The Iron Curtain of Censorship

Well, it looks like we can add Russia to the list of countries where it’s illegal to criticize religion:

Two Russian museum curators were found guilty of “inciting religious hatred” for displaying a painting of Jesus Christ with Mickey Mouse’s head superimposed.
    A Moscow court ordered the two men, Yuri Samodurov and Andrei Yerofeyev, to pay fines of £4,200 each.
    They ruled that a 2007 exhibition in Moscow called “Forbidden Art” had caused psychological trauma and moral suffering to Christians.

“Psychological trauma and moral suffering”. You know, I always thought the Bible told Christians to be glad when they were persecuted:

“Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.”

—Matthew 5:11-12

but apparently this verse, like many others, has been left by the wayside. In the writings of the church fathers, there are stories of Christian martyrs who gladly suffered torture and even death in the service of their faith. Whatever else I might think about their beliefs, I can give those people points for toughness, if nothing else. But now, instead of welcoming persecution, modern Christians in many nations have become delicate flowers, so protective of their fragile psyches that they can’t even bear to see Jesus with mouse ears.

And no, it’s not just the state taking action to shelter and coddle Christians against their will. The church, as you might expect, took an active role in the trial:

The two convicted curators said they would appeal against Monday’s verdict, while the Russian Orthodox Church complained the fines were too small.

Well, naturally. The fines have to be cripplingly large, because if they aren’t, these two hooligans might not learn their lesson. They might even be tempted to criticize Christianity again in the future, and that would be lethal to the poor, helpless Russian Orthodox church. Their weak nerves couldn’t possibly survive another Virgin Mary sculpted from caviar!

We’re seeing something firsthand that America’s founding fathers knew well: any religion that gains secular power will abuse it, no matter how much experience they have of being in the minority. Decades of repression under the Soviet government apparently taught the Russian church absolutely nothing about tolerance of dissenting views, because as soon as they regained state favor, they immediately set about trying to outlaw all opinions they disapprove of; whether it’s this case, or a similar story from 2007 about them lobbying the government to outlaw homosexuality; or from 2005, when the organizers of another sacrilegious art show were convicted and fined.

This is the first and most important reason why every nation needs a strong separation of church and state. Russia has granted the Orthodox church special status in its laws, part of a dangerous drive by its leaders to promote nationalism, and the erosion of Russian citizens’ freedom is the obvious and inevitable result. There are still brave people in Russia, like these Voltaire-esque museum curators, fighting for human rights – but it’s all too easy to see a new iron curtain, not made of concrete or barbed wire but nonetheless real, looming and threatening to close around the people’s minds.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Gregory S. Chudov

    It’s also worth mentioning that both Samodurov and Yerofeyev are no longer museum curators. Yerofeyev was fired from the State Tretyakov Gallery when his prosecution started, and Samodurov had to resign from his post of director of Saharov’s museum in attempt to save the museum from constant pressure from authorities related to his trial. But it could have been even worse, prosecution demanded 3 years in jail for them both.

  • Nathaniel

    While I didn’t know that this was happening, it doesn’t surprise me in the least. Like any competent autocrat, Putin knows that the Church properly bribed and flattered is the best friend to the state that a government could have.

  • Eurekus

    I can think of worse things than Mickey Mouse’s head superimposed. What they did was mild.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Putin has apparently studied his Stalin well.

  • Peter N

    Let’s all start making plans for Blasphemy Day 2010, September 30!

  • Zietlos

    But Peter, how could you possibly top Micky Jesus? They’re taking all the good bits!

    It does make one glad that they aren’t in Russia, and a careful reminder of how easily power corrupts.

  • Wednesday

    I wonder if there’s a reason it often seems to be art exhibits that get targeted by claims of heresy and Christian-oppression. Bill Donohue loves to go after them as well. Is it primarily that art exhibits are public and stationary, so it’s easy to prove the ‘heresy’ has taken place, or is it because artists and galleries tend to be financially vulnerable, and so it doesn’t take as much pressure on them to get them to cave?

    Someday I’d like to see an underdog movement challenge powerful churches like the Russian Orthodox Church, charging them with heresy for repeatedly depicting Jesus as Caucasian, contrary to historical and geographical likelihood.

  • http://steve.mikexstudios.com themann1086

    Is it primarily that art exhibits are public and stationary, so it’s easy to prove the ‘heresy’ has taken place, or is it because artists and galleries tend to be financially vulnerable, and so it doesn’t take as much pressure on them to get them to cave?

    Wednesday, I’d venture it’s “both”. Probably a little bit of “damn artists only drew what we paid them to draw back in the good ol’ days” as well.

  • http://she-who-chatters.blogspot.com D

    Psychological trauma and moral suffering? What the blue fuck? More like existential angst and harmless offense. Y’know what causes real psychological trauma and moral suffering? Having the state take your stuff because some people didn’t like a picture. (Also: being attacked by an axe-wielding maniac because some people didn’t like a picture. That could also cause it.)

  • L.Long

    The xtians scream all over about the oppression of atheistic Stalin and at the VERY 1st chance they get, they show us how loving and tolerant they can be by doing the STALIN thing as well. Yes they are a great example to follow or even precede.

  • http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com Sharmin

    We’re seeing something firsthand that America’s founding fathers knew well: any religion that gains secular power will abuse it, no matter how much experience they have of being in the minority. Decades of repression under the Soviet government apparently taught the Russian church absolutely nothing about tolerance of dissenting views, because as soon as they regained state favor, they immediately set about trying to outlaw all opinions they disapprove of; whether it’s this case, or a similar story from 2007 about them lobbying the government to outlaw homosexuality; or from 2005, when the organizers of another sacrilegious art show were convicted and fined.

    This is along the same lines as what I was thinking. One would think that, after experiencing discrimination, people might realize that it’s wrong to do to others what was done to them.

  • MS Quixote

    Well said, Ebon…

  • Kennypo65

    It seems to me that religion is the true evil.

  • Gregory S. Chudov
  • ThatGuyMontag

    Oh the story is far worse than that: philosopher Michail Ryklin has written movingly of the suicide of his wife, Anna Alchuk, one of the artists involved. I’m preaching to the choir I know, but so much for Christian “love”.