April 11, 2008 / 4:48 PM / 11 years ago

Playwright alleges Russia gagged political play

MOSCOW (Reuters) - A British-based playwright has accused Russian authorities of Soviet-style censorship after her play, about a real-life hostage siege in Moscow, was cancelled on its opening night.

Vladimir Putin lays flowers at the memorial near the Dubrovka theatre in southeast Moscow, October 23, 2003. REUTERS/Pool/Sergei Ilnitsky

The play was based on events at Moscow’s Dubrovka theatre six years ago, when Chechen insurgents stormed in as more than 700 people watched a musical. About 120 theatre-goers died in a rescue operation that victims’ relatives say was botched.

Playwright Natalia Pelevine said that moments after the curtain came down on the play’s first public performance in Russia, in the southern region of Dagestan, local officials told the director the play’s first night would be its last.

“It was executed very much Soviet-style. Boom. Done. Tell them it’s over. Tell them it’s finished,” 31-year-old Pelevine, who was born in Moscow and moved with her family to Britain as a child, told Reuters in an interview.

“The shameful thing is that we were so hopeful ... ‘We live in a different society now in this country where something like this, it’s not going to happen.’ And it did.”

Dagestan’s President, Mukhu Aliyev, was in the audience for the performance. He denied he had ordered its cancellation, or that his administration practiced censorship.

“The banning of this play is either a provocation by someone or an ill-conceived decision by the republic (of Dagestan’s) minister of culture,” he said in comments on his Internet site.

But he added: “I did not like the production as a whole because, in my view, it romanticizes the image of the terrorists, it made them look heroic.”

He hinted Russia’s enemies could be using the play to destabilize the region, an allegation Pelevine described as “absolutely mind-boggling, laughable.”


The theatre siege was one of the bloodiest attacks by Chechen rebels in a separatist war that lasted over a decade. The attackers stormed the theatre during a packed performance with bombs strapped to their bodies.

After a stand-off that lasted three days, special forces pumped a gas into the auditorium that rendered most people inside unconscious. They shot the insurgents.

Relatives of the theatre-goers who died say many were killed by the gas, suffocated or choked on their vomit while unconscious because they were not given proper medical care.

Russian authorities praised the operation as a success, but a police general has since said medical help was slow in reaching many of the victims.

Russia’s cultural establishment has shied away from turning such sensitive subject matter into drama. Pelevine said several theatres she approached turned it down before she received an invitation from a theatre company in Dagestan to stage it there.

Dagestan has a border with Chechnya and is the scene of frequent ambushes and bomb blasts by insurgents as violence has spilled over from the neighboring region.

She said her aim was not to romanticize the insurgents, but explore what compels people to commit acts of violence.

A central character in her play, which is called “In your hands,” is a young Chechen woman who was one of the hostage-takers. She describes how she had wanted a normal life.

“All of that fell apart when the war (in Chechnya) happened, and her loved ones were being killed, and her desperation led her to become this monster,” said Pelevine.

“Nothing is black and white. We try to understand the background of this person because there are some people like that among those who go and take hostages.”

“This is not trying to find an excuse for her on my part. By no means. This is just trying to have a dialogue about what it is that we are doing, politically, what our government is doing, what we are doing as a people,” she said.

Editing by Charles Dick

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