Orthodox ‘fundamentalism’ and obscenity

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (R), Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Kirill (C) and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I meet in Moscow's Kremlin May 25, 2010. REUTERS/RIA Novosti/Kremlin/Dmitry Astakhov (RUSSIA - Tags: POLITICS RELIGION)

Apparently, a major religious obscenity trial in Moscow has been going on. I only know this thanks to a New York Times story, the Times being one of the few papers left these days that has the resources to do its own foreign coverage:

The trial of two prominent Russian intellectuals over a 2007 contemporary art exhibition at the Sakharov Museum here that included works on religious themes ended … with a guilty verdict and fines but no jail time for the defendants.

In the culmination of the trial, which began two years ago, Yuri Samodurov, 58, a former director of the Sakharov Museum, was fined 200,000 rubles (about $6,500) and Andrei Yerofeyev, 54, the show’s guest curator, was fined 150,000 rubles (about $4,800) on charges of inciting religious and ethnic hatred in an exhibition called “Forbidden Art — 2006,” which displayed works that had been banned by Russian museums. Among the offending works were a Pop Art juxtaposition of an image of Jesus appearing with McDonald’s golden arches as if in an advertisement with the words, “This is my body”; an icon of the Virgin Mary with what looks like caviar where the figures should be; and a painting of Jesus with a Mickey Mouse head. A work titled “Chechen Marilyn,” of a veiled woman with her long dress billowing up, was deemed offensive to Muslims.

The article suggests that the Russian Orthodox supporters of the obscenity charges are a pretty radical lot:

Those divergent views were well represented in the courtroom. Human rights activists and artists showed up to support the curators. Opposing them were fundamentalist Russian Orthodox activists dressed in black T-shirts decorated with the Orthodox cross, skulls and crossbones and the words “Orthodoxy or Death.”

There’s the dreaded “F” word again. Dare we ask the logical question: What is the difference between an orthodox Orthodox Christian and a fundamentalist Orthodox Christian?

Looks like the Times is catching the same disease as the Washington Post in deciding to use the word “fundamentalist” as a catch all for religious conservatives, rather than staying true to its real meaning as defined by the Associated Press stylebook.

But what jumped out about an otherwise good, nuts-and-bolts report was the lack of context about the church’s involvement in the suit. There’s some bold allegations about the church’s influence:

The prosecutor had asked for three years’ imprisonment for the defendants, a move that caused critics to warn that Russia was reliving the cultural oppression of Soviet times or, as Viktor Yerofeyev, a writer and older brother of Andrei Yerofeyev, warned, that it was becoming a Russian Orthodox version of the Islamic republic in Iran.


Andrei Yerofeyev and some of his supporters said they believed that the Kremlin had intervened to prevent a prison sentence that could tarnish Russia’s image abroad.

Officials of the Russian Orthodox Church had said in recent days that although they were offended by the exhibition and believed it was criminal, the defendants should not be imprisoned.

So we have the accusation that the church’s influence is trending toward Iran-like levels of theocracy and conjecture that the government intervened in the case to counter the church’s influence. This is pretty strong stuff, especially without knowing what the Russian laws actually say on this subject.

Also, it should be noted that the story lacks even one actual quote from a Russian Orthodox official or an outside religious expert that might counterbalance the perspective being offered by the defendants or address their accusations. Perhaps the church really has gone overboard here, but I’d feel a lot better accepting this perspective if there was even just one impartial or outside religious expert that could contextualize the church’s contemporary influence in Russia.

I really hope we see a follow-up that explains the church’s role in Russian society a bit better. That would go a long way toward illuminating what is going on here. Despite the clear suggestion the church has an out-sized or even pernicious influence, there’s a lot of smoke here but little fire.

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  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    Well, apparently you legally can go to jail for depicting things that religious people don’t like there, so I’d have to say the smoke/fire ratio’s a little lower than that…

  • Jerry

    I found it interesting the word ‘fundamentalist’ appeared once in this quote:

    Opposing them were fundamentalist Russian Orthodox activists dressed in black T-shirts decorated with the Orthodox cross, skulls and crossbones and the words “Orthodoxy or Death.”

    This should be compared with similar extremist Muslims who’s modus operandi is not the same but similar. I really want stories like this to illustrate how similar religious fanatics really are.

    And yes I do agree that ‘fundamentalist’ is totally the wrong word. I would use the word ‘fanatic’ for such people. Or perhaps ‘zealot’ or even ‘extremist’ fits better?

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    No. Unless more factual material is given to prove that a certain word fits.

  • Jerry

    skulls and crossbones and the words “Orthodoxy or Death.”

    Terry, it’s possible that was satire but the story seemed to indicate that they meant it and that’s sufficient for me to apply the extremist/fanatic label. I would do the same if Muslims showed in some similar situation with “death to Christians” T-shirts.

  • Jon in the Nati

    Terry, it’s possible that was satire but the story seemed to indicate that they meant it and that’s sufficient for me to apply the extremist/fanatic label. I would do the same if Muslims showed in some similar situation with “death to Christians” T-shirts

    Better yet, what if Muslims were wearing “Islam or Death” shirts? I think a lot of people would be pretty quick to call them extremists or fanatics.

    This sort of thought experiment is pretty common on GR, but it usually takes the form of “if Story X involved Christians rather than Muslims, how would the media treat it?” I think it is a worthwhile exercise to go the other way in this situation.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    There are three angles not mentioned in the story that I could see.
    First, that the Sakharov Museum is in a building owned by the City of Moscow and they have use of the building free of rent until 2021 (According to their website.) Did this aspect come up in the very long trial and was it given any weight in the final decision??
    I would also like to know if the decision was handed down by a judge or a jury.
    As far as applying words like “extremist,” “fanatic,” or “zealot” to the Orthodox—Artists who seem determined to ridicule or mock religion and what other people hold to be sacred are just as extremist, fanatic and zealous as some religious people–just in a different direction. But you will virtually never read of an artist being described in the media in those words no matter how extreme, fanatic, and zealous against religion the artist is. And why should the people’s money, through free rent whether in the City of Moscow (or anywhere else) be used to subsidize attacks on what they hold to be sacred???

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    Deacon Bresnahan – Let’s describe how these ‘fanatics’ exhibited the ‘art’ in question:

    Three years ago one of the leading Russian contemporary art curators, Andrei Yerofeev, organised an exhibition called “Forbidden Art”, in the Andrei Sakharov centre in Moscow, where he presented a collection of art works banned from previous exhibitions. To draw attention to political censorship Yerofeev put all the works behind a curtain with one hole in it, above human height, so that in order to see the works one had to climb a stool and peep through the hole. Only people who really wanted to see the art works of art were able to. However, Yerofeev, as well as Yury Samodurov, the director of the Sakharov centre at the time, were accused of inciting hatred and insulting religious feelings, and prosecuted.

    Yup, those ‘extremists’ forcing their views on others. All people had to do was casually go to the museum and perchance go to that exhibit and accidentally climb a stool and unluckily look in precisely the wrong direction and the works would be forced on their unsuspecting eyes. (Well, one eye, anyway.)

    Those ‘fanatic’ free-speech ‘extremists’! Why, it’s worse than fines or prison time!

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Ray–I don’t care how some artists or art museums try to bring home their opposition to POLITICAL censorship. The article I read here described artists trashing religious teachings and images. Whether you agree or not many people consider that an artist who is obsessed with producing attack art against a religion (such as in our country to dip Christ in urine or dob the Blessed Mother in dung) is every bit some sort of an anti-religious zealot, fanatic, or extremist. But it is those who speak out against such garbage—and especially against using public funds or publicly owned buildings for such–that the media usually reserves the negative words for.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    Deacon John M. Bresnahan –

    But it is those who speak out against such garbage—-and especially against using public funds or publicly owned buildings for such—that the media usually reserves the negative words for.

    Um, let’s say that’s true.

    This article is about people being prosecuted for producing art that some religious people take offense at. Let’s assume – to go by your original questions – it was a jury verdict that was swayed by the fact that the museum got a tax break. (I have no evidence that’s true, but let’s assume it.) The controversy here is whether legal penalties – as opposed to social condemnation – should obtain.

    And that’s leaving aside the “Orthodoxy or Death” threats…

  • Peter

    Hi Ray,

    The question is never one of should we use the force of law against certain ideas, rather it is everywhere and always a question of whose ideas should be sanctioned. I realize that this seems controversial, but rest assured that there has never been a time in this nations history (including our own) where certain groups and ideas did not face legal and social pressures, including legal prosecution.

    If you doubt this, simply look to two stories from last week. In one case a professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign was fired for proclaiming that he agreed with the official stance of the Roman Catholic Church on matters of human sexuality. In the other notable story,Arab-American Christian evangelists are facing jail time in Detroit for handing out pamphlets outside of the “free speech zone” set aside for their use.

  • Peter

    I have to say that it is very rich to hear Russian secularists complain that they are being persecuted. After 70 years of atheist rule resulting in the deaths of millions of Orthodox believers, the destruction of their churches and the suppression of their faith by imprisonment in Soviet gulags, atheists claim that a fine imposed for intentionally provoking their neighbors is a “human rights abuse”. It would be amusing if they didn’t expect us to take them seriously.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Ray–Were they death threats???? New Hampshire’s motto on almost every state sign and license plate is “Live Free or Die.” Does anyone think that slogan is a death threat aimed at those who aren’t practicing or living the Bill of Rights??? We need to know more about the intended message of the T-Shirts-not some possibly biased reporter’s spin. From similar religious T-shirts I have seen in our country they are intended to show a willingness of the wearer to be martyred for the Faith not some sort of a death threat. In that case the T-shirts would have been very appropriate as protest against the art. Somehow I don’t trust a Times reporter to have gotten it right.
    And to piggy-back on what Peter wrote–Considering the wholesale slaughter of Christians by the Soviet atheist government–would it be much of a stretch to believe that the Orthodox in Russia might be terrified of a second rising of atheist hate. If you read of the rise of atheist Communism in Russia you quickly learn that much of the art and literary “liberal” culture of Old Russia just before The Revolution was strongly hate-filled toward religion –and millions later died under the atheist government there. The emotional wounds of that time are very likely still alive among religious believers in Russia. Maybe some Orthodox in Russia today are every bit as afraid of the re-rising of that traumatic time as Jews are rightly to be afraid of any rise of anti-Semitism (which is growing strongly in our country on many so-called “liberal” campuses, but, for the most part, being ignored by the media.)

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    Peter, your comments stray from the journalism focus here, but I’ll make a few quick points. First, not being rehired isn’t quite the same thing as being fired – and it is not “the force of law” (your words). Social pressure, maybe – but that’s not what we’re talking about here.

    And your second case also argues against your thesis. Look up the phrase “time, place, and manner” – it’s Constitutional to regulate some aspects of how free speech is carried out, so long as the specific content is not the target. And at the festival in Detroit, all leafletting – Christian, Islamic, or otherwise – was restricted to a specific area. It was handing out leaflets outside the designated area, not the contents of the leaflets – not the “ideas” – that got “sanctioned”.

    Your comment #11 is so far off journalism that I won’t address it here… but if you want to take it to email, I’d be happy to continue.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    Deacon John M. Bresnahan –

    Were they death threats????

    Mark already called for more context here, so asking the protesters about their intentions would be a good thing. But others have already pointed out that if this were any religion besides a denomination of Christianity, the presumption would be the shirts were meant literally.

    When you add in the context that these museum personnel were being prosecuted for doing things the Orthodox didn’t like, I’d say we need positive evidence for another interpretation.

    The history of repression in the Soviet Union is exactly why people are concerned that it could return in another form. Two wrongs don’t make a right…

  • Peter

    Ray, the shirts were not a death threat. The shirts are common throughout Orthodoxy and refer to the wearers determination to die rather than betray the Orthodox faith. Again, this story can only be understood in the context of the brutal persecution and widespread murder suffered by Orthodox Christians at the hands of secularists in Russia for nearly a century. My comments were pertinent to journalism for that simple fact. Western media sources seem desperate to ignore how the actions of the Soviet Union have impacted modern Russia and once again provided no context for their readers to understand the rage that erupted in Russia as a result of this so-called art show.

  • Peter

    By the way Ray, the professor was fired for his comments. Furthermore, the speech zones were developed to ensure that unpopular opinions are not heard whether they are G-20 protestors or abortion picketers.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    Ray, the shirts were not a death threat. The shirts are common throughout Orthodoxy and refer to the wearers determination to die rather than betray the Orthodox faith.

    How do you know this? Can you point me to some articles or resources that describe this? I ask because I’d like to investigate for myself – so that I can know what they mean.

    Oh, and BTW, in comment #9 I pointed out serious issues ‘leaving aside the “Orthodoxy or Death” threats’.

    (The rest of your comments don’t relate to this site – suffice it to say that I disagree and can explain why. Click on my name, then click on the “Contact” link at the top of my website, and we can take it to email.)

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    Dang unclosed tags. The first paragraph is Peters, the rest is mine.

  • Stephen A.

    What is the difference between an orthodox Orthodox Christian and a fundamentalist Orthodox Christian?

    The skull & crossbones t-shirts and the extremist quote on them would probably be enough for many. (Not buying the “common” explanation Ray puts out. I think it was more extreme than that.

    Even so, the law in Russia is clear, and apparently these artists are not allowed to push the boundaries of religious expression as much as in the West. What’s the real reporting sin here (other than the lack of balancing quotes?) We got it.