IN JANUARY 2003 vandals entered an art exhibition in Moscow and used spray paint to destroy many of the "offensive" paintings. It's not the first such incident in the annals of modern art, but this time the story had several peculiarly Russian twists. The gallery was part of the Andrei Sakharov Museum, set up in 1994 to preserve the legacy of Russia's best-known human rights activist. The exhibition, titled "Caution! Religion," was intended, the curators explained, to get people to focus on the danger of religious fanaticism and prejudice in a country where only Russian Orthodoxy has any firm legal status. The vandals were acolytes of the Russian Orthodox Church. After a brief investigation, charges against them were dropped on the grounds that the exhibition was indeed offensive. Instead, museum administrators were put on trial. Last week a judge found the museum's executive director, Yuri Samodurov, guilty of "inciting hatred"; also convicted were a colleague and an exhibiting artist. All were fined.
First among the disturbing elements in this story is its eerie echoes of the past. In the history of the Soviet dissident movement, two key events -- Nikita Khrushchev's closing of an exhibition of unofficial art in 1962 and the KGB's bulldozing of a similar exhibition in 1974 -- involved conflicts over artistic license and freedom of expression. The case also illustrates the degree to which Russian justice is once again becoming beholden to the whim of authority. The constitution guarantees freedom of expression and religion and forbids censorship -- none of which dissuaded prosecutors from demanding that museum administrators be held criminally accountable.
Most disturbing are hints that the attack on the Sakharov Museum's directors may have nothing to do with art and everything to do with their opposition to the war in Chechnya. In a letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin, the priest of the church whose acolytes organized the vandalism accused the museum of intending to corrupt "the morals of Russian society and the Russian army" through antiwar activity. What may be challenged here is the continued existence of political opposition in Russia. We hope that President Bush, who has described Mr. Putin as his friend many times, is watching the outcome closely.