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Created: April 2, 2005
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Index of Topics on Site Backup of Russia Fines Museum Aides for Art Said to Ridicule Religion
By Steven Lee Myers
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March 29, 2005
Russia Fines Museum Aides for Art Said to Ridicule Religion

MOSCOW, March 28 - A Russian court on Monday convicted a museum director and a curator of inciting religious hatred with an exhibition of paintings and sculptures that, to many, ridiculed the Russian Orthodox Church.

In a criminal case that tested the boundaries of artistic expression in Russia, the court ruled that the exhibition at the Andrei Sakharov Museum was "openly insulting and blasphemous." It rejected the prosecutor's appeal to sentence the two defendants to prison, however, and instead fined them the equivalent of $3,600 each.

The case against the exhibition, titled "Caution! Religion," has deeply divided Russia's religious and artistic groups ever since it opened briefly in January 2003, provoking alternate charges of censorship and animosity toward religious believers. Monday's verdict satisfied neither side entirely.

Yuri V. Samodurov, director of the Sakharov Museum, which is named for the late Soviet dissident and human-rights advocate, said he was relieved by the nature of the punishment, though not by the court's ruling. He said he had gone to court with his prescription medicines, assuming that he would immediately be imprisoned.

Still, he said, the court's verdict asserted the state's power to dictate the limits of artistic expression. "In essence," he said in a telephone interview, "the court declared a certain kind of art unacceptable."

Aleksandr V. Chuyev, a member of the lower house of Parliament who played a role in pressing prosecutors to bring criminal charges against the museum, agreed that the verdict would set a precedent, but one he considered healthy.

He said the case had established the legal foundation for prosecutions relating to other exhibitions, as well as pornography, films and other works that offend the faithful. He cited a recent exhibition by an artists' collective called Russia 2, which addressed similar themes at the First Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art last month and also prompted calls from Orthodox leaders for criminal prosecution.

"The people and the authorities now understand that religion and the feelings of believers should not be touched on," Mr. Chuyev said in a telephone interview. "They should understand that their rights end where the other person's begin."

The exhibition had been open only four days before six men from an Orthodox church in Moscow ransacked the museum, damaging or destroying many of the 45 works on display. Criminal charges against four of the men were dropped, while two others were acquitted last year in a trial that led to the new charges against Mr. Samodurov; the museum's curator, Lyudmila V. Vasilovskaya, who was also convicted and fined on Monday; and one of the artists, Anna Mikhalchuk.

Ms. Mikhalchuk, who exhibits under the name Alchuk, was acquitted Monday. She said the verdict in effect erased the separation of church and state in today's Russia. "I am afraid the formulation of the court's ruling will be used as a precedent for the authorities," she said. "It practically crosses out Russia on the list of secular nations."

The works addressed spiritual and political aspects of the Orthodox Church, whose influence over politics, if not society generally, has grown since the Soviet Union collapsed.

One sculpture depicted a church made of vodka bottles, a biting allusion to the tax exemption the church received in the 1990's to sell alcohol. A poster by Aleksandr Kosolapov, a Russian-born American artist whose work often satirizes state symbols, depicted Jesus on a Coca-Cola advertisement. "This is my blood," it said in English. The court refused a request by prosecutors to destroy the artworks, ordering that they be returned to the artists who created them.

The Rev. Aleksandr Shargunov, a priest from the church, St. Nikolai in Pyzhi, whose parishioners attacked the exhibition, derided the fines as too lenient. He described the exhibition as a deliberate and hostile provocation and called for more stringent laws against desecration of icons and other sacred symbols.

"The prophecies say that once God is insulted, expect trouble," he said. "And this is what happened."

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company

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