Forbidden Art verdict: they're in mourning for Soviet censorship

On 12 July, the judge found Andrei Erofeev and Yurii Samodurov, organisers of the exhibition Forbidden Art – 2006, guilty of inciting hatred and enmity, and insulting human dignity. Samodurov was fined 200,000 roubles, and Erofeev 150,000 (some $12,000 in all). But they have not been sent to prison. The poet Tatiana Shcherbina, disgusted, sees a people in mourning for the Good Old Days when the state controlled everything

Andrei Erofeev or Yurii Samodurov would just be ‘one of us’, regular Soviet untermenschen, if they’d been caught stealing someone’s business, laundering money, building roads which cost as much as gold, taking gross bribes, maiming soldiers in the army or raping little boys.  If they’d belonged to United Russia, or better still, the nomenklatura, then this “forbidden art” wouldn’t even have been “forbidden”. 

But they’re just private individuals, ordinary citizens.  Andrei Erofeev may be a world-class curator of art, but Russia doesn’t give a fig.  Russia is in mourning for Soviet censorship, for the good old days when the state set the Standards for art, for literature and everything else. That’s what all this forbidding is about.

Alexander Savko, "Mickey Mouse Adventures in the History of Art" (1995). One of the works presented in Erofeev and Samodurnov's controversial exhibition of forbidden art

We buy food past its sell-by date, we send children to camps or the army and get them back in zinc coffins, but what of it?  That can happen to anyone.  What is sacred is the church.  It’s not a question of Christianity as such:  love your neighbour, let him who is without sin throw the first stone and all that.  I’ve talked to quite a few zealous Orthodox Christians who are covered with icons from head to foot.  They haven’t read the Old Testament, or the New.  They know what is sinful and what isn’t, but not from the Bible.  They’ve heard it from the priest, the infamous OWS (One Woman Said), from the newspaper or the TV.  This is particularly funny in the depths of the country, where the cult of Lenin (there are still a mass of monuments to him) is combined with the cult of the church.  Now, thanks to a new wave of state propaganda, there’s also the cult of Putin and United Russia.

For them Christianity’s not a philosophy of life or the doctrine of the civilisation which underlies European and American culture.  It’s an icon-talisman (protecting from car crashes or various diseases).  For a sum of money the murderer or rapist can have his sins forgiven and be blessed too, if need be. This was what the exhibition “Forbidden Art” was tilting at, along with Islamic fundamentalism.  At hypocrisy, idol worship and the venality of the church.  At the innocent Babel, when Micky Mouse, Jesus Christ, the newspaper Izvestiya and other brands and symbols are mixed up in a sort of soup in people’s heads.  Forget the Ten Commandments. There’s only one that matters: “Don’t get caught!”  The exhibition wasn’t really “against” any of this.  It wasn’t didactic, it was a really an exhibition of caricatures, an appendage to the Danish Mohammed cartoons.

Sometimes I catch what’s being said on TV (I don’t watch for choice).  I mean Russian programmes, serials and films.  I can’t bear it.  I understand what it means to have my “feelings outraged”:  the TV hurls out, as if from a cesspit, swear words, furious screams, good lads thumping bad ones, or the other way round, blood flowing in rivers and Stalin at the helm.  Everything sprinkled with giggles and endless smutty jokes.  TV programmes are made to please those watching them: if you don’t like it, don’t watch it.  But the understanding is that most people will.  They don’t have anything else to watch.  Not everyone lives in Moscow.  So why did this little one-room exhibition blow up into such a momentous affair, one that lead to its curators getting criminal convictions?  It was probably only seen by about 100 contemporary art devotees. If it hadn’t been for the trial, no one else would ever have heard about it.

Izvestiia photo-collage by Vagrich Bakhchanian (1983).

In Greece, where Orthodoxy is the state religion, this kind of exhibition would probably be impossible. But in all the officially progressive countries art sticks to its last, as do the Church, the civil service and the courts. 

In Russia, though, everything is United – United Russian – and follows “signals from the Kremlin” (a Soviet term).  They know how to read the signals, all these organisations like Nashi, The Young Guard, the People’s Council (how many of them are there?)  A people who have lost the mythology of the largest, closed (and therefore best in the world) militantly atheistic state, have agreed to regard all these outrages as a matter of course. That’s what really matters. 

Sinyavsky’s works were published abroad – that’s a crime! 

[Slava] Sysoyev (a cartoonist imprisoned for anti-Soviet cartoons, which were branded pornographic) has naked ladies in his work – that’s pornography, into prison with him! 

Holding foreign currency – scandalous! 

Today he’s playing jazz, tomorrow he’ll betray his country! 

All this is on the way back. But it’s no more than a sub-culture. So to make up for this sub-ness, they decided to try and come up with a national idea.  They spent ages looking for one. Then they decided to stop messing about and plump for the Church.

Ilya Kabakov (the best known Russian – Soviet? – artist in the world) said in an interview on the Erofeev and Samodurov trial: “the context of the trial is what is happening [in Russia]: for a very long time now the country has been quaking from the hammer blows which have been raining down on civilised life.  As always, no one is clever enough to be able to see what this process is doing to the country.  They can’t see the historical precedentsIt’s all interconnected and this petty evil is threatening, or completely destroying, the vast potential of future international development”.

But we’re so carried away by “being ourselves” that we’re unable to grasp that the unter-Soviet widow is writing herself out of the world context.  Just like in the good old days when they used to say «I haven't read any Pasternak, but I can tell you about him», when Brodsky was on trial for parasitism and an exhibition was razed to the ground by a bulldozer.

So what about those plans for a visa-free arrangement with Europe?  For some reason we don’t seem to be longing to get closer to Iran or North Korea.  When Russia was a superpower it was the least developed countries that were friends with the USSR. Then Soviet citizens used to dream of Europe and America, which were «off limits», while laughing in their Moscow kitchens at the ideas of Juche and «shitty sausages*». 

[*Ed: reference to a joke from the Brezhnev period. Brezhnev had great difficulty with his false teeth. One day he was making a speech at a meat packing plant.  Suddenly the director was horrified to hear Brezhnev refer to «sosiki sranye» or shitty sausages.  The next day the town was awash with delicious sausages.  The following day the factory director was summoned to Communist Party HQ and told that he was an idiot:  Brezhnev hadn’t been talking about shitty sausages, but socialist countries - «sotsialisticheskiye strany» (which he couldn't pronounce properly).  The delicious sausages disappeared in no time.]

 

About the author

Tatiana Shcherbina is a widely-translated Russian poet. Her first five collections of poems,and a novel, appeared in samizdat, before her work started being published by the Soviet press in 1989. She worked for Radio Liberty in Munich and Paris 1992-7, and speaks fluent French. She has lived in Moscow since 1997.

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