from the ultra-secularist human rights establishment, the court had found the exhibit organizers innocent, I would have seen it as a deeply immoral and offensive decision. Perhaps more so than the exhibit itself: It is one thing to be insulted by a group of atheists and another to be insulted by the state upholding their actions. On the other hand, if museum director Yury Samodurov and his colleagues had been jailed, that would not only have turned them into martyrs of the secularist cause, but would also have signaled a return of ideology-inspired repression of individuals.

The exhibit organizers were not tried for blasphemy, which they committed Ц there is no such article in the Criminal Code. They were found guilty of instigating religious hatred. Did they? Of course they did Ц at least in a group of radical Orthodox Christians who vandalized the exhibit, as well as, indirectly, in me and millions of my co-religionists.

It is hardly a justification for Samodurov and his defenders that a cynical manipulation of religious and cultural symbols has become one of the main currents of modern art. When someone puts together such an exhibit not at an art gallery but at a human rights museum, it is, unfortunately, in line with the spirit of the human rights movement and liberal secular humanism in general. It is ideologically rooted in the Enlightenment and saturated with its atheistic pathos.

The problem for society is not that these people believe differently, but that their ideology claims to be universal, progressive and inclusive, that it is presented as the only basis for the country's democratic development. In reality, however, it is strictly exclusive of any coherent religious faith, not just traditional Christianity.

The debate represented a clash between two civil liberties: freedom of religion and freedom of expression. The exhibit organizers violated their own liberal concept of one man's freedom ending where another's begins. As strange as it may sound, the six men from the radical parish of St. Nicholas in Pyzhi used the means at their disposal, such as balls filled with paint, to defend my rights Ц and those of many others Ц from human rights advocates who claim to be the leading force in the construction of civil society in Russia.

If the court had found Samodurov innocent, it would have meant that there was no place for me as an individual Ц or for the Orthodox Church in general, as well as for the Russian Protestants, Muslims and Jews who came to our side during the trial Ц in a civil society based on the values of human rights advocates and a few modern artists. And the state would have endorsed it.

The future of Russia depends to a large extent on whether the Russian Orthodox Church, which commands cultural sympathies of up to 70 percent of Russian citizens and has up to 7 percent of the population as active members, becomes a full-fledged civil society institution. After licking its wounds in the 1990s, it has only begun to move in that direction and still has a long way to go.

By passing a mild but fair sentence, the court broke the secularist monopoly in the public sphere and ruled in favor of social peace. It thus left the opportunity open for building a civil society in Russia that would include the country's culturally traditionalist majority.

Andrei Zolotov Jr., a former Staff Writer at The Moscow Times, is the editor of Russia Profile. He contributed this comment, which represents his personal views, to The Moscow Times.


By Marat Gelman

The Andrei Sakharov Museum's Yury Samodurov and Lyudmila Veselovskaya are free, and I'm happy they will not do time; that would have been both a shame and a tragedy. It is said that many criminals are pious in their own way and try to find nontraditional ways of making up for their sins. Thus, Samodurov has avoided not only jail, but also any potentially self-incriminating atonement.

But an inquisition has been unleashed on the art community in Russia, and it is forcing artists to abandon their homeland. Avdei Ter-Oganyan, a leading Russian performance artist in the 1990s, had to emigrate to Berlin. Visual artist Oleg Yanushevsky had to seek political asylum outside of Russia after his works, which had little to do with the Orthodox Church, were smashed.

More recently, certain gangs of young people are proclaiming that they find the novels of Vladimir Sorokin, Viktor Pelevin and Viktor Yerofeyev offensive. Did someone force them read these writers in school, the way students once had to read Brezhnev's novels? Yet the most important question is where we draw the line between art and danger. Almost two-thirds of world literature contains material some ultraconservatives would find objectionable. So, should we ban all secular culture?

Time usually proves those who condemn art wrong. Let's take a few more examples from Russian history. There was Pyotr Chaadayev, who was officially declared insane and put under house arrest after he wrote his famous philosophical letters critical of Russian society. Or what about Alexander Pushkin, whose poem "Gavrilliada" was condemned as blasphemous by the church? Leo Tolstoy, though profoundly religious, was excommunicated. The paintings of 19th-century Russian artist Nikolai Ge in the State Tretyakov Gallery were once banned and taken down. And to this day, one work particularly hated by the obscurantists is still on display at the Tretyakov, a painting by 19th-century artist Vasily Perov called "Easter Procession" that depicts a drunken priest and an icon tossed on the ground.

For those who see art as something that offends them, instead of something that challenges them, there is really only one solution. They should stay away from galleries, museums, exhibitions, theaters and operas. After all, the pious avoid other places that might offend them, like strip joints and nightclubs.

For those Russian Orthodox believers who sincerely want to understand more about what moves an artist to create, let me reveal a few simple truths. Art is a gesture, not an act. The difference between the two is the difference between waging war and shooting a film about war. Art is the ache, not the medicine. It records the state of society; it does not instruct society. Despite the formal resemblance between paintings and icons, an art object is not sacred. The manuscript of a novel, for example, is formally identical to an account ledger. But a novel is merely the invention of the author; it can't send him to jail like cooking the books can.

The state and the church have consistently supported the opponents of human progress and enlightenment. And these opponents seem to be growing dangerously more powerful recently. Theater director Valery Fokin has been accused of defiling Gogol's "The Inspector General." Three different groups Ц including State Duma deputies from the Rodina faction Ц have initiated court proceedings against the "Russia-2" exhibit that I organized earlier this year. The opera "The Children of Rosenthal" has caused a storm of political outrage.

In all these cases, not all of the obscurantists are ignorant philistines foaming at the mouth. No, many of them are educated, clean-cut folks with smarts. But one thing never changes. For those who hate humanism, anyone who thinks differently than they do is the enemy.

Gallery owner Marat Gelman contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.

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