On August 16 a group of ultra-conservative activists vandalized an art exhibition in Manege Square next to the Kremlin in Moscow. Shouting that the exhibition was offensive to Christianity, they smashed sculptures and ripped canvases by well-known Russian artists Vadim Sidur and Megasoma Mars.

What happened at Manege Square has been described as "disorderly conduct" and it may be prosecuted as such if the case comes to trial. But it is more appropriate to call it a terrorist attack by religious extremists, like the acts of cultural destruction carried out by ISIS in Palmyra, Nineveh or Mosul.

Alexander Baunov
Baunov is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and an editor in chief.
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In Moscow, at first glance, the target of the wrath of the zealots was even more of a surprise than their actual behavior: they attacked classical Russian rather than modern art. Thirty years after his death, Vadim Sidur has become a classic, exhibited all over the world. The gallery at the Manege is a state museum. This seems to be have been part of the attackers' plan: a mainstream gallery in the center of the capital was an effective forum to air an extremist statement, demanding the government change its policies on culture.

The Russian government condemned the Manege vigilantes--after a brief pause. Prominent parliamentarian Konstantin Kosachev called the attack "a disgusting story." But as with the murder of liberal politician Boris Nemtsov in February, the attack on the art exhibition presents the government with a dilemma. When Nemtsov was killed, the government wavered between blaming enemies of the state like the dead man himself saying, “we are sorry for the loss, but he reaped what he sowed,” and condemning the murder and risking alienating its most fanatical supporters.

Russia's radical conservatives are becoming more brazen. There are attempts to censor Pushkin and calls to ban Tolstoy from the school curriculum because he was excommunicated, cover up John the Baptist or St. Sebastian below the waist (the Pushkin Museum beware!). 

Paradoxically, attacking the Vadim Sidur exhibition in Moscow under religious slogans, the believers of today attacked an exhibition of religious art that had great meaning for their co-religionists just one or two generations ago.

In the 1960s and 1970s, when Christianity was persecuted in the Soviet Union, Sidur depicted Christian themes and scenes from the Gospels, such as "The Deposition from the Cross." Sidur's Christian contemporaries rejoiced in the fact that a modern artist was not turning out effigies of Lenin but was making modern Christian art.

Yet today's Orthodox Church reacted to the attack on Sidur in an extraordinary fashion. Vakhtang Kipshidze, spokesman for the Moscow Patriarchy, alleged -- entirely implausibly -- that Sidur's work was done on the orders of the Soviet government of the time. Another high-ranking Church official, Vsevolod Chaplin, condemned the attack but simultaneously said that Russian society had a problem with "the desecration of objects and symbols revered by the faithful." He then added, "Incidentally, it may have been no accident that some of these works were not allowed on public display during the Soviet era.”

Not only did a sculptor who could not be exhibited at the time because of his “pacifism”, “mysticism”, and religious imagery, incur the wrath of today's religious fundamentalists. Official Church spokesman of today referred back to Soviet-era practices when they discussed how Christian art should be treated.

An attack on an art exhibition is an attack on modernity, but the religious extremism on display both in Moscow and in the Middle East is, paradoxically, also an extreme form of modernism. Its perpetrators are not interested in antiquity but what can be termed "archaization," an artificial process of reconstructing the past anew to suit their image of the present.

It is not just extremists who feel this urge. Russians vaguely remember that President Barack Obama made a speech (it was last fall at the UN Generally Assembly), listing Russia as a global threat alongside ISIS. Many Russians joked that they were insulted to lose the "Most Terrible" status to the Ebola virus. We could not understand how Americans could think that we were worse than the sadists of ISIS. And yet we made it to the list of global threats for expressing sentiments similar to theirs -- something confirmed by the Manege attack.

Like many Muslims, many Russians are dissatisfied with their place in the modern world. It has not worked out for us in the present, so we seek sustenance in contradictory personalities and episodes from different historical periods. We both revere tsarist officers and take offense at the toppling of Lenin statues. We flaunt our religiosity and wax enthusiastic about the Soviet Union. Russian patriots feel good in the past, alongside Yury Gagarin, the Great Victory of 1945 and the empire stretching from Alaska to Warsaw -- and uncomfortable in the present.

Many of the world's Muslims harbor similar sentiments, harking back wistfully to the era of the Caliphate and feeling uneasy in the modern world. Religious fundamentalists, feeling insulted and threatened, conclude: “You ignored us and now you will shake in terror!” They try to compensate for their loss through destruction -- and end up killing their own culture and citizens. 

Unfortunately, the Russian state is playing the same game of artificial conservatism, of "It was better in the past than in the present." It tells people to accept the concepts of the Russian World (Russky Mir) or Novorossiya as something primordial, even though no one had even heard of them a year ago. Russians are told: accept what we concocted for you a year before and share this new identity, this cocktail of Orthodox Christianity, homophobia, hatred for the West, otherwise, you are bad Russians. It is as though the great tradition of Russian Europeans never existed, there were no Peter the Great, Pushkin, Kandinsky or celebrated Russian agnostics and atheists. 

The Russian authorities have cautiously condemned the pogrom at the Manege, but have not demonstrated that they are seriously committed to stopping it happen again. And we can understand why. As long as the state itself remains a force of archaism discontented with modernity, it will have a hard time stopping those who destroy statues or shred canvasses. The actions of the vandals, however extreme, reflect sentiments that are at the core of the current Russian ideology.

  • Alexander Baunov