- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 7, 2010

MOSCOW (AP) - One painting depicted Jesus Christ as Mickey Mouse, another as Vladimir Lenin. The 2007 exhibit was part of an effort to fight censorship of the arts, but the Russian Orthodox Church was horrified.

Now, after a 14-month trial, the two prominent Moscow art curators who put on the show are facing the prospect of three years in prison.

Artists and rights activists have appealed to the Kremlin to put a stop to the prosecution of Yury Samodurov and Andrei Yerofeyev, warning of a return to Soviet-era cultural censorship with the rules now dictated by a conservative and politically powerful church.

Even Russia’s culture minister says the two men did nothing to break the law against inciting religious hatred.

But the prosecutors refuse to back down and have demanded a three-year prison sentence when the judge makes her ruling on July 12.

The exhibit “Forbidden Art” at the Sakharov Museum, a human rights center named after celebrated dissident physicist Andrei Sakharov, featured several paintings with images of Jesus Christ.

In one, Christ appeared to his disciples as Mickey Mouse. In another, of the crucifixion, the head of Christ was replaced by the Order of Lenin medal, the highest award of the Soviet Union.

Samodurov, who was the museum’s director from its founding in 1996 until he stepped down in 2008, had already once been convicted of inciting religious hatred and fined the equivalent of $3,600 for an exhibit in 2003 called “Caution: Religion!”

The exhibit was closed a few days after it opened after a group of altar boys defaced many of the contemporary paintings, which used religious allusions to express attitudes toward religion, culture and the state.

But Yerofeyev, former head of contemporary art at the State Tretyakov Gallery, said they were unprepared for the enduring anger generated by the second exhibit.

Religious ultra-nationalist groups won the support of the Russian Orthodox Church in pushing prosecutors to bring charges in 2008 and then kept up their pressure on the two curators throughout the trial.

“In front of us opened a pagan wilderness,” Yerofeyev said. “Old women shook with anger, they spat in my face.”

The trial began in April 2009 and wrapped up last month, with hearings generally held one day a week. “On the one hand I had total freedom of action, I wrote articles, but once a week I visited the insane asylum,” said Yerofeyev, whose brother Viktor Yerofeyev is a well-known writer and frequent contributor to The New Yorker.

He said members of Narodny Sobor, or People’s Assembly, threatened him in court and told him to remember the fate of “Caution: Religion!” curator Anna Alchuk. After she moved to Berlin, her body was found floating in the Spree River in 2008. German police said Alchuk most likely killed herself, but her husband blamed her death on persecution she faced as a result of the exhibit.

Narodny Sobor director Alexander Lapin denied any threats were made against the defendants. Judge Svetlana Alexandrova told them to take their complaints to the police, Yerofeyev said. Prosecutors refused to discuss the case until after the verdict was issued.

The defendants and their lawyers said the court proceedings were biased in favor of the prosecution and they fully expected to be found guilty.

Yerofeyev said the aim of the “Forbidden Art” exhibit, which comprised works that had been banned from shows at major museums and galleries in 2006, was to show the reality of censorship. Religion was not the intended theme, he said.

The Mickey Mouse as Jesus painting was intended to illustrate the mixing up of facts in a child’s mind, he said. A child hears about the Bible from his parents while watching Mickey Mouse cartoons.

In a letter sent last month to Patriarch Kirill, Yerofeyev apologized if the exhibit unintentionally offended Orthodox Christians, but he defended the right of artists to use religious symbols in their work. He also criticized the church for joining forces with extreme nationalists.

The Russian Orthodox Church continues to stand behind the case against the two curators. “They should be punished,” The Rev. Vsevolod Chaplin, a church spokesman, said this week.

Samodurov said the church was much more involved in this case than it was when charges were brought against him over the 2003 exhibit.

Rights activists see the trial as a sign of the expanding influence of the Russian Orthodox Church.

“The church has become an instrument of censorship like it was during czarist times,” said Gleb Yakunin, 76, a priest and Soviet-era dissident who has broken with the church. “It wants to control culture.”

Lyudmila Alexeyeva, 82, a veteran rights activist who chairs the Moscow Helsinki Group, said she had little hope the defendants would be cleared, given the power of the church.

“I am very afraid for them,” she said. “The church is now younger, more energetic.”

Artists, rights activists, journalists and opposition figures have signed several open letters calling for the charges to be dropped. The latest letter, signed by some of the biggest names in Russian art, was sent last Friday to President Dmitry Medvedev.

“We are sure that a guilty verdict for Yerofeyev and Samodurov would be a verdict for all Russian contemporary art and would become one more step in establishing open and secret forms of cultural censorship,” the letter said.

Leonid Bazhanov, director of the National Contemporary Art Center, said a guilty verdict would make Russia less competitive in the world art market. Foreign artists would be wary of bringing their works to Russia, while more Russian artists would leave the country, he said.

Marat Gelman, who owns a major Moscow gallery, said if the two curators were convicted, he would mount a new exhibit of works from “Forbidden Art.”

“I will try to answer with strong actions in order to be heard,” Gelman said.

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