MOSCOW (Reuters) - Two artists were found guilty of extremism and ordered to pay large fines by a Moscow court on Monday for an exhibition that wounded Russian Orthodox sensibilities in juxtaposing religious icons with pornography.
Rights group Amnesty International said the verdict was shameful and “another blow to freedom of expression in Russia”.
A Moscow court cleared leading art curators Yuri Samodurov and Andrei Yerofeyev of a maximum jail sentence of three years for their 2007 Forbidden Art exhibit, which mixed religious icons with sexual and pop-culture images.
But it levied fines of 200,000 roubles ($6,477) and 150,000 roubles, respectively, to be paid to the state.
Leading cultural figures had appealed to President Dmitry Medvedev to drop the charges, saying it heralded a new era of censorship.
“This shows that the state supports the ultra-nationalist Orthodox factions that attack Russian culture,” Yerofeyev, a prominent intellectual who once curated Moscow’s state-run Tretyakov Gallery, told Reuters.
“I am certain that this decision comes directly from the prime minister (Vladimir Putin) and the president.”
Both artists said they would appeal the verdict.
Among the art on display in the 2007 exhibit were works depicting an Orthodox icon adorned with Mickey Mouse, a Russian general raping a soldier, and a Soviet-era Order of Lenin medal over Christ’s head.
Anticipating complaints, the curators placed the works behind a peep-holed veil so only those who wanted to could view them. Photography was banned to prevent the imagery from being broadly distributed.
Russia’s Orthodox Church is undergoing a revival after the fall of Communism almost 20 years ago and Russia’s leaders have endorsed it as the country’s main faith. Communist authorities had called on the Orthodox Church before in times of national peril such as World War Two and reached accommodation with its leadership.
The trend to consolidation of the church as a national force has worried Russia’s 20-million strong Muslim population as well as those who believe that church and state should be strictly separated.
Outside of the court, men clad in black leather jackets raised icons and crosses and two priests looked on in silence as Samodurov and Yerofeyev, emerged from the courtroom.
Mikhail Nalimov, head of the United Orthodox Youth movement, told reporters in court the curators should be sent into exile. “The government has to decide today if it is on the side of God or the side of Satan,” he told Reuters
As the court prepared to hear the verdict, radical Russian artist Pyotr Verzilov stormed the courtroom, lambasting authorities and letting out dozens of cockroaches from a bag.
As police dragged him to a waiting van Verzilov screamed “free Yerofeyev and Samodurov” and dismissed the process as the work of a “cockroach court”.
Amnesty International’s director for International programmes in Europe and Central Asia Nicola Duckworth condemned Monday’s ruling.
“Such judgements have no place in a state supposedly ruled by law,” she said in a statement.
Writing by Amie Ferris-Rotman and Conor Humphries; Editing by Ralph Boulton