Paint, urine and (fake) blood: Russia conservatives attack art shows


Moscow (AFP)

Heading to an exhibition of photographs of Ukrainian troops, Russian art lecturer Anton Belikov slipped a can of red paint into his pocket.

Enraged by the images of pro-Kiev fighters on display at Moscow's Andrei Sakharov Centre, Belikov began spraying them with paint, and throwing them onto the floor.

It was the second time in less than a week that conservative activists with powerful backers had targeted a Moscow exhibit showing images seen as harmful to Russia, as conflicts in Ukraine and Syria sharpen anti-Western moods.

Belikov's complaint was that the photos -- taken by acclaimed reporters -- were too positive on the Ukrainians fighting against pro-Russian rebels that the West claims are backed by the Kremlin.

"I decided to do it at the moment when I realised the photos weren't showing the horrors of war," said Belikov, who lectures at a respected art school.

Speaking to AFP, he accused the gallery of showing images of "smiling fascists -- people who took part in genocide."

- 'Trying to destroy Russia' -

The protest came just four days after a similar attack closed down another Moscow photo exhibition.

In that incident, nationalists targeted another gallery which was showing semi-nude images of children by controversial US photographer Jock Sturges a day after they were condemned as pornography by high-profile conservative senator Yelena Mizulina.

Uniformed members of a group called "Officers of Russia" blocked off the popular Lumiere Brothers Gallery.

Inside, Alexander Petrunko, who belongs to another small activist group called Serb, splashed a bottle of foul-smelling yellowish liquid over pictures.

He denied it was urine, claiming it was sulphurous Crimean lakewater.

"I couldn't see another way to close the exhibition immediately," said the leather-jacked activist as he walked out of the police cells where he spent a week for petty hooliganism.

Pulling out a cross around his neck, he said the exhibit was part of a Western attempt "to destroy" Russian values, which he was trying to defend.

Last year, a group of religiously-motivated activists damaged sculptures at an exhibition of non-conformist Soviet art in Moscow's Manege Centre, denouncing them as blasphemous.

- Aggressively intolerant -

Such activists are the most "aggressively intolerant section of Russian society," said Mikhail Kaluzhsky of Open Democracy in a comment piece.

And now they have learnt "the tools of civic activism which had earlier been the preserve of leftists and liberals."

The tactics are certainly effective.

The Lumiere Brothers gallery closed the Sturges exhibition, citing the public reaction after the "urine" attack.

Although the Officers of Russia carried out a forced inspection of the gallery, their leader admitted none of the pictures showed nude children.

But prosecutors have still launched an investigation into possible pornography at the request of the children's ombudswoman.

Although the activists claim to be acting in line with "the people's will", their methods have raised questions in pro-government media, with an editorial on the pro-Kremlin Life News website describing them as "aggressive minorities."

Dmitry Kiselyov, television's prime-time ideologue, criticised the "militant ignorance" of those attacking the Sturges show.

"Is it acceptable to force your way in with a dirty bottle? No, it's not," he said.

He also said there was no need to "smash" the Sakharov Centre exhibition -- while condemning it for "glorifying" Ukrainian troops.

- 'Powerful supporters' -

Such protesters remain on the fringes but they have powerful supporters, said Sergei Lukashevsky, director of the Sakharov Centre.

"These radical marginal people -- the government condones their activities," he said.

"There are people in power who protect them or even directly support them."

After Belikov defaced the images of Ukrainian forces at the Sakharov Centre -- part of a documentary photo exhibition -- the centre decided to reopen.

But the next day, some 40 protesters arrived -- among them Cossacks and a local lawmaker -- carrying a jar of tomato juice labelled "blood of the children of eastern Ukraine."

Entering the building, some tore down signs.

But when the police arrived, they questioned staff about the exhibition's content, not about the protesters' actions, said Lukashevsky, who said the centre would not press charges.

The photos by Sergei Loiko for the Los Angeles Times and Belarusian Alexander Vasukovich were "war reportage -- they did not glorify or condemn anyone," he explained, saying the protests were the result of "the general atmosphere being whipped up by government propaganda."

Yet the latest protests will affect the centre's decisions about future events, he acknowledged.

"We will undoubtedly weigh this up," he said.

"Our doors are open, so I have to worry about the safety of staff and visitors."