Culture activists speak out against new bill protecting religious sentiment

Russian culture activists are concerned over a new bill to protect religious belief. They fear it may be abused as an instrument of censorship or political persecution, or suppress freedom of artistic expression.

After the State Duma approved a bill to protect religious believers’ feelings, that introduces a punishment of up to 5 years in prison, many figures in the media, art and culture communities have spoken out against the initiative, expressing profound concern that the new law will become nothing more than a legitimate instrument of limiting freedom.

TV host, journalist and Member of the Public Chamber of Russia Nikolay Svanidze says the bill is “dangerous.”

“If the law is badly formulated or written – and it is impossible to formulate it well – saying that God does not exist, teaching Darwin's Theory Of Evolution, or a short skirt on a woman can also be interpreted as an insult of citizens’ religious views," the Public Chamber’s press service quotes Svanidze as saying.

Director Andrey Proshkin, the man behind 2012 film The Horde, which tells the story of Saint Alexius, the Metropolitan of Moscow and Wonderworker of All Russia, agrees with Svanidze, saying he sees no relation to the protection of faith in this bill.

“Faith is an intimate and individual thing. From whom are they planning to defend the religious feelings of the believers? From nonbelievers? This is a very dangerous initiative,” he told Interfax.

Proshkin is sure that the new law will provoke more hatred and conflicts in society than it will prevent.

People from the art scene, including curators and critics, fear the new law may become a major obstacle for artists who touch upon religious themes. Russian political activist, curator of the most provocative and eccentric contemporary art shows, and gallery owner Marat Gelman, also hopes the bill doesn’t pass.

He is set to open an Icons exhibition in St. Petersburg featuring some 70 works by contemporary artists.

“This display may be the start of a new museum of religious art. Priests who’ve seen the display see neither blasphemy, nor offensive parodies in the works,” Gelman wrote on his blog.

However Russian Orthodox activists have already held a protest demanding the show is banned because it insults their religious feelings.

Gelman is not the only curator concerned with the new bill. Art activist Yury Samodurov, also spoke against the new bill. Samodurov co-organized the notorious Forbidden Art display in 2006 that resulted in a legal case against the two curators. They were accused of inciting religious hatred and were fined up to $6,500.

Samodurov fears that “accepting the new law will give the Russian Orthodox Church, the public prosecutor's office and various national Orthodox organizations and their activists an effective “legal" weapon against contemporary art and will significantly increase the level of self-censorship among the management of art institutions and artists,” he told Interfax news agency.

If the State Duma approves the bill, it would amend the Criminal Code with a new article on “Insulting citizens’ religious views and feelings and desecration of the objects of the religious reverence and pilgrimage as well as those destined for conducting religious rites and ceremonies”.

The new bill if accepted will impose fines of up to 300,000 roubles (about US$9,000), up to 200 hours of community work or up to three years in prison. Defiling or destruction of buildings or objects that are revered as holy by any official religion can be punished with a fine of up to 500,000 roubles (US$ 15,000), up to 400 hours community work or with a prison sentence of up to five years.

The bill also adds a new article to the Administrative Code. It suggests that public defiling of religious books, signs or emblems could be punished with a fine of up to 50,000 roubles (US$1,500).