Russia's Record in Denying Artistic Freedom Speaks for Itself

The Russian Foreign Ministry continues to defend the court verdict against members of the punk band Pussy Riot stating that claims of persecution are "groundless." Groundless? Let's consider three examples.
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The Russian Foreign Ministry continues to defend the court verdict against members of the punk band Pussy Riot. Last week, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Mariya Alyokhina, and Ekaterina Samutsevich were sentenced to 2 years in prison for a 40-second performance in Russia's main Orthodox cathedral. The Ministry says that criticism of the trial (not the trial) is politically motivated.

Building on Foreign Minister Lavrov's defense of the verdict, spokesman Alexander Lukashevich cited the freedom of Voina to stage controversial performances and reaffirmed that "the claims of persecution over freedom of artistic expression are totally groundless."

Groundless? Let's consider three examples.

In a recent NYT op-ed, the famous postmodernist writer Victor Erofeyev offered his unequivocal support to Pussy Riot and mentioned the case of his brother, Andrei, who was "subjected to similar persecution for displaying paintings which were purportedly offensive to religious values." We at Human Rights First sent petitions urging Russian authorities to drop the case against curators Erofeyev and Yury Samodurov, who were "lucky" to escape with a fine ($10,000). The state prosecutor in that case was none other than Alexander Nikiforov, who secured a conviction in the Pussy riot trial by arguing that their nonviolent "punk prayer" had insulted Russia's millions of religious believers.

Back in 2010, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Petr Verzilov--her husband and member of Voina, an activist performance art group--released 3,000 cockroaches in the courtroom to protest the guilty verdict against Erofeyev and Samodurov. Before #freepussyriot exploded in traditional and social media, #freevoina was the flagship case of artistic persecution in Russia.

Voina is frequently a target of "extremist" laws in Russia, and the collective's members are often prosecuted for nonviolent acts. In addition to Pussy Riot, Voina's prosecution remains the most high-profile example of selective enforcement of Russia's controversial antiextremism and incitement laws. According to Voina, members are also frequently beaten by the police. The ongoing persecution of Voina's Philip Kostenko, an antiracism campaigner who also works at the Anti-Discrimination Center "Memorial" in Saint Petersburg, took a major psychological and physical toll: he's been in and out of court this year, spent a month in detention after an opposition rally in December 2011, and in February he was beaten by two men who called him by name. In July 2012, Kostenko overcame the latest attempt to silence him when the judged dismissed a case in which he was charged for a chalk drawing on a sidewalk.

According to Voina, there have been at least 20 criminal investigations into their activities in recent years. Oleg Vorotnikov and Leonid Nikolaev spent four months in detention for the Palace Revolution action, but charges were dropped because the damage claim didn't stand up in court. Voina's police-baiting giant penis graffiti on a drawbridge that rose in front of the Federal Security Service's (FSB in Russian) headquarters in Saint Petersburg won them a state-sponsored "artistic innovation" prize of $14,000, which the group donated to a legal defense fund in support of civic activists.

Finally, meet Alexander Savko's Mickey Mouse. The controversial painting shows Mickey Mouse preaching as Jesus Christ. On Valentine's Day this year, an appellate court in Kaluga upheld a 2011 verdict proclaiming the painting extremist and religiously offensive--and to be banned from exhibitions, TV, and magazines. The work was included in the 2007 Forbidden Art show, which landed Erofeyev and Samodurov in the courtroom.

The list of banned extremist materials now exceeds 1,300, the use or distribution of which can lead to warnings, fines, and suspended sentences. The trial of Erofeyev and Samodurov was a harsh warning that real prison terms were possible, but the verdict of Pussy Riot introduces a new reality, in which nonviolent dissenting artists can be thrown in jail in complete disregard of Russia's constitutionally protected--and now undermined--separation of church and state. That's persecution at its finest.

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