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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