A pillar of Putinism.

Photographer: Alexey Druzhinn/AFP/Getty Images

Vandals Test the Limits of Putin's Ideology

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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When a group of Orthodox Christian fundamentalists attacked an art exhibition in Moscow on Friday, they exposed some of the contradictions of the ideology underlying President Vladimir Putin's regime. 

Vladimir Putin

The exhibition, "Sculptures We Do Not See," features works by Vadim Sidur, Nikolai Silis and Vladimir Lemport, Soviet nonconformists who did their best work in the 1950s and 1960s. They were banished to the twilight zone between official art and the hardcore underground after Nikita Khrushchev visited a contemporary art show at Moscow's Manezh gallery and flew into a rage. Nowadays, these artists are recognized among the classics and their work is displayed in state museum collections and on city squares.

Sidur, who liked using scrap -- drainpipes, rusty shovels, rib-cage-like radiators -- in irreverent sculptures, was also fond of Christian imagery, but not in its traditional form. His "Crucifix" resembles a pagan symbol, and in his "Descent From the Cross," Christ looks more like a rust-eaten part of some heavy machine than the object of veneration. Sidur was a poet, and in one of his works he likened Christmas trees to murdered babies:

As they celebrate
Christ's birth,
Christian
Believers
Good 
Parishioners
Make 
A sacrifice:
Millions
Of innocent
Babies
Have
Their throats
Cut.

Clearly, this wasn't to the liking of Dmitri Tsorionov and his fellow activists from a militant Orthodox group calling itself God's Will. The organization established in 2012 is known for disrupting cultural events -- shows, concerts, exhibitions -- that its members feel are insulting to Christians. Although their raids sometimes were violent and without official sanction, the police have never cracked down. The group may have felt enabled since 2013, when Putin signed into effect a law protecting religious feelings against insults of any kind.

Ironically, the Sidur show is being held at Manezh, the gallery that was the scene of Khrushchev's ignorant rage. Tsorionov and friends showed up and, according to gallery representatives, damaged four Sidur works before being escorted out by police. They were promptly set free, and Tsorionov vowed to return and get the exhibition closed for breaking the law on religious feelings. "We're talking pornography featuring Jesus Christ," he said in an interview. "The law is not working. The government is not protecting believers' feelings, it's not protecting things that are sacred to us."

Putin is a self-proclaimed defender of traditional values, meaning Orthodox Christian ones. Even his rationale for invading Crimea included a spurious claim that it was the cradle of Russian Christianity. Yet he also favors a strong state, and Manezh is a state-owned gallery in which state-owned works by Sidur were damaged by vandals. Besides, Sidur, who died in 1986, was a decorated World War II hero who was disfigured by a Nazi sniper's bullet before he was 21. And the commemoration of the Soviet Union's victory in that war is at least as important to Putin's cult of a great Russia as the Orthodox faith.

Given the latter two tenets, Tsorionov should be put on trial as a vandal, as Manezh demands. But allowing him to go free has created a quandary for Putin's propaganda machine: How should the attack be covered without showing disrespect to anyone? Vesti, the news program on one of the state-owned TV channels, went for a neutral tone, calling Tsorionov and friends "activists from the Church periphery," stressing that they were not part of the official Orthodox hierarchy. The church's ambiguous comments about the incident didn't make things any easier. "I have not seen the exhibition at the Manezh, so it's hard for me to say whether its organizers broke the law," said Vladimir Lagoida, a spokesman for the Moscow Patriarchy. "This is a matter for law professionals to assess, and so are the actions of Mr. Tsorionov and his comrades."

No such professionals have stepped forward, and the Kremlin has not commented on Tsorionov's escapade.

But on social networks the vandalism has been compared to the destruction of ancient sites by the so-called Islamic State. That's hyperbole, of course -- nothing about Tsorionov's group suggests such an epic scale. Other Orthodox radicals, however, must be keenly watching events unfold. If Tsorionov goes unpunished, and especially if the exhibition is closed, it will confirm that the Christian component of the official ideology is more important than the others, and they will be empowered. "It's a test, and initiative, and experiment," Gleb Pavlovsky, once an advisor to Putin and now his critic, said in an interview. "Some experimenters, of course, have serious patrons and some have weak ones."

The Kremlin has every opportunity to chasten vandals who strike at state property, and if it doesn't do so, Tsorionov's patrons, whoever they are, will be revealed to be strong.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net