MOSCOW The head of Russia's renowned Hermitage Museum accused Russian authorities on Monday of fostering "mob rule" in taking up complaints by Russian Orthodox Christians over a British exhibit they said injured 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 rose to 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 restaurant chain.
It has drawn over 100 complaints and state prosecutors are checking whether it violates a law against incitement to hatred, under which two members of the Pussy Riot punk protest band opposed to President Vladimir Putin were jailed.
"This (investigation) is an attempt to dictate conditions to us by mob rule and we should not allow this," said Mikhail Piotrovsky, the director of Hermitage, one of the world's oldest and biggest museums.
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.
"You can't force a celebrated actor to cancel his show just because someone would come and make a noise ... about someone's feelings," Piotrovsky told Reuters on the sidelines of a conference in Moscow. "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.
The Hermitage website describes the centrepiece of the Chapman brothers' display as a "three-dimensional collage consisting of miniature plastic figures ... arranged in such a way that it resembles a (Nazi) swastika from above".
"In the display cases, a single landscape of hell unfolds in which the figures ceaselessly kill one another with diabolical cruelty ... By placing cruelty in seal museum display cases or dioramas, the artists strive to cure society of that cruelty."
The museum's website said the exhibit belonged to a "Disasters of War" genre and that it was not suitable for viewing by anyone younger than 18.
Traditional religious conservatism has revived markedly in public since Pussy Riot members burst into a Russian Orthodox cathedral in Moscow in February and, dressed in short dresses and colourful ski masks, performed a protest song against Putin's close ties with the church.
The two-year prison sentences handed down to two members of the all-women collective were criticised in the West, but the protest outraged many Russian Orthodox Christians and stirred a debate over the state of society in Russia.
Since the Pussy Riot trial this summer, Russian lawmakers allied to Putin have called for the introduction of jail sentences for people found guilty of offending religious feelings.
Critics say the law would blur the line between the state and the church. They regard the move as part of what they see as a clampdown on dissent and civil liberties since Putin began a new six-year term in May. He denies launching a crackdown.
Among other prominent instances of conservative Russians trying to protect their beliefs in court, American pop singer Madonna was sued by a group of Russians for spreading gay "propaganda" when she gave a concert in St Petersburg in August. The case was eventually thrown out.
The launch of patrols in Moscow by cossacks has also been widely interpreted as a result of Putin's calls for patriotism and his promotion of Russian traditions.