Imagine a human-size Orthodox icon with a hole instead of Christ's face: everyone can put his face in it. Or imagine another exhibit, a triptych, where the savior is crucified on three symbols: the cross, the red star and the swastika.
All of these are works by Russian avant-garde artists that were shown in January 2003 at an exhibit titled, "Caution: Religion" at the Andrei Sakharov Center in Moscow. Since then, the exhibit has been the subject of two trials and heated debates on freedom of self-expression in modern Russia. These debates are becoming increasingly topical.
A group of Christians led by an Orthodox priest sued the center's director, Yuri Samodurov, and two other organizers of exhibit. The group accused them of "kindling religious strife." Some time ago their annoyance was vented when several offended church members spilled ink on the exhibits and covered them with angry graffiti like "Rascals," "Blasphemy," "You hate Orthodoxy," etc.
The vandals were caught red-handed, but the court freed them and did not uphold the organizers' petition to punish them for vandalism.
At that time, the offended launched an assault. Now all of Russia's intelligentsia is watching the trial where, for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet system, rights advocates - people, whom ordinary Russians consider righteous and selfless - are on trial.
For many Russians this is a dejа vu. The prosecution of people for art that challenged the dominant ideology was a specific feature of the Communist era. It is enough to recall the bulldozer attack on an avant-garde exhibit in Moscow in the fall of 1974 or the authorities hounding Boris Pasternak, the author of "Doctor Zhivago," who dared to publish his "anti-Soviet" novel abroad.
The paradox is that in the new case, the force trying to restrict freedom of artistic self-expression is not Communism, but the Russian Orthodox Church. For many Russian intellectuals, it is an alarming sign of the increasing power of the Russian Orthodox religion in the constitutionally secular state.
This is the fundamental argument of Yuri Samodurov, the main defendant.
The organizers did not mean to offend Orthodoxy, he maintains. The very name of the exhibit reveals the duality of the intention of the exhibit. On the one hand, it is a call for respect toward the religion and its followers. On the other hand, it is a warning against the danger of religious extremes, against the merger between religion and the state, and against clerical obscurantism.
Many observers find Samodurov's reasoning timely, as the role of religion in Russia's present life is obviously increasing.
After 70 years of suppression, when the authorities demolished churches or turned them into stables, the Russian Orthodox Church is going through a renaissance. Church hierarchs are indispensable participants of important state events, while politicians of all levels frequent churches on different religious holidays. Besides, because of the vacuum of national ideology and the erosion of morals caused by the abrupt change of the regime, the church is becoming more active as a national defender of family values and morals, and as a force that unites the nation.
This could be welcome, if its influence were not approaching the dangerous line for a secular state, as Samodurov's supporters believe.
Besides, they do not like the fact that many of God's servants turn the religion into a business. In Russian cities, it is becoming increasingly fashionable to consecrate new markets, restaurants and even bars with prayer and holy water. Many Russians were also surprised by the church's intention to develop a special prayer for State Duma deputies.
It was against such commercialization that one of the artists at the exhibit protested, painting Christ against the background of a Coca-Cola advertisement with the inscription "This is my blood," the plaintiffs tried to explain.
On the other hand, a creative imagination should obviously not overstep the line where the rights of other people, including Christians, begin. A freedom encroaching on others' freedoms is no longer a freedom. The Moscow court hearing the exhibit case faces a very difficult problem that is becoming ever more frequent and not only in Russia: it has to find a balance between the interests of freedom of self-expression advocates and freedom of religion advocates.
Judge Natalia Larina sent the case for reinvestigation. She decided that the accusation of "kindling religious strife" was too obscure. Prosecutors have a week to make the wording more precise.
Meanwhile, prominent Russian rights advocates are hostile toward the suit. Valeria Novodvorskaya, the leader of the Democratic Union of Russia party who was tried for dissident activities several times in the 1970s-80s, was usually sharp: "Why did these Orthodox fanatics come to the exhibit? To get offended? God is very capable of protecting himself. If the exhibit meant anything to him, the Sakharov Center would have been in hell. If it has not happened, it means God doesn't care..."
The trial will be resumed later this week, and Yuri Samodurov who protests against the exorbitant, in his opinion, influence of the church, will have another reason to worry. Very soon religious subjects will be part of Russian schools' curriculum, Russian Education and Science Minister Andrei Fursenko announced recently. "Orthodoxy was the basis for Russia's creation and it should be understood," he explained.
The idea of "mild" introduction of the "Orthodox component" in schools appeared in the fall 2002. However, it was criticized by representatives of Russia's other religions and press for its Orthodox bias and threat to the secular nature of the state. The ministry's officials tried to justify themselves by saying that basics of religions would be introducedin the curricula only upon the consent of Russia's constituent members and it would be optional for pupils.
In regards to this initiative, the court's ruling on the exhibit can become an important signal of the public opinion in this once atheistic country.