While last month's hostage-taking in Beslan prompted numerous events of a nonpolitical nature, from charity auctions to memorial concerts, the Andrei Sakharov Museum and Public Center has taken a frankly polemical approach to the crisis and its aftermath as part of its long-running campaign against the war in Chechnya.
Museum director Yury Samodurov said that the idea for the latest exhibition came to him the day after hundreds of people were killed during the storming of a school held hostage in the North Ossetian town. "It was Saturday, and I just couldn't sit at home. I started to think that the museum should do something, and I went off to work," he recalled.
The new exhibit, titled "War in Chechnya Has Turned Into Terror for Russia. What Are We Fighting For?" presents newspaper articles on the war and statements of protest from human rights organizations. In addition, photographers have contributed pictures of Chechnya and of the terrorist acts in Beslan, the 1999 apartment bombings and the more recent suicide bombings in Moscow.
"We demand an end to the war in Chechnya and talks to end this war," Samodurov said. Back in 2001, the museum ran an exhibit called "That's Enough!" that also called for an end to the conflict. Organizers handed out postcards pre-addressed to President Vladimir Putin describing the horrors of the war, and hung a banner with the exhibit's title across the front of the building.
The latest exhibit is dedicated to victims of both the war in Chechnya and the terrorist attacks in Russia, in line with the director's belief that the two are directly connected. "Now and during the tragedy in Beslan, the authorities have tried to tell everybody that the reason [it happened] is international terrorism. I think that this isn't correct," Samodurov said. "The title of the exhibit itself names the reasons for the terror."
The exhibit will also provide a forum for discussion of Russia's ultimate aims in Chechnya. "If we want to win this war, then what will represent victory?" Samodurov asked. "If a war doesn't have a sensible and achievable goal, it's impossible to win the war."
According to the Sakharov Museum's press releases, funding for the exhibition comes from the International Foundation for Civil Liberties, an organization financed by self-exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky, who in June called human rights groups "society's last line of resistance to the authoritarian state." Nevertheless, Samodurov stressed that there was no direct link between the oligarch and the museum.
"The Foundation for Civil Liberties gave the Andrei Sakharov Foundation in the United States -- I stress, the Andrei Sakharov Foundation in the United States -- a large grant to support the Andrei Sakharov Museum and Public Center in Moscow," he said, referring to a sum of $3 million handed over in 2000. The same foundation has also contributed money to the Committees of Soldiers' Mothers and the publication of archive materials on Soviet political repression, he said.
Berezovsky put forward some of the funding for a 2002 documentary film called "Assassination of Russia," which alleges FSB involvement in the 1999 apartment bombings in Moscow and southern Russia. But Samodurov denied that the new exhibition is directed against Putin personally. "Accusations that Berezovsky is against Putin certainly may be made, but that's no secret, and many people are fighting the policies of Putin," the director said.
The exhibit is also backed by For Human Rights, a Russia-wide activist group headed by noted dissident Lev Ponomaryov. In conjunction with gathering materials for the exhibit, Ponomaryov plans to stage a separate protest against the war, terrorism and Putin on Oct. 23. International support and further displays come from Human Rights Watch and the Moscow office of the Helsinki Group.
According to a statement signed by those two organizations and published on the Moscow branch of the Helsinki Group's web site shortly after the Beslan crisis ended, "The Beslan attack took place against a backdrop of five years of widespread, persistent and largely unpunished human rights violations by Russian troops against civilians in Chechnya, as well as egregious human rights abuses by rebel fighters." The statement goes on to say, "The impunity for such abuses has served to perpetuate the conflict and has led to serious human rights atrocities committed by both sides."
The exhibit aims to provide a forum for public discussion of the war in Chechnya, Samodurov said. Yet organizers are also gearing up for a possible negative reaction, he admitted. "I don't know in what form it will be expressed, but I do expect it." As a precaution, the museum has hired extra security guards, he said.
Three staff members at the museum, including Samodurov, are currently awaiting trial on charges of intent to insult religious believers, after an exhibit of controversial modern art titled "Caution, Religion" was damaged by Orthodox protesters in 2003. The trial, which opened in June but swiftly came to a halt due to the prosecution's inability to specify the charges, is due to resume on Wednesday.
"War in Chechnya Has Turned Into Terror for Russia. What Are We Fighting For?" (Voina v Chechne obernulas terrorom dlya Rossii. Za chto my voyuyem?) runs to Nov. 30 at the Andrei Sakharov Museum and Public Center, located at 57 Zemlyanoi Val, Bldg. 6. Metro Kurskaya. Tel. 923-4401/4420.
By Anna Malpas
The Moscow Times