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The church, the state, and the arts: a crackdown on Russian theaters

Source: TASS

Russia's Investigative Committee has launched an inspection of the Novosibirsk State Academic Opera and Ballet Theater in relation to their production of Richard Wagner’s opera Tannhäuser, which allegedly violates the right to freedom of conscience and religion in Russia.

The complaint was filed by a representative of the Russian Orthodox Church, Metropolitan bishop Tikhon of Novosibirsk and Berdsk. He has stated that those behind the production have exhibited “clear disrespect towards society, have transgressed universally acknowledged norms and rules of conduct, have set themselves against all others in terms of their religious feelings, have behaved with insolence.”

On March 4, a court in Novosibirsk began the hearing of the case against the theater. The district attorney office has stated that the offense is obvious and that there is no need for further expertise. The final ruling will be announced on March 10.

A source which spoke to news agency Tass said that “the inspection is carried out in accordance with a Russian law on the ‘obstruction of the right to freedom of conscience and religion.’ The inspection will last one month.” Punishment for this offense is custody for up to one year.


Several federal laws criminalizing offenses towards religious feelings were passed in Russia since 2013. On June 30, 2013, a law was passed to counteract offenses against citizens’ religious convictions and feelings, and against the desecration of facilities and items of religious veneration. The law came into effect despite opposition from the Supreme Court of Russia and from the Presidential Council on Human Rights.

Timofei Kulyabin’s production of Tannhäuser uses a modern-day setting in which the protagonist Heinrich Tannhäuser is a filmmaker. In the opera, a poster of his film The Grotto of Venus depicts Jesus Christ crucified between the spread legs of a woman.

On February 24, Novosibirsk State Academic Opera and Ballet Theater director Boris Mezdrich and producer Timofei Kulyabin were accused of insulting people’s religious feelings. The Novosibirsk district attorney office initiated legal proceedings against them for an administrative offence regarding their production of Tannhäuser.

According to Taiga.Info, upon investigation the district attorney office concluded that the theater director and producer publicly desecrated “the image of Jesus Christ, an item of religious veneration for Orthodox Christians.” Producer Timofei Kulyabin has rejected the claims made by representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church. Director Boris Mezdrich has said that the opera will remain in the theater’s program and that tickets to this production are still being sold. He has also noted that parts of the production may be “adjusted.”

Other complaints against theater productions which offend people’s religious convictions have been filed in Russia. Russian Orthodox Church representative of the episcopate of Izhevsk, a city in the Western Urals, has requested of administration of the region to “react accordingly” to a production of Alexander Pushkin’s The Blizzard at the State Russian Drama Theater in Izhevsk. The Ministry of Culture of the region has allowed for the production to continue, but the administration is putting together an advisory board for the assessment of theater productions so as to avoid offenses in the future. Petr Shereshevsky, theater director of the State Russian Drama Theater, has rejected claims that the production offends religious convictions.

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