Russia: Self-censorship and fear has poisoned the arts sector

Criminal prosecution of artists in Russia casts chill on expression, wrote Index on Censorship on 17 April 2013.


Russian MPs back harsher anti-blasphemy law, reported BBC News on 10 April 2012, after Russian MPs had given initial approval to an anti-blasphemy law with tougher jail terms or fines for anyone found guilty of offending religious feelings.

The State Duma also recently passed another law which forbids obscene language in movies, books, TV, and radio during mass public events. Both laws, as far as human rights activists are concerned, limit artists’ freedom of expression, and encourage self-censorship.

The criminal prosecution of artists have made it clear for those who criticise the Kremlin or Russian Orthodox Church in their creative work, that they will face consequences for portraying either of these institutions negatively.

“Self-censorship is more harmful for a modern Russian artist than censorship. He is frightened of scaring away galleries and buyers and prefers to paint landscapes with cows – anything far enough from real social life,” the artist Lena Hades told Index on Censorship.

Index on Censorship spoke to three notable artists to find out how the art community deals with self-censorship, and the ever-increasing restrictions on freedom of expression in Russia:

Artyom Loskutov, an artist from Novosibirsk, who in 2009 was arrested on drug possession charges, but claims that the marijuana was planted on him by police. Three years on, he faced three administrative cases, and paid a 1,000 rouble (approx. US$32) fine for creating icon-like images of Pussy Riot members Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alekhina and placing them on billboards. He was accused of insulting believers. He is currently appealing the court ruling in the European Court of Human Rights.

Lena Hades, an artist from Moscow, whose paintings “Chimera of Mysterious Russian Soul” and “Welcome to Russia” were claimed by Russian nationalists to insult Russians. The case did not go to court, but Hades told Index that Russian galleries feared exhibiting her paintings after the incident.

Boris Zhutovsky has a long-standing relationship with censorship. In 1962, he was slammed by then Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, who banned work by Zhutovsky and his colleagues. For several years following the incident, the artist faced difficulties in finding employment, and his work was not exhibited in the USSR.
Zhutovsky continues to court controversy today: in the past few years he has painted the trials of Russia’s most well-known political prisoners, businessmen Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev, who were first convicted in 2005.

Boris Zhutovsky explained Russia’s culture of self-censorship to Index:

“Self-censorship is based on fear, and the amplitude of this fear has changed throughout my life. In the times of Stalin, it was the fear of the Gulag and execution. In the times of Khruschev it was the fear of losing a job or a country – a person could be forced to leave the Soviet Union. After Perestroika the fear shrank, and now the fear which nourishes self-censorship is the fear to anger your boss.”

IFEX, a global network defending and promoting free expression – 17 April 2013:
Criminal prosecution of Russian artists casts chill on expression
Self-censorship has poisoned Russian media, art and other spheres. By Index on Censorship

BBC News – 10 April 2013:
Russian MPs back harsher anti-blasphemy law
Russian MPs have given initial approval to an anti-blasphemy law with tougher jail terms or fines for anyone found guilty of offending religious feelings.

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