Russia back in the dock over 'Forbidden Art'

Three years ago an exhibition at Moscow’s Sakharov Centre of previously banned work entitled Forbidden Art led to the trial of its curator Andrei Erofeev and the director of the Centre, Yuri Samodurov. The prosecutors want them sentenced to three years in prison for ‘debasing the religious beliefs of citizens and inciting religious hatred’. The verdict is due on 12 July. If they are found guilty, it will not only change the political climate in Russia, argues Prof.Andrei Zorin. It will destroy the country’s reputation. Sign the petition..
Andrei Zorin
8 July 2010

Our public opinion has difficulty in reacting to several news topics at once.  This was undoubtedly taken into account by our authorities, when they set the date of 12 July for making public the verdict handed down to Andrei Erofeev and Yuri Samodurov.  It’s the height of the holiday season and the day after the final of the World Cup.  Anyone remotely interested in Russian affairs is closely watching the drama of the trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev. However, another trial taking place in Moscow attracts much less public attention, but might potentially be of no less consequence.


Three years ago one of the leading Russian contemporary art curators, Andrei Erofeev, organised an exhibition called “Forbidden Art”, in the Andrei Sakharov centre in Moscow, where he presented a collection of art works banned from previous exhibitions. To avoid even the slightest possibility of offending believers, Erofeev put all the works behind a curtain with one hole in it, above human height, so that in order to see the works one had to climb a stool and peep through the hole. Only people who really wanted to see the art works of art could do so. At issue was the freedom to express oneself within the confines of the home. The morals and psychological state of people who first provoke an insult, then demand punishment for the offenders are evident.  What we are talking about is something else.

An animated discussion has broken out: is economic and technological modernisation in Russia possible without political rights and freedom.  This can be argued, but no one can hope to modernise society without freedom of conscience and the freedom of thought.

There can be no doubt that a guilty verdict will dramatically change the political climate in Russia and lead to increased repression.  But the initiators will want more.  They will not rest until they have the right to control our lives, down to the clothes we wear, the food we eat and the books we give our children to read at home and at school.  To hope that this will not affect each and every one of us is as naïve as it was for the businessmen to hope 7 years ago that the YUKOS affair would have no effect on their business.

It hardly needs saying that Russia's image abroad and her integration into world culture will be finished.  The shades of the curator and the human rights activist arrested for a private exhibition will haunt every cultural initiative of any size, like the current Year of Russia in France.  Unlike Western businessmen, who are prepared to trade one of their own people for the sake of an attractive investment opportunity, artists and intellectuals are less forgiving.  As far as I know, Skolkovo now and in the future wants world scientists, people who are in demand. Which of these will want to go to a country where you can be put in prison for an exhibition?

Strange as it may seem, apart from Erofeev and Samodurov, the injured party with the most to lose in this whole story is the Russian Orthodox Church, whose authority is being used to mask the punishment meted out to innocent people.  The reaction of educated people, particularly the young,  is not hard to predict.  Anyone who doesn't understand needs only to look at Iran, where tens of thousands of young people, mostly still practising Muslims, endure being shot at and tortured rather than submit to arbitrary and high-handed control of their lives.  I can see why people and organisations behind the Erofeev and Samodurov trial are aiming for this result, but why the church and the state should be doing the same is incomprehensible.

«Forbidden Art» and the works it is exhibiting provoke all kinds of emotions ranging from revulsion to rapture, but no sane person could consider police repression an appropriate reaction to the exhibition.  We all remember when artists, art historians and simple art lovers were arrested and rubbished for Formalism, Impressionism or Abstractionism.  This is why it seems to me that everyone should voice their opinion of what is happening:  the creative industries, who will be in the front firing line; academics, above whose heads the first shots of the neo-Stalinist campaign are already being fired and anyone who values freedom of conscience and private life.

Orthodox Christians should be louder than everyone else in their defence of the persecuted, it seems to me.  The people organising the pogroms and their ideologues speak and act in their name.  In doing this they are dealing their faith a blow of the kind that could not be achieved by even the most outrageous blasphemy.  Andrei Erofeev and Yuri Samodurov are completely innocent of anything to do with this. 

Please sign the petition: http://www.zaprava.ru/content/view/2388/9/


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