Russia Cracks Down on Artistic Freedom Before 2014 Winter Olympics

Director of museum fired for controversial exhibit

Gay rights activists protest outside the Russian consulate in NYC / AP
• August 8, 2013 1:20 pm


The Russian-Jewish curator of a Moscow art museum was fired by Russian authorities for refusing to censor artwork that is critical of the 2014 Sochi Olympics, which have become increasingly controversial in recent weeks due to a widening crackdown on Russian civil society.

Marat Guelman, the director of the Perm Museum of Contemporary Art (PERMM), was quietly fired late last month after installing an exhibit that criticized Russian authoritarianism and Sochi.

The decision to fire Guelman received little attention in the West, but comes on the heels of a widespread crackdown by Russian authorities on homosexuals and other individuals President Vladimir Putin deems dangerous.

Putin’s recently passed anti-gay law, as well as other efforts to clamp down on human rights, has led some to call for a boycott of the games.

"The Ministry of Culture, it seems, has confused its role with that of the FSB [the former KGB]," Marat Guelman wrote in a tweet after he was fired, according to the Arts Freedom blog.

Guelman, who was attacked in 2006 by Russian nationalists due to his religion, reportedly had his office raided by Russian authorities. They claimed the exhibit ran afoul of copyright laws due to its use of Sochi images.

"I had hoped that censorship was impossible and illegal," Guelman told NBC News after he was fired. "The new trend of Russian politics is to divide everyone into groups of ‘us' and ‘them,' and the small liberal islands are getting even smaller."

Human rights advocates have launched multiple campaigns to pressure Western nations to boycott the Sochi Olympics due to what they say is Putin’s crackdown on basic freedoms.

While the Sochi Olympics could have served as a "showcase" for Russia, "with the continued consolidation of power and crackdown on groups, it may turn into something else," Mark Levin, executive director of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry (NCSJ), told the Washington Free Beacon.

The games have also been criticized for massive corruption and the exploitation of workers, as well as for being highly vulnerable to terror attacks.

"So it’s no longer just gay and trans people who are being threatened in the name of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, and no longer Olympic athletes and guests who risk arrest and banishment during the Sochi Games, but now Russian Jews, who coincidentally have already been branded ‘enemies of the state,’ are losing their jobs too," John Aravosis wrote Thursday at American Blog.

"One of the reasons the Russians are using for going after Guelman?" Aravosis asked. "That he violated the copyright and/or trademark of the 2014 Winter Olympics."

"And that, my friends, directly involves the International Olympic Committee in Russia’s neo-Stalinist attempt to clamp down on all human rights in that sadly deteriorating country," Aravosis wrote.

The exhibit, "Welcome Sochi 2014," combined Olympic images with those of barbed wire and hand grenades, among other controversial symbols.

Putin’s government has aggressively pursued those who it believes may "embarrass" the regime, according to Jewish officials.

"Right now, the organizers and government have blinders on," said one senior Jewish professional who deals with issues related to the former Soviet Union. "They still don’t understand the worldwide reaction and criticism of what’s going on."

The Sochi Olympics, which are being held near a war-torn territory populated by Islamic extremists, have become the most expensive Olympics in history, with an estimated cost of $50 billion.

President Barack Obama on Wednesday cancelled a summit with Putin over the Russian leader’s decision to grant asylum to NSA leaker Edward Snowden.

Published under: Barack Obama, Media, Russia, Vladimir Putin