Putin Urges Artists to Avoid Charlie Hebdo Tragedy in Russia

(Bloomberg) -- President Vladimir Putin justified his government’s tightening of control on art in Russia by saying officials are trying to avert tragedies such as the terrorist attack at the Charlie Hebdo weekly in France.

“There’s always a very fine line between dangerous shocks and creative freedom,” Putin told a meeting of the presidential council on culture in St. Petersburg on Friday. Artists and performers should avoid trying “to divide society” or provoke religious zealots who exist in every faith, he said.

The extremists who killed cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo’s Paris office over depictions of the Prophet Muhammad “took what was published as an insult,” Putin said. “It’s a question of whether the cartoonists needed to insult the representatives of Islam,” he said.

Officials may interpret works as controversial and take action because they “don’t want what happened in Paris to be repeated here. We shouldn’t forget about it for a second,” Putin told actor Yevgeny Mironov, who’d complained about bureaucratic pressure on Russian theaters.

The murder of 12 people at the satirical newspaper in January 2015 by hooded gunmen, at least one of whom shouted “Allahu Akbar,” or “God is great” in Arabic, during the attack, stunned France and sparked global outrage over threats to free speech. In Russia, where the Orthodox Church has grown increasingly powerful, a court jailed members of the Pussy Riot punk group in 2012 for hooliganism and inciting religious hatred after they performed an anti-Putin protest in Moscow’s Christ the Savior cathedral.

Mercy Plea

Putin called the Charlie Hebdo killings a “cynical crime.” Russian state television broadcast live coverage of largely Muslim Chechnya’s Kremlin-backed leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, leading a protest by hundreds of thousands of people against publication of a cartoon of Muhammad in Charlie Hebdo’s first edition after the attack.

At the council meeting, Putin also heard a plea for mercy for award-winning Ukrainian filmmaker Oleh Sentsov, who was sentenced to 20 years in jail after being convicted of terrorism in a controversial trial in August last year. Sentsov, a resident of Crimea who opposed Russia’s 2014 annexation, denied charges of setting fire to the offices of pro-Kremlin organizations in the peninsula in what he called a trial by a “court of occupiers.”

Sentsov “isn’t a killer” while “in Russia and in Christianity, mercy is above justice,” Russian film director Aleksander Sokurov told Putin.

While it’s a “sensitive” issue, Sentsov was convicted for acts that could have harmed Russian citizens and only a court can decide to review the case, Putin said. “We can’t act as Christians in this situation without a court decision,” he said.