God, art and irony

April 02, 2005|By Will Englund

THE RUSSIAN government has just finished prosecuting what amounts to a blasphemy case. The defendants were the director of the Andrei Sakharov Museum and Center and the curator of an exhibit there entitled, "Caution: Religion!" Mr. Sakharov, the great physicist-dissident of the closing decades of the Soviet era, was one of those liberal-minded people who spoke out, at considerable cost to himself, in defense of free speech, artistic expression and freedom of religion.

Life (especially life in Russia) is full of ironies, but this was an especially rich one: It was outrage within the Russian Orthodox Church, and among the Russian Orthodox members of the parliament, that pressured the Moscow prosecutor to bring charges of inciting religious hatred against the organizers of an art exhibit, at the house of Mr. Sakharov, designed to pose questions about the smugness of the church in Russia today.

Yuri Samodurov and Lyudmila Vasilovskaya were each found guilty and fined about $3,600, which isn't as bad as the five-year prison sentences they could have received for violating Article 282 of the Russian criminal code.

One of the offending artworks featured an image of Jesus on a red sign, with the words: "Coca-Cola. This is my blood." That would strike most people as a commentary not on the holiness of Christ but on contemporary consumerism and, perhaps, the church's relationship to it, but the judge didn't see it that way.

Another irony: Four days after the exhibit opened, in January 2003, four men vandalized it. They were arrested but never charged. Instead, the victims went to trial.

Philip Walters, head of research for the Keston Institute, a British organization that tracks religious issues in the formerly Soviet world, says the Russian government actually isn't that keen on becoming the church's enforcement arm in its struggle against blasphemers. It's the wrong image. At the same time, though, the church has prospered mightily since the fall of communism - and in a society that has seen a marked upswing in conservative defensiveness, the Orthodox Church has become a touchstone of Russian identity.

A large number of Russians see their culture at risk, with the population falling and morals seemingly collapsing, with Islamic separatists in the Caucasus and with an onslaught of Western materialism (never mind that the Sakharov Museum exhibit was attacking that materialism, not promoting it). This breeds resentment, and a reactionary, know-nothing mood - a mood that the government of President Vladimir V. Putin uses when it sees fit, and ignores at its peril.

Russia, certainly, is not the only country where organized religion is making demands on the state; in most of the Islamic world, the relationship is built in. But an Austrian cartoonist, Gerhard Haderer, was convicted of blasphemy in absentia by a Greek court earlier this year for a depiction of Jesus as a stoned surfer. Complaints from Christians poured in to the BBC in January when the state-run television company aired Jerry Springer: The Opera. In the United States, controversy - usually involving politicians or the courts or both - attends any art exhibit or movie that even hints at sacrilege.

The ranks of the faithful are growing around the globe, yet almost everywhere, they nurture a strong sense of being under siege by those who would mock their beliefs or undermine their values. The Russian Orthodox Church, having been co-opted and spiritually corrupted under Soviet rule, is today more central and more powerful and more wealthy than at any time since at least 1917, yet politicians clamored for a prosecution when a few artists held the church up to a certain cockeyed scrutiny. All over the world, it seems, with-us-or-against-us lines are being laid down. The fear of deviation is mounting; the retaliatory power of those who take offense is sobering.

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