In June 2018, Russian artist Denis Lopatin announced that he will be leaving Russia in pursuit of political asylum in France due to threats he has received regarding a caricature drawn of nationalist lawmaker and former Chief Prosecutor of Crimea Natalya Poklonskaya, reported Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
The artwork portrays Poklonskaya as a nun cradling a phallic shaped depiction of Nicholas II, the last emperor of Russia and an ordained saint per the Russian Orthodox Church. Accompanying the painting is a caption that reads, “Find a man for this idiot!”, according to Medusa Project.
Lopatin first displayed his work in October 2017 as a way to protest against religious conservatives, including Poklonskaya, who opposed the release of the 2017 film Matilda, which depicted the romance between ballerina Matilda Kshesinskaya and Nicholas II. The film was considered to be extremely controversial and those involved in its production were frequently threatened and attacked. For example, on 31 August 2017, unknown persons threw Molotov cocktails into the St. Petersburg studio of the film’s director Aleksei Uchitel. He also said that he received verbal threats from members of Christian State-Holy Rus, a radical Orthodox Christian group.
Additionally, the two leads of the film – Polish actress Michalina Olszanska and German actor Lars Eidinger – refused to attend the St. Petersburg and Moscow premieres in October 2017 out of fear for their safety. Two of the film’s non-Russian actors – Luise Wolfram and Thomas Ostermeier – also refused to attend the premieres as well out of the same fear.
At the time of the film’s release, Poklonskaya told the BBC: “You can’t touch saints. You can’t show them having sex because that offends the feelings of believers. This is not censorship, this is about the violation of people’s rights. Artistic freedom is not limitless, it cannot impede on the rights of others.”
Local Christian activists filed a complaint against Lopatin’s cartoon, citing a law signed into effect in 2013 that criminalizes actions that “insult the religious feelings of believers”. However, investigators concluded that the image does not contain illegal hate speech and could not be censored. Poklonskaya has since brought the image to the attention of Investigative Committee Chief Alexander Bastrykin, requesting that the caricature be treated as “an insult intended to offend Christians” and that it be removed from the internet, wrote Medusa Project and Kamchatka-Inform.