Russia: Jesus Christ Superstar cancellation highlights growing nationalist threat to freedom of expression
The cancellation of the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar in the Siberian city of Omsk following pressure from a pro-Kremlin political group is an affront to freedom of expression and the latest example of interference in Russian cultural life by nationalist ‘activists’, said Amnesty International.
The production was cancelled on Monday night after the Family, Love and Fatherland “patriotic” group wrote to Omsk city authorities complaining of “continuous blasphemy” in the musical’s plot, which follows the Biblical story of Jesus’ life.
“This may be just one cancellation of one performance, but it is symptomatic of pro-government nationalist groups’ increasing influence on the cultural scene in modern Russia, where freedom of artistic expression is shrinking by the day,” said Denis Krivosheev, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for Europe and Central Asia.
“The Russian authorities’ flirtations with these ‘patriotic’ movements is effectively giving them a monopoly on opinion and a licence to use intimidation against those they see as a threat to ‘traditional’ values.”
Monday’s incident is one of several recent attacks on freedom of expression by Russian nationalist groups, who are keen supporters of President Vladimir Putin.
In September, activists from another so-called “patriotic organization”, Officers of Russia, blocked the entrance to an exhibition by American photographer Jock Sturges in Moscow.
When a protester threw urine at some of the images and the police failed to intervene, the exhibition was promptly closed down by organizers.
“No-one can deny the right to criticize a piece of art, but equally no-one, including the government and its proxies, should be allowed to forcibly impose their views on others,” said Denis Krivosheev.
In its letter to authorities, Family, Love and Fatherland said that “even the name of the opera is a mockery of the sacred concepts”.
The Omsk State Music Theatre, which staged Jesus Christ Superstar, said the play’s director decided to cancel the production following the complaints.
Family, Love and Fatherland leader Lyudmila Ryabichenko is also a member of the Narodny Sobor movement, which has previously initiated criminal proceedings against artists, musicians and performers as part of long-running crusade for strict rules of “morality”.
In 2007 they successfully petitioned for the prosecution of the organizers of the exhibition Forbidden Art in the Sakharov Museum in Moscow , while in 2012 they backed the prosecution of the Pussy Riot punk band.
Narodny Sobor forced the cancellation of a Marilyn Manson concert in Novosibirsk in 2014, and of the Wagner opera Tannhäuser in the same city the following year.
In July 2016, the leader of Narodny Sobor in Novosibirsk, Yury Zadoya, had his son Konstantin forcibly confined to a psychiatric hospital due to an “ideological split” over religion. Amnesty International has successfully campaigned for Konstantin Zadoya to be released.