With a look of mournful disbelief, Yuri Samodurov, the director of the Andrei Sakharov Museum and Public Center in Moscow, leaned across his desk last month to show me court documents charging him with the crime of inciting religious hatred.

The case began in January 2003, when Russian Orthodox activists vandalized an exhibition in the Sakharov Museum titled "Caution! Religion." One work showed the image of Christ on a Coca-Cola advertisement that included the words "Coca-Cola: This is my blood." Another showed human figures nailed to crosses and a swastika. Still another showed a church made of vodka bottles.

The activists, who spray-painted some works and broke others, were charged but later acquitted. Church officials condemned the art show, and the lower house of the parliament, up in arms, overwhelmingly passed a decree ordering the state prosecutor to act against the exhibit's organizers. A commission of art historians, asked by the prosecutor's office to evaluate the exhibition, did not find it to have incited religious hatred -- to the consternation of Orthodox officials and nationalists. Another commission, this time including a psychologist and a sociologist, was appointed. It found unanimously that the exhibition had indeed incited religious hatred.

As a result, Samodurov and others associated with the show have recently been indicted for inciting such hatred. They face up to five years in prison.

Samodurov still can't quite believe it. He told me that he could not understand why the works were considered offensive or illegal.

I told him about recent cases in the United States of prominent protests against museum exhibitions by people who had been offended by them, such as the 1999 "Sensation" show in the Brooklyn Museum, which included a painting of the Virgin Mary adorned with elephant dung and led to accusations by New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani of "Catholic bashing." Another incident was the 2002 Holocaust exhibition at the Jewish Museum in Manhattan, which some survivors saw as trivializing and demeaning the Holocaust.

But as offensive as these exhibitions were to some, no one charged their organizers with any crimes; Giuliani wanted to withhold city funding from the Brooklyn Museum, and some survivors picketed the Jewish Museum's Holocaust exhibit. No museum directors faced jail time.

Samodurov does -- and given the mood in Russia these days, he may well lose his case. Which would be bad not only for him but also for Russia. In its second decade after the fall of communism, Russia is showing worrisome anti-democratic signs. Most troubling is probably the state's increasing control of media organizations, resulting in the government's ever-greater influence over, and manipulation of, television and radio, especially evident during recent elections. But increasing nationalism, favoring the Orthodox Church at the expense of other churches and religions, is no less troubling.

Samodurov's troubles are a reflection of inclinations in the parliament on the part of nationalist elements that have made common cause with the Orthodox Church -- inclinations increasingly shared, it seems, by President Vladimir Putin, whose moves against political opposition and the rule of law are escalating.

Before the 1917 revolution, nationalism and the Orthodox Church were dominant. After the revolution, the church and personal liberties were repressed. In both periods, democratic freedoms were unknown. Now that the Soviet era has ended and those freedoms have entered Russian national life, it would be a pity if Russia were to lose them and end up combining the worst of both worlds.

Samodurov is a canary in the mine shaft of Russian history.

Walter Reich, former director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, holds the Yitzhak Rabin chair in international affairs at George Washington University and is a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center.