Russia: Artistic freedom threatened by nationalist and orthodox groups

6 January 2017

While Russian president Vladimir Putin vowed in a meeting with film directors and artists in early December 2016 to protect artistic freedom, he also said artists carry a responsibility not to offend religious believers, saying “there is a very narrow divide between dangerous shock value and freedom of creativity”, reported The New York Times on 2 December 2016.

Religious orthodoxy and political nationalism, under the guise of morality and protectionism, continue to be the main motivations behind attacks on artistic freedom in Russia to both domestic and foreign artists.

Groups emboldened by ideology use laws like Article 148, passed in 2013 in the aftermath of the Pussy Riot incident, which makes the “insult of religious beliefs and feelings” illegal; the “gay propaganda law”, also passed in 2013, which makes it illegal to distribute “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relationships” to minors; and Article 282, amended in 2016, which prohibits “incitement to hatred or hostility, and humiliation of human dignity” in public or with the use of mass media , to rally the public or influence politicians to intervene in art they find offensive.

Orthodox and nationalist interference
Orthodox activists such as, “Narodny Sobor” (People’s Assembly), “Pravoslavni Soyuz” (Orthodox Unity) and the “Officers of Russia”, use their strict view of decency and morality to block and shut down theatre performances, art exhibits and music concerts. They interfere, sometimes aggressively, when they deem the ideas and lyrics presented in the plays, paintings and songs to go against the sense of normality they feel should be for the whole of Russia.

Nationalism and political allegiance also continue to drive what type of art is allowed on stage and in halls, or what is funded by state coffers. Plays are vetted and cancelled for their political (and moral) content and artists are blacklisted for their political views on issues such as the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

In October 2016, at a gathering of theatre professionals, Konstantin Raikin, the director of Moscow’s Satiricon theatre, made an emotional speech about Russia and its leaders using informal means to push so-called traditional values, reported The Guardian on 28 October 2016.

“I see how people are itching to change things and send us back to the past. And not just to the time of stagnation, but further back – to Stalin’s times … Stop pretending that the authorities are the only bearers of morality. That’s not true … Underneath words about morals, the motherland and patriotism, there are usually very crude goals.”

Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said censorship does not exist in Russia, but did say that if a theatre is state-funded then the government was entitled to make recommendations to the content presented.

Film director Andrei Zvyagintsev said it was “completely obvious that censorship has fully entered into the cultural life” of Russia.

“They [politicians] have forgotten – with amazing ease they have deleted from their minds – the simple and clear fact that it’s not their money, but ours. It belongs to all of us. They money they use to ‘commission’ their agitprop comes from the people.” he told The Guardian.

Below are snap shots of a spate of attacks on artistic freedom in Russia that have happened in 2016.

Orthodox activists attempt to stop play about homosexuality and intolerance

In February 2016, Orthodox activists from the “Narodny Sobor” (People’s Assembly) group, led by member of parliament Vitaly Milonov, attempted to stop the performance of ‘All Shades of Blue’ at the Baltic House theatre in St. Petersburg, due to its plotline of a boy who decides to come out as gay to his family.

The group attempted to dissuade people from watching the play by talking to theatregoers and handing out fliers explaining the “perverted nature” of the main character.

The play was eventually disrupted when a bomb threat was called in to the theatre, which led to the evacuation of everyone inside. After police determined there were no explosives in the venue, and despite the late evening, the performance went on anyway as the audience was determined to watch the show once the venue was declared safe. The performance the following evening was again disrupted by a bomb threat, which proved false, and the performance went on anyway as the audience again waited for police to clear the building.

Milonov, a member of ruling party United Russia, was the principal sponsor of legislation that criminalised “homosexual propaganda directed toward minors” and is an ardent opponent of the LGBT movement.


» Teatral Online – 15 February 2016
Trying to disrupt “Satiricon” in St. Petersburg

» Petersburg Avantgarde – 15 February 2016
Activists have found a way to pluck unwanted performances in St. Petersburg

Orthodox activists call for criminal case against concert organisers

Activists from the “Pravoslavni Soyuz” (Orthodox Unity) group demanded criminal cases be opened against concert organisers who booked heavy metal band Batushka to play dates in Moscow and Saint Petersburg in April 2016.

The Orthodox activist group claim that the band is in reality the alter ego of Polish metal band Behemoth, whose concerts were banned in Russia in 2014 due to the same activists claiming the members are Satanists. The members of the band are unidentified, but are described as a group formed by members of other known bands.

On 8 April, Batushka released a statement saying that despite having all the approvals necessary to put on the shows, they decided to cancel the shows because they “received threats from extremists affiliated with the Russian Orthodox Church stating that they will beat up and even kill people attending both shows”.

The activists’ threats never materialised into criminal cases.

Photo: Witching Hour Productions Facebook page


» Facebook – 8 April 2016
Batushka statement

» Rosbalt – 20 February 2016
Orthodox group ask for criminal case against concert organisers of Batushka band in Moscow and St. Petersburg dates

» Kuban24 – 20 February 2016
Kuban activists demand people not to see Batushka group in Russia

Musicians blacklisted for not being “patriotic enough”

Famed Russian “founding father of rock” Boris Grebenshchikov’s long-time band Aquarium had concerts cancelled in Khabarovsk, Komsomolsk-on-Amur and Blagoveshchensk in the country’s far east due to an inability to find suitable sites.

However, fans took to social media reporting that the regional Ministry of Culture put Grebenshchikov, and other “insufficiently patriotic artists”, on an unofficial blacklist. Tour organisers confirmed that political reasons were behind the cancellations, specifically concerning the musician’s attitude toward the “Ukrainian question”.

In 2015, the musician was criticised by Russian parliament members for meeting with Governor of Odessa Mikheil Saakashvili.

The Russia-Ukraine conflict that began in 2014, leading to the contested sovereignty of Crimea, has left artists caught in the middle of a political struggle. Artists who have performed, or plan to perform, in Crimea, or who are seen as sympathetic to either side’s position has left their works and performances banned from being heard, screened or attended in either country.


» Rosbalt – 17 May 2016
Boris Grebenshchikov concert in Khabarovsk cancelled due to market failure

» Fontanka – 11 May 2016
Why cancel an “Aquarium” concert?

» The Newspapers – 10 May 2016
Grebenshchikov commented on the failure of the concerts in the far east for political reasons

» MK – 10 May 2016
Grebenshchikov comments on the failure of holding concerts in the far east for political reasons

Austrian and US metal bands’ concerts cancelled

Krasnodar city authorities cancelled the concerts of Austrian metal band Belphegor and American metal band Nile on 23 April 2016 as they deemed the band members to be “satanists”. Both bands were on a five-date tour in Russia.

The decision came after activists from the “Pravoslavni Soyuz” (Orthodox Unity) group appealed to authorities to have the shows cancelled, including posting the lyrics to the band’s songs in various government offices.

Additionally, according to the band’s statement, Belphegor’s show in St. Petersburg, scheduled for 19 April, was also cancelled. In Moscow the next day, the band was told it had to remove its stage backdrop and props and that it was not allowed to sing the lyrics to their song ‘Lucifer Incestus’. During the second song of the show, the sound engineers were “forced to mute the vocals for the rest of the show” due to the band’s “lyrical content”.

The band also said they were later informed that their shows scheduled in Ekaterinburg and Krasnodar were cancelled.

Belphegor lead singer Helmuth Lehner said that when the band arrived in Russia he was attacked by a Russian Orthodox activist at the St. Petersburg airport, which was filmed.

“We’ve toured Russia three times since 2006 and always had amazing experiences. We’ve ignored all protests including death threats during the past few weeks. I was aware many black and death metal bands were having trouble recently, but we still marched in. To people who think they know everything: When that waste of oxygen approached us at the airport on the 19th, he had a hand in his pocket. I expected him to have a weapon. If I had hit him, I would have been thrown in jail, and he would have ended up in the hospital. That was their plan; he had that other degenerate filming the entire thing.”

Lehner was confronted by Anatoly Artyukh, the St. Petersburg chair of Orthodox activist group “Narodny Sobor” (People’s Assembly), who are often involved in protests against taboo topics such as heavy metal and homosexuality. Artyukh and his group appealed to St. Petersburg authorities to cancel the concert, citing two Russian laws they were breaking: one on blasphemy and another on inciting religious hatred.

Photo: Belphegor Facebook page


» Blabbermouth – 26 April 2016
Belphegor frontman on airport incident: ‘I’m a musician, not a fighter, especially in Russia’

» Facebook – 24 April 2016
Belphegor statement

» Lenta – 21 April 2016
Orthodox activists cancel concert of Satanists in Krasnodar

» Blabbermouth – 20 April 2016
Belphegor frontman allegedly assaulted by Russian Orthodox activist

Exhibition shut down after four days for LGBT themes

The ‘I Want to Fly’ exhibition by Alexandra Kim, an artist from Sakhalin Island off the far east coast of Russia, was shut down just four days after its opening at the regional art gallery following a collective complaint signed by eight members of the local Union of Artists, stating the exhibition was “promoting gay relations”.

Union members also drew the attention of authorities to one drawing in which the word “ass” was “written by light touches”. The artist said that even before the exhibition opened to the public some of her works were removed due to their content, including a painting depicting two men that was considered to “promote homosexuality”. Some of the photographs in a series entitled ‘Stylish People’ were also removed due to their “extremist” content.

The exhibition opened on 21 May 2016 and was supposed to run until 19 June 2016.


» ASTV – 25 May 2016
Sakhalin exhibition closed due to homosexuality propaganda and extremism

Singer’s concert cancelled in Moscow

Poet and singer Vasily Oblomov (real name Vasily Goncharov) announced in his Live Journal account that his concert in Sokolniki Park in Moscow scheduled for 12 June 2016 was cancelled by city authorities despite having all permissions in order a month in advance. Oblomov further stated that his concert was not going to turn the Russian independence holiday into some sort of “meeting”, but that it was meant to be just an “hour of fun”.

Photo: Vasily Oblomov Live Journal page


» Live Journal – 9 June 2016
Russia Day

Orthodox activist group protests alleged use of obscene lyrics by rock band

In June 2016, Orthodox activists from the “Narodny Sobor” (People’s Assembly) group demanded Russia’s top police inspector, Minister of Interior Vladimir Kolokoltsev, open an investigation into the police officers working at the 3 June concert of rock band Leningrad in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk for not intervening when they allegedly sung obscene lyrics.

City mayor Anatoly Lokoty warned the band that they had to comply with the law and refrain from cursing during their show. Russia enacted a law in July 2014 that prevents swearing in mainstream media, which includes cinemas, theatres and concerts.

According to the activists, the band, during their two-hour performance, cursed in their songs and in the banter between numbers. They also allege that the organiser of the concert was also in violation of the law for organising a public event that involved foul language.

A police investigation was never started.

Photo: Leningrad Facebook page


» Rosbalt – 14 June 2016
Orthodox activists demand police be punished for not punishing Leningrad band members at concert

» Narodny Sobor – 11 June 2016
“There was public discrediting of the government”

» The Moscow Times – 2 June 2016
Russian mayor asks rock band Leningrad not to swear at concert

City reacts to nude statue

In July 2016, a resident of St. Petersburg complained to the ombudsman for children’s rights over a replica of Michelangelo’s famous statue ‘David’ placed in the centre of the city, stating that the “naked man” is near a school and a church and “spoils the historical view of the city and cripples children’s souls”. The statue was part of an exhibition on Michelangelo that lasted until October 2016.

Exhibition organisers asked the public for suggestions on “how to dress David up better” and in August they decided they would not cover up the statue as a majority supported the replica remain as originally intended.


» Rustelegraph – 23 August 2016
Decision in St. Petersburg to not dress David

» Komsomolskaya Pravda – 27 July 2016
Naked “David” in St. Petersburg will stay put

Activists accuse author of extremism

Pro-Kremlin activists have accused author Vladimir Sorokin of promoting cannibalism and have reported his 2000 novel ‘Nastya’ for its “extremist content”. The novel centres around a 16-year-old girl who is baked in an oven by her parents and served as a meal.

Irina Vasina, the leader of the activist group, also demanded charges be brought upon film director Konstantin Bogomolov for adapting Sorokin’s novel for the screen. Vasina said she and her group became aware of the book due to Bogomolov’s idea to turn it into a film.


» Life – 23 August 2016
Group demands police checks into Vladimir Sorokin for story “Nastya”

» The Moscow Times – 23 August 2016
Dissident author Sorokin accused of ‘promoting cannibalism’ in work

Viral video deemed “satire” by prosecutor’s office

The deputy of the legislative assembly of St. Petersburg, Yevgeny Marchenko, demanded a probe be opened into Russian band Leningrad in May 2016 for their music video ‘To Drink in St. Pete’, released in April, which features lyrics and scenes involving drinking alcohol and what he calls “illegal acts”.

In August 2016, the prosecutor’s office of St. Petersburg ruled that there were no signs of extremism or the “promotion of drunkenness” in the band’s viral music video, and rather that the lyrics and video were satirical art that “reflected the author’s personal views”.

Photo: Screen shot from Leningrad music video


» Fontanka – 15 August 2016
Prosecutor’s Office acknowledges “Leningrad” “To Drink in St. Pete” as satirical work

» Billboard – 25 May 2016
Russian band accused of spreading ‘propaganda of alcohol abuse’ with its viral vodka-filled video

Photo exhibition shut down after protests and accusations of child pornography content

In September 2016, the Lumiere Brothers Centre for Photography in Moscow closed down its exhibition of American Jock Sturges’ photography after pro-Kremlin senator Yelena Mizulina called the photos images of child abuse, and an incident where a protester, posing a journalist, sprayed a mixture of urine and acetone at some of the photos.

The entrance to the ‘Jock Sturges: Absence of Shame’ exhibition was also blocked by a group of men in camouflage uniforms from the “Officers of Russia”, a non-governmental organisation made up of veteran and active officers who seek to ensure the “patriotic upbringing of the population”, who called the subject matter child pornography. Russia’s Children’s Rights Ombudswoman Anna Kuznetsova also condemned the show.

The exhibition, Sturges’ first in Russia, had been going on since 8 September 2016, but only received attention a few weeks later after bloggers drew public attention to some of his more controversial images.

The exhibition featured photos of nude adolescents with their families at American nudist colonies, who Sturges said were photographed with parental consent.

“Galleries and museums across the world haven’t seen these photos as pornography. It simply isn’t the case,” Sturges said in an interview with Russia’s Ren TV. “Nudity does not mean anything here. People are exposed because they are nudists and spend the summer in resorts which are free of embarrassment.”

Sturges is best known for his images of nude adolescents and their families, which has landed him in controversy before, including many unsuccessful attempts of having his work classified as child pornography in the US.


» The Guardian – 26 September 2016
Moscow gallery closes US photography exhibit after protester throws urine

» The Moscow Times – 26 September 2016
U.S. photographer Sturges’ Moscow exhibition closed amid child pornography claims

» RT –25 September 2016
‘Child pornography’: US photographer’s exhibition in Moscow closes after controversy, protests

Rock opera cancelled in Omsk after activist protests

In October 2016, rock opera ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ was cancelled in the Siberian city of Omsk after Orthodox activists and members of the “Family, Love and Fatherland” activist group wrote to city officials complaining about the musical’s “continuous blasphemy” and “mockery of faith”.

The Omsk State Music Theatre said in a statement that the director of the theatre cancelled the performance after he learned of the strong opposition to it. Earlier productions of the rock opera in Russia have been met with protests by Orthodox activists.

Lyudmila Ryabichenko, the leader of the activist group, is also a member of the “Narodny Sobor” (People’s Assembly) group that often protests against art and artists on the ground of “morality”.

The Omsk Diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church said in a statement that it had nothing to do with the cancellation.

A performance of the same musical in the Siberian town of Tyumen scheduled in November 2016 was also cancelled after residents complained that the production gave a false portrayal of Christ.


» BBC – 2 November 2016
Russian Orthodox Church backs Jesus Christ Superstar

» Russia Insider – 31 October 2016
Russian theatre cancels Jesus Christ Superstar after ‘blasphemy’ accusations

» Amnesty International – 18 October 2016
Russia: Jesus Christ Superstar cancellation highlights growing nationalist threat to freedom of expression

» Lenta – 18 October 2016
Omsk diocese denied cancellation of “Jesus Christ Superstar”

» Lenta – 17 October 2016
Rock opera “Jesus Christ Superstar” cancelled in Omsk at request of activists

The prosecutor’s inquiry into activity of Theatre-Theatre in Perm

In October 2016, a case was forwarded by Russia’s Prosecutor Office to police and the Ministry of Culture over complaints that a performance of play ‘The Blue Room’ at ‘Teatre-Teatre’ in the city of Perm included “lesbian scenes” against the backdrop of the Virgin Mary.

Theatre director Anatoly Pichkalev said that what has been claimed is false, and confirmed that he and the theatre had been contacted by authorities and provided all the necessary documents, photos and videos for the investigation.

The Prosecutor’s Office explained that the citizen complaints included allegations that the play had signs of “extremism”. In December 2016, the prosecutor’s office determined there were no signs of extremism in the play.


» Zvesda – 14 December 2016
Teatre-Teatre wins another victory against Ministry of Culture

» Meduza – 25 October 2016
Prosecutor’s office gets complaints about theatrical performance with ‘lesbian scenes’

» Rosbalt – 24 October 2016
Perm “Teatre-Teatre” investigated for extremism and insulting the feelings of believers

Additional sources and further reading

» The New York Times – 2 December 2016
In meeting, Putin vows to protect artistic freedom in Russia

» The Guardian – 28 October 2016
Moscow theatre director sparks row with claims of state censorship

» Noisey – 17 October 2016
Religious fanatics in Russian want to strong-arm metal bands into silence

Top photo: Video screen shot of Belphegor frontman Helmuth Lehner being threatened by activist

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