Russia Cracks Down on Political Art

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Alexei Druzhinin/AP/RIA

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin

On June 11, Alexander Shchednov, known in Russia's art circles as Shurik, was hanging up a collage outside the town hall in the southwestern city of Voronezh. The image showed the face of a coy-looking Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin superimposed over the head of a woman in an evening dress, with the slogan, "Oh I don't know ... a third presidential [term] ... it's too much, on the other hand [three is a charm]." But Shchednov never got the chance to display his new work. Before he could hang the collage, he was arrested, becoming the latest in a string of artists to fall victim to the heavy hand of Russian censorship.

Speaking to the opposition website, Elena Dudukina of the Voronezh human-rights protection group Voronezh-Chernozemye said Shchednov was asked to give the police a $95 bribe to avoid arrest. When he refused, he was detained overnight and, according to Dudukina, beaten while in custody; Voronezh police say an investigation into the allegation is under way. A trial was scheduled for June 15, with Shchednov charged with "uncensored swearing in a public place." But the artist never showed up in court, so the hearing has been postponed.

Shchednov is one of a growing number of artists in Russia who have been accused of breaching censorship conventions and insulting authority. There is no specific law that explicitly forbids anti-Establishment artworks, but law-enforcement figures can easily find loopholes that they can use to detain artists. They are helped by legislation passed in 2002 that forbids the expression of extremism. The law is intended to combat far-right nationalism, but many artists have been caught in its wide net.

The most high-profile case is that of Andrey Erofeyev, former head of contemporary art at Moscow's State Tretyakov Gallery. In 2008 he was indicted and charged with inciting religious hatred after putting on an exhibition a year earlier at the Andrey Sakharov Museum in Moscow called "Forbidden Art 2006." The paintings depicted in the show were considered by authorities to be insulting to the Orthodox Church — one of the works showed a crucified Lenin, another portrayed Mickey Mouse as Jesus. Erofeyev was fired from his job at the Tretyakov in 2008, and his trial is ongoing. "Artists should not be prosecuted just because someone doesn't like what they do," says Friederike Behr, a researcher at Amnesty International in Russia. He adds that the antiextremism law itself is not the problem: "There is a good reason for that law to exist. It's just the interpretation and implementation of the law [which] is worrying."

Artyom Loskutov, a video artist based in Novosibirsk, Siberia, spent 26 days in prison before he was released on June 10. He had been arrested after helping to organize an art gathering called Monstratsia, which was held in Novosibirsk on May 1. The liberal weekly the New Times reported that 800 people had attended, some of them brandishing political posters with slogans like "Who is in charge?" On May 15, Loskutov received a call from the police asking him to come in for a chat. But having already spoken to authorities two weeks earlier about his involvement in Monstratsia, with no consequences, he declined. Hours later, he was detained by plainclothes police, who then claimed to have found 11 grams of marijuana in his belongings.

"The marijuana wasn't mine," Loskutov, whose art is nonpolitical, tells TIME. "Even if I was a regular drug taker, I knew the police wanted to see me that day. I would not have risked having drugs with me." Loskutov was released, but his trial is set for later this summer. The artist thinks it will be a litmus test for others. "I think the result will say a lot about the state of art in Russia," he says. "If I am found innocent, it will prove that there is a certain freedom to express oneself. If I am found guilty, it means we are approaching a critical time for art and artists in this country."

Artists hoping to avoid becoming a target of Russia's censorship laws may find themselves forced to take a page out of Ilya Glazunov's book. Last week, Putin visited Glazunov, one of Russia's most famous painters, at his studio on the artist's 79th birthday. The Prime Minister paused in front of a painting of a knight, Prince Oleg with Igor, which Glazunov had completed in 1973. Then he offered his critique that the sword in the painting was too short. "It would only be good for cutting a sausage," Putin said.

Had this not been Russia, Glazunov might have defended his work. Instead, he complemented Putin on his eye for detail and said he would correct the mistake. Under the current climate, he was probably right to — when it comes to Russian art, going up against the authorities has its consequences.