Hermitage chief decries ‘mob rule’ in row over British exhibit

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THE head of the renowned Hermitage Museum has accused the Russian authorities of fostering “mob rule”, in taking up complaints by Russian Orthodox Christians over a British exhibit they said hurt religious feelings.

The row coincides with a surge in religious, nationalist sentiment in Russia, with president Vladimir Putin moving closer to the Orthodox Church to consolidate his support after facing the biggest protests since he took power nearly 13 years ago.

The display, entitled “The End of Fun” and launched in the St Petersburg museum in October, includes figurines draped with Nazi insignia and a crucified Ronald McDonald, the mascot of the McDonald’s fast-food chain.

It has drawn more than 100 complaints, and state prosecutors are looking at whether it violates a law against incitement to hatred, under which two members of the Pussy Riot punk band opposed to Mr Putin were jailed.

Mikhail Piotrovsky, director of the Hermitage, said: “This [investigation] is an attempt to dictate conditions to us by mob rule and we should not allow it.”

Prosecutors acted after receiving complaints from visitors who said the exhibition by British artists Jake and Dinos Chapman offended the feelings of Russian Orthodox Christians.

But Mr Piotrovsky said: “You can’t force a celebrated actor to cancel his show just because someone would come and make a noise about someone’s feelings. Art has its own language; one needs to understand it. If you don’t get it, just step aside.”

The Hermitage Museum is housed in buildings including the Winter Palace, a former residence of the Russian emperors, and is now owned by the state.

Its website described the centrepiece of the Chapmans’ display as a “three-dimensional collage consisting of miniature plastic figures … arranged in such a way that it resembles a [Nazi] swastika from above”. It said the exhibit belonged to a “Disasters of War” genre and was not suitable for under-18s.

Traditional religious conservatism has revived markedly in public since Pussy Riot members burst into a Russian Orthodox cathedral in Moscow in February and performed a protest song against Putin’s close ties with the Church.