New play gives a voice to the forgotten Crimean Tatars

The title of the play Crimea, 5am refers to the time in the morning the authorities choose to raid the homes of activists in the Russian-occupied territory. It is a time of fear and horror for the Crimean Tatars whose voices make up the text of this verbatim play, taken from the testimonies of the men now held in Putin’s prisons and the families waiting at home for them.

Crimea 5am brings to life one of the lesser-known aspects of the brutal war in Ukraine, which began not in February 2022 but in March 2014. It draws on the oral history of the suppression of the Tatar Muslim minority, who returned to the peninsula in the 1990s following independence after years of exile from their homeland.

Much of what we know of life in Crimea since 2014 has come from activists turned citizen journalists. This is one of the reasons the Russian authorities have cracked down so hard on Tatars, characterizing them either as political extremists or Islamist terrorists linked to the group Hizb-ut-Tahrir.

Two examples from the play show how ordinary Tatars went from being activists, to journalists to dissidents in the face of Russian repression.

Tymur Ibrahimov, 38, moved back to Crimea from Uzbeksitan at the age of six in 1991 after the death of his father. In the play, his wife Diliara, explains his transformation from computer repairman to enemy of the state:  “It used to be different, until 2014, you know, back then he would make home videos, he would take pictures of nature, like, of the bees and butterflies  on flowers, just like that. It all changed in 2015 and he began making footage of what was going on in Crimea. That is, all the searches, court hearings, “Crimean Solidarity” meetings.” For the crime of recording the resistance of his people Tymur was sentenced to 17 years in prison.

Narminan Memedeminov, 39, also moved back to Crimea from Uzbekistan in 1991. After graduating in economics he became involved in human rights activism and media coordinator for the Crimean Solidarity movement. “Here’s an example: I went and took a video of somebody helping out a prisoner’s family, like, basic stuff, they would take the child to the hospital, help them hang the wallpaper, fix the plumbing, send off the parcels to the detention centre and so on… And in the end, everybody involved was at risk: those who took videos, those who helped, those who did anything at all.”

Index editor at large Martin Bright (left) taking part in a post-play discussion.

The stories have been brought together by two Ukrainian writers, Natalia Vorozhbyt and Anastasiia Kosodii and the project is backed by the Ukrainian Institute and the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs as a way of bringing the situation to international attention. I had the privilege of watching a reading of  of the play at the Kiln Theatre, Kilburn in London last week with professional actors alongside non-professional activists and supporters. Directed by Josephine Burton and produced by Dash Arts, the play focuses on the domestic lives of the families of the Tatar political prisoners and particularly the women.

Burton told Index that until the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, Crimea has drifted from international attention. “Helped by a media blackout, we forgot that the peninsula has been occupied by Russians for almost nine years now and its Tatar community oppressed,” she said. “Determined to fight this silence, the community has relentlessly documented this oppression – filming and uploading searches, arrests and court cases of its people by the Russian Security Forces. And for this act, these “Citizen Journalists” have been arrested themselves and given insanely long sentences, some for up to 20 years in penal colonies.”

Crimea 5am focuses on the everyday lives of Tatar dissidents, drawn from many hours of recordings with the families of 11  political prisoners. “It builds a beautiful and powerful portrait of a community, ripped apart by this tragedy, but also woven with stories of love and resilience through the prism of the wives left behind. It is this mix of tenderness and humour alongside the unfathomable darkness which enables its impact. We the audience become invested in their lives and feel the impact of their tragedy deeply.”

Dash Arts is looking for further opportunities to perform Crimea 5am:

Putin critic Shevchuk concerts cancelled in Siberia

DDT, one of Russia’s biggest rock bands, have had several concerts in Siberian cites cancelled according to frontman Yuri Shevchuk. He has said that local authorities forbade concerts in Omsk, Yugra, Kemerovo and Tumen. Shevchuk is a noted critic of the Putin regime.

“Dodgy officials gave the orders by phone, which makes it almost impossible to sue them,” said a statement published on the DDT website. “Apparently, there isn’t enough ‘erotic patriotism’ our shows for them. But we won’t lose heart, because despair is a sin. We believe that this burly gang of zealous advocates of a “disintegrating order” will soon dissolve in the embrace of a different future,” the official statement went.

Government officials in the Siberian Kemerovo region denied the allegations, saying “this was all about business and risks”.

Yuri Shevchuk has been actively supporting the Russian protest movement, including being involved in recent mass protests for fair elections. He has also taken part in public campaigns in support of the Khimki forest defenders and opposition activist Taisiya Osipova. He also puzzled Vladimir Putin with questions about democracy, freedom of speech and assembly in 2010, during an official meeting between Putin and Russian intelligentsia representatives.

“I don’t know what exactly they are afraid of, but they are definitely afraid,” Shevchuk told Index on Censorship. “They [government officials] were scared by the winter and spring protests against election fraud and they are obviously concerned about losing their material benefits, which is most likely to happen sooner or later.”

Shevchuk added that DDT concert tour’s core idea was “philosophical” and aimed to “make each person ask himself what will happen to him and his motherland”. Authorities don’t need people to be clever and ask such questions, Yuri Shevchuk told Index.

Incidents of this nature are not new to Shevchuk. DDT had problems with concert organisation in November and December 2011 in the run-up to the parliamentary elections. At that time one of the band’s concerts was cancelled and another was rescheduled to the last day before elections — so called “silence day”, when, according to Russian law, no political activism involving propaganda is allowed.

Stopping concerts is a technique often used by the Kremlin to silence critics. Satirist writer and veteran Putin opponent Viktor Shenderovich had a concert in a Saint Petersburg theatre cancelled in April 2010 on the pretext of inspecting the building ahead of repairs.

Similarly, rock musician Vasily Shumov had problems with organising a concert in support of Russia’s leading music critic Art Troitsky, who faced several libel suits in Moscow. The management of some concert halls reported pressure from local authorities, whilst others received notification from the prosecutor’s office that they were suddenly in breach of fire regulations.

Shevchuk assured that the concert tour would continue as there are still some cities where DDT concerts were not cancelled.