This article looks at recent Russian lawsuits accusing artists and curators of “inciting religious hatred.” It seeks to explain the reasons behind these controversies by considering the respective scopic regimes informing several exhibits and subsequent trials from 1998 to 2010. One might expect members of the post-Soviet Russian intelligentsia to unanimously back the accused artists and thus to adhere to semiotic ideologies similar to those of their Euro-American counterparts confronting, for example, the Brooklyn Museum’s Sensation exhibit or the controversy around Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ photograph. Yet the Russian intelligentsia, both its liberal and conservative wings, proved conflicted about this issue, with only a small minority offering its wholehearted support to the artists. This article attempts to explain why this would be the case by demonstrating how the emergent configuration of visual signs, sacrality, and humanity is put to political work in postsocialist Russia.

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