Top Russian cultural figures urged President Vladimir Putin on Friday to protect the freedom of artistic expression — something the Russian leader pledged to do, even as he warned artists to be careful not to offend religious believers.
Putin also firmly rejected a plea to release an imprisoned Ukrainian filmmaker, saying that a Russian court had found him guilty.
Putin's comments at a meeting with Russian creative figures came amid increasing attempts by officials and conservative vigilantes to meddle in the arts sphere.
Russia's growing conservative streak has worried many in the country's artistic community. A Moscow art gallery recently shut down an exhibition of nude photos by an American photographer after a raid by vigilantes. A theater in the Siberian city of Omsk also was forced to cancel a performance of the musical "Jesus Christ Superstar" following a petition by devout Orthodox believers.
In an emotional speech Friday, Alexander Sokurov, who won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 2011 for his film "Faust," strongly urged Putin to release Ukrainian filmmaker Oleh Sentsov, who was sentenced to 20 years in prison on charges of plotting terror attacks.
Sentsov, a native of Crimea, opposed Russia's annexation of the Black Sea peninsula from Ukraine in March 2014. The United States, the European Union, international rights groups and global filmmakers have demanded his release.
"He must compete with me at film festivals, not sit in our Arctic prison," Sokurov said. "It's a shame, it's sad."
Unmoved, Putin insisted that the court found Sentsov guilty of preparing terror attacks.
At the same meeting, Yevgeny Mironov, a prominent actor who is the artistic director for Moscow's Theater of Nations, urged Putin to stop officials and conservative groups from trying to censor the creative arts.
"Any hooliganism, any attempts to thwart a theater performance or an exhibition are absolutely inadmissible and must be punished in all severity of law," Putin said.
But he also added that "any freedom has another side: responsibility."
"There is a very narrow edge between dangerous buffoonery and freedom of expression," Putin said.
He pointed to a 2015 attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris that killed 12 people as an example of the dangers of offending religious feelings.
"A question arises, did those cartoonists need to offend Islamic believers?" he said. "The artists might not have wanted to offend anyone, but they did."
"We must bear that in mind and not to allow that, not to split the society," Putin added.
Sokurov, the filmmaker, asked: "Who will protect atheists?"
Russia's conservative trend has come in sync with the tightening of controls over the nation's political scene after Putin's election to a third presidential term in 2012.
Members of the punk provocateur band Pussy Riot were arrested in 2012 for staging an anti-Putin protest in Moscow's largest cathedral. Maria Alekhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova spent nearly two years in prison on charges of "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred" despite an international outcry against their conviction.
In 2015, performance artist Pyotr Pavlensky was jailed on charges vandalism in 2015 after setting fire to the doors of the headquarters of the main KGB successor agency. He spent seven months behind bars until a court ordered his release earlier this year.