The twentieth anniversary of Andrei Sakharov’s death was not forgotten in Russia. But it’s distressing to note how it was remembered. A television special ran on Russian state television celebrating Sakharov’s life—but the Sakharov it celebrated was the father of the hydrogen bomb and a key contributor to the military technology of the former Soviet Union, not the tireless advocate of “peace, progress, and human rights.” Fedor Lukyanov, a prominent foreign affairs journalist, wrote in the daily Gazeta that Sakharov’s ideas about human rights had been “discredited.”
On the other hand, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev attempted to distance himself from Prime Minister Vladimir Putin by sending a message to a gathering of human rights activists in which he saluted Sakharov. “Andrei Sakharov, a world-renowned scientist and human rights activist, firmly believed that the future is created by all of us, and that it is important to strive for moral self-improvement,” Medvedev wrote. “He clearly understood that freedom and responsibility are inseparable. His own destiny serves as an example of a life spent following one’s conscience and adhering steadily to the principles that he defended, fearlessly and selflessly.”
By contrast, Vladimir Putin’s Russia marked the twentieth anniversary of Sakharov’s death with persecution and repression. Yuri Samodurov, a human rights activist and the former director of the Andrei Sakharov Center in Moscow, and Andrei Erofeyev, a former curator at the State Tretyakov Gallery, are standing trial for their roles in organizing an exhibition entitled “Forbidden Art—2006.” Sakharov’s friend Ed Kline describes the trial in a plea published in the Huffington Post:
More than one hundred witnesses are testifying against the defendants, quite a few producing word-for-word matching statements. They accuse Erofeyev and Samodurov of inciting religious hatred, even though many admit they did not see the exhibition–they were simply told that it was blasphemous and incited hatred of Russian Orthodox beliefs. It seems Erofeyev and Samodurov are blamed for everything under the sun: damaging public morals, “recrucifying Jesus,” undermining “the psychological health” of those who saw the art works. Simply put, the trial clearly violates the letter and spirit of the rule of law.
I have known Yuri Samodurov for nineteen years. He is an honest person and a dedicated, energetic, fearless, compassionate, law-abiding human rights activist. Erofeyev and he committed no crime. They did nothing that is not permitted by the Constitution of the Russian Federation. We are witnessing yet another misuse of the antiextremist legislation to target human rights activists and other nonviolent activists who are critical of the government.
The Samodurov-Erofeyev trial bears vivid witness to the Putin regime’s intolerance and its exploitation of the Russian Orthodox Church as cover for political repression. It shows a reach for legalistic techniques that make the Russian Constitution’s guarantees of free speech stand on their head. But above all it shows a fear of free thinking and criticism. If convicted, Samodurov and Erofeyev face a possible sentence to a labor camp—for curating an art exhibit.