Vladimir Putin told artists not to confuse freedom of expression with "outrageously dangerous behavior" and suggested the Charlie Hebdo massacre could have been avoided if the magazine had not insulted Islam.
The Russian President told members of the artistic community not to "divide society" during a televised debate with theatre and screen star Yevgeny Mironov, who voiced concerns about growing restrictions on artistic freedom in Russia.
The Russian strongman said, there was a "very subtle line between what I would call dangerously outrageous behavior and creative freedom."
"It's a very subtle thing, a very subtle line. It depends on a feeling of tact, from all of us - officialdom on the one hand and people in creative professions on the other," he said.
"Those activists -- I'm speaking approximately -- at Charlie Hebdo's offices, they came and shot people. The question is, did those cartoonists have to insult Muslim believers?" Putin said of the 2015 attack by Islamic militants on the French satirical magazine that left 12 dead.
"Officials often act not because they want to block something... many don't want tragedies like in Paris to be repeated here," he said. "We must keep this in mind and not let it come to that."
Mironov, who heads the Theatre of Nations in Moscow, told Putin in the televised exchange that fears are growing in creative circles over restrictions on artistic expression.
"Creative freedom is guaranteed by the law of our country" and bans "can be enforced only through a legal process," Mironov said.
In recent months, religious and politically conservative activists have interrupted theatre productions and stormed galleries and defaced exhibits.
Orthodox activists this year campaigned to close a provincial staging of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical "Jesus Christ Superstar."
Theatre director Konstantin Raikin in October warned of a risk of "return to Stalin's times."
Last year, the director of a Siberian staging of Richard Wagner's opera Tannhaeuser went on trial for offending believers, although the charges were eventually dropped.
The Russian arts scene, particularly its lively theatre productions, depend on state funding, making them particularly vulnerable to official decisions and self-censorship.