Two trials, one issue: the face of modern Russia

One case involves an oil millionaire, the other a respected museum. But both raise the same question: exactly what sort of liberty does Russia enjoy? <i>Andrew Osborn </i>reports
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The Independent Online

The day the Soviet flag rattled down the Kremlin flagpole for the last time was supposed to be the day when Russians won what they had been deprived of for over seventy years: freedom.

The day the Soviet flag rattled down the Kremlin flagpole for the last time was supposed to be the day when Russians won what they had been deprived of for over seventy years: freedom.

The hardliners' audacious coup had failed, the Soviet empire and all it stood for was unravelling at a rate of knots and Boris Yeltin, Russia's first post-Soviet president, promised all things to all men. His message was clear - the time for repression and fear was over.

But, 13 years later, freedom, if human rights activists are to be believed, is once again under attack and Russia's government is embracing the very thing its people thought they had consigned to the past: authoritarianism.

This week alone sees two alarming court cases, one an attack on artistic and religious freedom, and the other an overt onslaught on the freedom to participate in politics and criticise the Kremlin.

Modern art often shocks, but its creators are not usually thrown into jail for any offence they cause, particularly in self-proclaimed democracies. But in Vladimir Putin's Russia, wannabe Damien Hirsts have learnt that they need to tread carefully. An ill-judged painting or installation could see the maker tried, jailed and fined if an extraordinary new court case is anything to go by.

Yesterday, two museum workers and an artist went on trial in Moscow for inciting religious hatred. The main defendant in the case could face up to five years in prison if found guilty, be fined up to 500,000 roubles (£9,500) and be banned from holding a position of responsibility for a further five years. His crime: staging an exhibition of modern art which focused on Jesus Christ and the increasingly powerful Russian Orthodox Church.

The exhibition, Ostorojno religiya! (Beware religion!), shocked and angered the church's followers (who technically account for almost two thirds of Russia's 144 million- population) when it first opened in January last year. Like most modern art, it was provocative and uncompromising.

One piece, a poster by a Russian-born American artist called Alexander Kosolapov, had an image of Jesus in a doctored Coca-Cola advertisement poster with the legend "This is my blood." Another, by an artist called Alina Gurevich, featured a church made from vodka bottles in an overt dig at the tax exemption the church used to benefit from when it came to selling alcohol.

Yet another depicted men nailed to a cross, a Swastika and a Soviet star, while a piece by an artist called Alisa Zrazhevskaya gave a controversial twist to the traditional Russian religious symbol of an icon.

In fairground style, the artist removed the saint's head, hands and bible and invited the public to put their own head and hands through the holes.

Inscribed on the installation was the word "vipers". The exhibition included the work of 40 artists and was held in Moscow's Andrei Sakharov museum, an institution that was founded to champion human rights and promote democracy as espoused by the late Soviet dissident and Nobel peace prize-winner whose name it bears.

Supposed to stimulate debate about religion and fanaticism, it quickly whipped up a storm of protest with Orthodox followers, who called it "blasphemous". On day four the exhibition was trashed.

Six Orthodox followers used paint and their fists to damage many of the installations. Two of the men later stood trial for vandalism, but were acquitted and hailed as heroes by the church. Then the tables were turned, dramatically.

The lower house of parliament passed a resolution urging the authorities to investigate whether the exhibition itself had incited religious hatred and to "take the necessary measures". A special commission of experts was duly set up and found that that was the effect of the art. The Russian prosecutor's office swiftly drew up charges. Three people were charged. Yuri Samodurov, head of the museum, a museum employee called Ludmila Vasilovskaya, and one of the offending artists, a painter called Anna Mikhailchuk.

The art world and human rights activists were shocked; the church was delighted.

One of the men who vandalised the exhibition said outside the court yesterday that he had no regrets. "After suffering really strong psychological trauma ... our spontaneous reaction was to destroy this blasphemy," said Vladimir Sergeyev.

"We stopped criminals," he added. "A number of the works were downright explicit. They were playing with holy icons and to me, as a religious person, they insulted ... the Holy Father."

MPs have said that artists need to learn that there are limits to freedom of expression and church leaders have denounced the exhibition as "an insult". Human rights groups have claimed, however, that the case is a throwback to Soviet times, when the state banned certain forms of art and bulldozed exhibitions it didn't like.

"This court case, this absurd and highly shameful court case launched against the organisers of the exhibition, is a demand for a return to censorship," Ludmila Alexeyeva, chairwoman of the Moscow Helsinki Group, said.

"This trial, for the first time since the Soviet era, is a trial of ideology," said Lev Ponomarov, head of the All Russian Movement for Human Rights.

"The state is on the side of the Orthodox radicals, who are hooligans. It is very important that we win this case," Mr Samodurov, the museum's director, said. He is pleading innocent, along with his co-accused, and had made it clear that he finds the charges preposterous.

"If what the church believes to be blasphemy is seen as a crime in a secular state, it means that this is a political trial. I realised it [religion] was a contentious topic, but I thought we could discuss it openly." The exhibition, he added, was not anti-religion.

Banned under Communism, the Orthodox Church has enjoyed a quiet renaissance since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 under its septuagenarian leader, Patriarch Alexy II. It enjoys the backing of Mr Putin and his wife, Ludmila, and many of its often ultra-conservative views about rival religions and moral values are supported by nationalist politicians.

For many, however, the trial is merely the latest example of the government manipulating the Russian legal system to curtail people's freedom.

Today, the trial of Russia's richest man, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, gets under way in Moscow and human rights activists say that freedom will once again be under attack in the court room.

In this case, the freedom to dabble in politics, something that Mr Khodorkovsky decided to do with the $15bn he is estimated to have amassed through often dubious means in the anarchic post-Soviet meltdown.

The former head of Yukos, Russia's largest domestic producer of oil, he stands accused of tax evasion and embezzlement to the tune of $1bn. The prosecution has put it about that he may even be implicated in a murder conspiracy.

Both men will be held in metal cages for the duration of the trial and few believe that either will get a fair trial, although the Kremlin insists there is nothing political or rigged about the spectacle.

Although white-collar crime of the kind Mr Khodorkovsky is accused of does not legally entail pre-trial imprisonment, that is precisely the indignity that the billionaire has had to endure since he was arrested at gunpoint on an icy Siberian runway eight months ago.

Human rights groups have thrown themselves behind his cause, even though few ordinary Russians (who fared badly in the 1990s when he was making his fortune) sympathise with his plight. "For our country this case is symbolic," Ludmila Alexeyeva, of the Moscow Helsinki group, said.

She argued that Mr Putin is using the courts and his unassailable position to roll back hard-won freedoms and that Mr Khodorkovsky's prosecution is just a small part of a much bigger pattern.

A new law to radically restrict public meetings and political protests is a case in point, she adds, as is a draft plan on restricting and controlling use of the internet. "This tendency is not new. It appeared during the shooting on the Russian parliament and the disbanding of the Supreme Soviet. But during the Yeltsin years it was not systematic, since with Yeltsin nothing was systematic. With Putin, however, everything is a system and everything is moving towards eliminating our civil rights and liberties," she said.

Human rights activists say the warning signs are everywhere. They cite the recent sacking of a prominent television presenter who was felt to be overly critical of the Kremlin; the draconian sentencing this year of a researcher, Igor Sutyagin, to 15 years in jail for spying; and a decision this month by the Supreme Court to overturn the acquittal of another alleged spy, despite the fact a jury had declared him innocent.

"The Khodorkovsky case should be considered against the larger background of Russian reality which is constantly changing. And the direction of that change is making us worry about where Russia is going," Anna Neistat, director of the Russian branch of Human Rights Watch, said.

"I don't think the Russian courts have reached a level of independence fitting for a democratic society. The judiciary is still heavily dependant on the executive's will. The Khodorkovsky case is not unique. His fate is no different from that of numerous other defendants across Russia who face police harassment and numerous violations of due process."

The billionaire's case is unlikely to be straightforward; the indictment against him runs to some 800 pages and is expected to take days to read.

Many have already compared the predictable outcome and the political nature of the case to the show trials of the 1930s beloved by Stalin. The stakes for Mr Khodorkovsky, 40, could not be higher. If found guilty, which everyone expects he will be, he could be looking at a 10-year sentence in a labour camp. He is also expected to be forced to surrender his shares in Yukos, opening the door to some form of state intervention in the oil firm, and to be made to part with a huge slice of his fabulous wealth.

Nor are Mr Khodorkovsky's sins unique; all the barons who flourished in Russia in the 1990s used the same methods and still do. Stephen O'Sullivan, head of research at the United Financial Group, says that it is a well known fact that two other oil companies - Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich's Sibneft, and TNK, a joint venture with BP - use exactly the same tax avoidance techniques as Yukos.

"This [prosecution] seems to be very selective. None of the other people who used the same tax minimisation schemes have been targeted," he said.

Mr Khodorkovsky's real sin was betrayal.When Mr Putin came to power in 2000 he allegedly struck a deal with the country's super-rich: you stay out of politics and I'll keep my nose out of your businesses. But Mr Khodorkovsky paid no heed. Instead he poured his money into opposition parties and a newspaper, hinted that he had presidential ambitions and suggested he might sell off part of his oil empire to ExxonMobil, a move that would hand control of Russia's natural resources to a foreign firm.

But in acquiring his wealth he was like many of the other oligarchs, the two dozen or so men who made their fortunes by exploiting their contacts and the country's natural resources in the 1990s in a legally grey fashion.

They will therefore be watching his trial closely as the sands of Russian history shift yet again.

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