Russian Orthodox Church versus Art – The Sakharov Museum Trial

By Greg Simons

Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, various groups/entities have emerged, which would like to provide a form of ‘guidance’ during the development of the new society. The Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) is one such entity, another group (albeit diverse group of ideas and opinions) that has tried to exert an influence is that of the artists (in the fields of literature, film, music, sculptures, painting etc). Artists have been using their work to influence intellectual debate and opinion, either in support of or to criticise the existing social and political order.

Finish academic Kimmo Kääriäinen put the new role to be played by the ROC in Russian society succinctly in his book Religion in Russia after the Collapse of Communism. His statement defines the ‘new’ role of the ROC, in terms of the relationship between religion and the State.

“Furthermore, from the early 1990’s Russian Orthodoxy began to play a significant role in creating national identity. In many quarters it was hoped that Orthodoxy would provide the solution for the ideological and moral crisis in post-communist Russia.”1

A news report by RIA Novosti relayed the Patriarch Alexei II’s concern of the “growing proportions of immoral behaviour, cruelty, drug abuse, and alcoholism in today’s Russia and stressed the importance of instilling moral values in young people from their formative years on.”2 Alexei II’s statement backs up Kääriäinen’s statement on the new role of the ROC in contemporary society.

Putin sent a message of greetings to participants of the ceremonies, the commemoration of Saints Cyril and Methodius. In 863 AD the brothers Cyril (originally named Constantine) and Methodius learned the local language of what is now Russia, then compiled a Slavonic alphabet and translated the Holy Scriptures.3 This celebration ties in various concepts of Slavic identity and brotherhood (Russia marks Day of Slavic Literature and Culture on May 24).

“Russia and the Slavic world honour such great enlighteners as brothers Cyril and Methodius who gave the world the alphabet, which is still used in many modern languages. The Russian Orthodox Church having the noble mission of moral upbringing and spiritual enlightenment traditionally takes an active part in Days of Slavic Literature. I have no doubt that Days of Slavic Literature and Culture will be a landmark event in the lives of our peoples and promote further development of their friendly relations and cooperation.”4

Role of ROC in Identity and Moral Development

The Jubilee Bishop’s Council of the ROC met at the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in mid-August 2000, where a document was formulated on the Patriarchate’s vision of its role and challenges going into the 21st century. This document was given the title Bases of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church. Among the current roles listed in the document, in the area of State-Church cooperation include; (1) concern for the preservation of morality in society, (2) spiritual, cultural, moral and patriotic development and formation and (3) culture and arts.5

In the run-up to the December 2003 Russian parliamentary elections, Sergei Glazyev of Motherland Party tried to draw support from religious leaders (Orthodox) for his attempt at running for political power. He openly supported religious leaders and had a platform ‘In Support of Traditional Spiritual and Moral Values.’6 The project was unveiled at the Duma on 18 March, 2003 and is a cross-party initiative that was launched together with the Inter-religious Council, which embraces the so-called ‘traditional’ religions of Russia (Orthodoxy, Islam, Buddhism and Judaism). A press statement describes the initiative as an attempt to “unite the forces and coordinate the activity of parliamentary deputies, clergy and society in legislative, other parliamentary and social support for traditional spiritual and moral values.” Metropolitan Kirill justified the creation as being a necessary step to “coordinate with and harness the potential of traditional religions in the social sphere.”7

Clash of Religion and Freedom of Artistic Expression

Orthodox Rus Exhibition – from January 21-25, 2004 the Orthodox Rus exhibition was held in Moscow’s Gostiny Dvor House. According to a spokesman for the exhibition’s organising committee, Bishop Mark of Yegoryevsk the principle goal of the exhibition is relations between the Church and the State and to revive spirituality and traditional culture, preserving morals, organising social work and conducting a peacemaking activity. “The exhibition which will be opened by Patriarch Alexei II of Moscow and All-Russia, will for the first time display the wonder working Icon of Our Lady of the Don. The demonstration of this icon is a symbol of the favourable cooperation between the Church and the State, in particular, cooperation with the Ministry of Culture and the Tretyakov Picture Gallery.”8

Another exhibition, Apostles of Our Time opened in Moscow’s Novodevichy Convent (a subsidiary of the State History Museum) in May 2004 and is scheduled to run until January 2005. The exhibition features the ROC’s missionary activities between the 17th and early 20th centuries. This display was also timed to coincide with the celebration of the Days of Slavic Alphabet and Culture, taking place at the end of May. A member of the State History Museum’s press centre was quoted as saying;

“These diverse materials, which are organised in line with the history-and-geography principle, unravel the gradual process of Christianising the Russian Empire’s nations, also highlighting various specifics of missionary work and that of Orthodox Christian missions.”9

On occasion the ROC has offered critique on contemporary art, this has occurred recently when they stepped into the debate surrounding the controversial film that was directed by Mel Gibson, The Passion of the Christ. In an interview with the news agency Interfax, Bishop Mark of Yegoryevsk the Deputy Head of the External Liaison Department of the Moscow Patriarchate hoped that the film may bring people closer to God. Although, he highlighted what he saw as a drawback, the Roman Catholic slant of the movie. He stated that if Orthodox people had produced it, it would have been done differently.

“Those believers who come to churches in the Passion Week and participate in the Passion of the Lord there during services do not need to see this film because they are partakers of a living church tradition. But for those who know little about Christ, but want to know more, for those who are not used to going to church on a regular basis, this film may really become a revelation and may help them become closer to God.

On the one hand, the naturalism of the film is a drawback, which should be taken into account. If the film had been made by Orthodox people, they would have probably made it differently. On the other hand, in the modern world people are afraid of suffering and death and to do everything to avoid these issues, for example, by sending their parents to old people’s homes or living separately from their grandmothers and grandfathers. As a result, people often become thick-skinned and not responsive to other people’s suffering. For this reason, the sharpness and naturalism of this film make people stronger. Its purpose is to break the atrophy of human insensitivity and to get through to people’s hearts.”10

Bishop Mark was quoted in the government news agency ITAR-TASS as well, on the Church’s view of the Passion of the Christ. “Movies on religious topics must not be treated as regular works of art, as they help people to look deep into their hearts instead of seeking foes around them.”11 Another government news agency RIA Novosti offered an explanation as to why the film was accepted in Russia with little controversy as opposed to the debate and controversy, that at times surrounded the movie elsewhere.

“Unlike New Zealand, the United States and Canada, Russia has remained a country whose residents combine brutality and callousness in inter-personal contacts with compassion and the frantic cult of social justice. Russians only appreciate strength used for the good of society, which is an uncommon approach. You have to meet several requirements to stir up compassion in Russians. You have to have a pure soul and be morally beautiful, which means to be nearly like Christ. These traits will allow you to enjoy unlimited power over a weeping lot, and its boundless compassion.”12

However, not all art exhibitions or public art meets the approval of the ROC hierarchy and clashes between art and religion can occur. On January 14, 2003 the Sakharov Museum in Moscow opened an exhibition of sculptures and paintings under the name Caution! Religion. Some of the issues that were broached by the exhibition included; religious fundamentalism and Church-State relations. The exhibition had some rather contentious displays where icons with fretwork in the shape of a hammer and sickle, Nazi symbols and icons with holes instead of saints’ images were shown.13 Then on the 18th of January, six men from a Russian Orthodox Church arrived at the exhibition, attacked and defaced many of the 45 works present. Police quickly came and arrested the men, but a debate emerged over the condition of the freedom of expression in Russia and the growing influence of the ROC. A series of events were initiated which did not bode well for the museum.

  • Duma passes a resolution that condemns the museum and the exhibitions organisers.
  • Criminal charges against four of the six men dropped for ‘lack of evidence.’ In spite of the fact that they were arrested on the museum’s grounds by the police.
  • 11 August several hundred Orthodox believers hold a vigil outside the court, where the other two men had charges against them thrown out on the grounds that they were unlawfully prosecuted.
  • The court called for a continuation of the investigation, but directed against the museum. The alleged crime being the incitement of interreligious or interethnic hatred. If convicted the fine ranges from US$7500 – 11600, three years of probation or 2-4 years in prison. 14

Reverend Aleksandr Shargunov, one of the more outspoken conservatives in the ROC spoke of one of the problems of Post-Soviet society in Russia. He is the person responsible for organising the defence of the accused and for the campaign against the museum. The six men arrested for the act of vandalism came from his church in Moscow, St. Nikolai of Pyzhi.

“This freedom opened the gates so that thick streams of dirt are flooding all around. The Church is a very narrow stream of clean water.”15

Shargunov defended the actions of his church members; he justified their actions with emotional rhetoric and gave the impression that they were merely defending the Church. “For a believer, this sacrilege is equivalent to the destruction of a church, which is what happened in the near past in Russia.”16 Some examples of the ‘offensive’ artworks included:

  • A sculpture by Alina Gurevich depicted a church made of vodka bottles. Referring to the tax exemptions granted to the ROC in the 1990’s to sell alcohol.
  • Poster by Aleksandr Kosolapov (Russian born American) depicted Jesus on a Coca-Cola advertisement with the words “This is my blood.”
  • Alisa Zrazhevskaya’s large icon covering took its title from the Second Commandment – “Thou Shalt Not Carve Idols Unto Thee,” with a hole for the viewer’s head, hand and carnival placard.17

Soviet era dissident, but at the time of this conflict, Duma deputy Aleksandr Chuyev (from the nationalistically minded Rodina party) was one of the ardent defenders of those who had destroyed the exhibition as well as being closely allied to the ROC gave his opinion on the matter. He boiled the problem down to a matter of respect for the belief of the Orthodox believers.

“There are acceptable boundaries within which it is possible to express an opinion, as long as it does not affect the rights of Orthodox believers.”18

Renowned gallery owner and ‘spin-doctor’, Marat Gelman has labelled the conflict as another example of the fight between Church and art. “This ideological problem should not be tackled through courts, prisons, or intimidation.” The head of the movement For Human Rights, Lev Ponomarev was quoted as saying “it is very important that we win this case.” An expert from Russia’s Human Rights Institute, Lev Levinson weighed the possible options if the court ruled against the Sakharov Museum. He said that the case has “ideal opportunities to be appealed in the Strasbourg Court on Human Rights.”19

The trial, held at the Tagansky District Court is perceived by some as being a landmark case, which will potentially change the current ‘balance’ of freedom of expression. Ponomarev raised the issue for artists in the way they are able to express themselves and the significance of this trial, by “losing it would be seen as a reason to further prosecute.” The courtroom has been filled by supporters of the accused and Orthodox supporters. Article 282 of the Criminal Code (inciting religious hatred) forms the basis of the Prosecution’s argument.20 On the 15th of June, 2004 a prosecutor stated that the exhibit used;

“Methods of covert psychological manipulation, including the creation of associative links between the sacred and the low, the disgusting, the comic or the horrible. The exhibit insulted and humiliated the religious feelings of believers and non-believers who have an idea about the sanctity of basic Christian symbols. It humiliated the national dignity of a great number of believers.”21

Prosecutors backed up their claim with expert opinion offered by psychologist Vera Abramenkova;

“The sacrilegious comparison of sanctity and a mass product, of the high and the low, contains a provocation, and causes reciprocal hostile actions on the part of the recipient, the development of affective reactions, and aggressive and intolerant relations between individuals and social groups on the grounds of their religious beliefs.”22

However, things have not all gone in favour of the plaintiff. Not long after the trail began, the judge halted proceedings and demanded the prosecutors to “tighten up” the charges. Some experts have claimed that this tactic could be a sign that the jurists are “uncomfortable with the case but unwilling to anger the authorities by throwing the charges out.”23

Yuri Samodurov, the Executive Director of the Sakharov Centre and one of the three defendants in the trial denied that any intention to insult Orthodox believers had been made by the artists.

“There was no anti-religious intention. The purpose was to give the artists the chance to express their attitudes toward religious institutions and manifestations of religiousness, both positive and negative. Contemporary art has long been using Christian symbols that are meaningful for believers. Religious censorship is absolutely impossible and unacceptable for works of art that are not intended for temples.”24

Although the ROC is not the party responsible for launching the suit against the Sakharov Centre, Father Mikhail Dudko from the Church’s Department for External Relations made it clear that the ROC did not object to the proceedings.

“The trial of the museum workers has not come at our initiative. It is the initiative of the prosecutor’s office and this cannot be interpreted as a trial of the Church versus the Sakharov Museum. It is a trial of the State versus the Sakharov Museum. Of course, (the exhibition) offended us deeply. Of course, we believe that something similar must not occur again. But I repeat that a State that tries to promote harmony in religious affairs that tries to ensure that all citizens – regardless of faith – feel comfortable, must of course take steps to ensure that this happens. In our view, the trial reflects the legal right of the State to conduct its religious policy and it may well serve as a lesson to those people who are fostering tensions in the religious affairs of our country.”25

The ‘fall-out’ from the controversial exhibition and its aftermath has still not settled though. A leader in the ROC and reputedly a spiritual advisor to Vladimir Putin, Father Tikhon Shevkunov has labelled the artists in question as; “These artists are rotten, disease carrying bacteria, and society is using antigens to fight them off.” Other regions have been experiencing pressure to cancel ‘unacceptable’ forms of art. Boris Moiseyev, an openly gay 50-year old singer had concerts in Dagestan (a group of imams pressured the local government) and Siberia (where a group of Orthodox protesters picketed his concert) cancelled. In April 2004 a Moscow court banned The Book of Monotheism, an 18th century Muslim tract, on the basis that it promoted fundamentalist Wahhabism. A Kremlin adviser on religious affairs stated that the book failed to meet the “need to find a balance between freedom of speech and national security.” In a law that is being submitted to parliament, Rodina deputy Aleksandr Chuyev wants to make a punishable crime of defaming or dishonouring Russia’s ‘traditional religions’ (Orthodox, Islam, Buddhism and Judaism).26


The ROC has managed to emerge as an ideological alternative to the discredited Marxist-Leninist dogma, although the influence is by no means secure. Their main arguments in support of the ROC being a pillar for Russian society’s ideals and morals rests upon two main points; firstly, the ROC historical role in the territory and secondly, there has been much talk of moral degradation taking place and the need to reinstitute morality into society if it is to pull itself out of the current situation. This is done on the presumption that society needs to revert to its historical and spiritual roots to find stability and a more prosperous future.

Although both artists and the ROC were supporters of the old Soviet regime, they have come to be (in places) competing entities. As outlined earlier artists, as is the ROC, are not homogenous organisations and this can be seen in this particular arena. However, when the image and influence of the ROC is publicly questioned, as was the case in the Sakharov Museum exhibition, a swift and sharp reaction is elicited. ‘Favourable’ forms of art and artistic expression are absorbed for the use of the ROC and ‘unfavourable’ or potentially harmful art is subjected to pressure in order to remove and discourage it from appearing again. The outcome of the Sakharov Museum court case may well prove to be the test case in this respect and the outcome will have future ramifications either way the case is ultimately decided.


Knox, Z., The Symphonic Ideal: The Moscow Patriarchate’s Post-Soviet Leadership, Europe-Asia Studies, Vol. 55, No. 4, 2003, pp. 575-596.

Kääriäinen, K., Religion in Russia after the Collapse of Communism, Symposium Series Volume 51, New York, Edwin Mellen Press, 1998.


1 Kaarianinen, K., Religion in Russia after the Collapse of Communism, Symposium Series 51, New York, Edwin Mellen Press, 1998, pp. 1-2.

2 Russian Orthodox Church Offers Helping Hand to Education Ministry, RIA Novosti,, 31 March, 2004.

3 Slavic World Commemorates St. Cyril and St. Methodius, RIA Novosti,, 24 May, 2004.

4 Putin Greets Days of Slavic Culture, RIA Novosti,, 24 May, 2004.

5 Knox, Z., The Symphonic Ideal: The Moscow Patriarchate’s Post-Soviet Leadership, Europe-Asia Studies, Vol. 55, No. 4, 2003, pp. 575-596, pp. 581-2.

6 Fagan, G., Russia: Religious Freedom Survey, July 2003, Forum 18 News, 29 July, 2003., 12 February, 2004.

7 Fagan, G., Russia: New Parliamentary Force for “Traditional Spiritual Values”, Forum 18 News, 24 March, 2003., 12 February, 2004.

8 Orthodox Rus Exhibition Opens in Moscow, RIA Novosti,, 21 January, 2004.

9 Novodevichy Convent Hosts Unique Exhibition, RIA Novosti,, 21 May, 2004.

10 Gibson’s Passion Will Bring Russians Closer to God – Church, Interfax,, 26 March, 2004.

11 Moscow Patriarchate Calls Mel Gibson’s Movie Useful Remedy, ITAR-TASS,, 26 March, 2004.

12 Korolyov, A., Russia Weeps Watching Mel Gibson’s Christ Film, RIA Novosti,, 20 April, 2004.

13 (1) Activists Support Under-fire Sakharov Museum, MosNews,, 9 June, 2004. (2) Borisov, S., Russia: Beware, Religion, Transitions Online,, 21 June, 2004. JRL #8263, 22 June, 2004.

14 Myers, S. L., Art Vs. Religion: Whose Rights Will Come First?, New York Times, 2 September, 2003. JRL #7308, 2 September, 2003.

15 Ibid.

16 Myers, S. L., Art Vs. Religion: Whose Rights Will Come First?, New York Times, 2 September, 2003. JRL #7308, 2 September, 2003.

17 Ibid.

18 Ibid.

19 Activists Support Under-fire Sakharov Museum, MosNews,, 9 June, 2004.

20 (1) Medetsky, A., 3 Go on Trial Over Artistic Freedom, The Moscow Times,, 16 June, 2004. (2) Shabad, A., ‘Religious Hate’ Trial Smacks of Bad Old Days, The Moscow Times,, 16 June, 2004.

21 Medetsky, A., 3 Go on Trial Over Artistic Freedom, The Moscow Times,, 16 June, 2004.

22 Medetsky, A., Eye to Eye: Freedom of Expression or Freedom of Religion – What is the Sakharov Centre Trial all About?, Context June 18-24, 2004, The Moscow Times,, 18 June, 2004.

23 Weir, F., Russian Art or Religious Hatred?, Christian Science Monitor, 19 July, 2004. JRL #8297, 19 July, 2004.

24 Medetsky, A., Eye to Eye: Freedom of Expression or Freedom of Religion – What is the Sakharov Centre Trial all About?, Context June 18-24, 2004, The Moscow Times,, 18 June, 2004.

25 Bransten, J., Russia: Modern-Art Trial to Test Freedom of Expression, RFE/RL, 17 June, 2004. JRL #8258, 18 June, 2004.

26 Brown, F., Watch Out, Art!, Newsweek (Atlantic Edition), 17 May, 2004. JRL #8207, May 2004.

Om Greg Simons 2 artiklar
Greg Simons is senior researcher at the Uppsala Centre of Russian Studies, Uppsala University. He give lectures on the courses offered by the Dept on topics such as Russian mass media, terrorism and crisis management