ART UNDER THREAT IN 2016: RUSSIA
SERIOUS VIOLATIONS: 10
ACTS OF CENSORSHIP: 16
Religious orthodoxy and political nationalism, under the guise of morality and protectionism, continued to be the main motivations behind attacks on artistic freedom in Russia in 2016. While Russia has moved from the third country with the most serious violations on artistic freedom of expression in 2015 to sixth in 2016, artists continue to produce art, or hesitate to, in an environment that is in continual conflict with religious, political and legal blocks at almost every turn.
In 2016, Freemuse registered ten serious violations of artistic freedom of expression in Russia, including the persecution of or threat to four artists, prosecution of three artists, attack on two artists or artistic venues and one artist behind bars. Russia also carried out 16 acts of censorship, for a total of 26 violations on artistic freedom of expression in 2016 – six less than we registered for the country the previous year. The country had eight less cases of prosecutions in 2016 compared to 2015.
The provisions that are often used to censor artists and their artworks in Russia are 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.
Non-state actors, emboldened by ideology, use a variety of these and other provisions to rally the public or influence politicians to intervene in art and performances they find offensive.
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.
The rock opera ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ was cancelled in the Siberian city of Omsk in October 2016 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”. 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.
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 (see more in the “Threats and attacks from non-state actors” section).
In June 2016, government authorities banned the Russian independent theatre company Teatr.doc’s production of the play ‘Pushkin and Money’, a play about a poet who himself was censored by the state, which was scheduled to be part of a theatre festival in Moscow.
The Russian dissident performance artist Pyotr Pavlensky, whose works blur the lines between protest, revolt and artistic expression, was detained and prosecuted in relation to two separate performances in 2016. In May, a Moscow court found Pavlensky guilty of vandalism for setting fire to car tires on Saint Petersburg’s Tripartite Bridge during a pro-Ukraine performance entitled ‘Freedom’ in February 2014. In June 2016, he was surprisingly released after a Moscow court sentenced him to pay a fine of about $7,800 USD, and was ordered to compensate the security agency for the $7,500 USD cost of replacing the heavy oak door of the Federal Security Service he set on fire as part of a performance entitled ‘Threat: Lubyanka’s Burning Door’.
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