At the heart of any resolution of the war in Ukraine is the issue of the Crimean Tatars. Maria Romanenko explains how a play, part of the UK/Ukraine season of culture, explores their subjugation and resistance
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Picture this: your grandparents were kicked out of their homes and had to relocate thousands of kilometres away, starting a new life in a new place and staying there for decades. Nearly half of those who had to make the journey didn’t survive it. You or your parents were finally able to come back to your land only to find yourselves under threat again.
You can’t speak your language, you can’t practise your religion, and you can’t display your flag anywhere – all because the new government considers you a terrorist, without a single terror attack committed by you or your people.
This is what life has been like for Crimean Tatars, the indigenous people of the Crimean Peninsula, over the last century. They were deported en-masse by Joseph Stalin in 1944 on fabricated charges of collaboration with Nazis. Many families were able to return since Ukraine’s regaining of independence in 1991, but in 2014 Russian troops took over the Crimean parliament and government buildings, held the notorious sham ‘referendum’ and declared that 97% of the population voted to join Russia.
Crimean Tatars were among those who showed resistance from the first days of Crimea’s illegal occupation and, for that, were arrested and given fictitious sentences. The detainees’ friends, relatives, and soulmates self-organised into a group that soon became known as ‘Crimean Solidarity’. They attended the sham court hearings, live-streamed the house searches, and did everything to support their own people.
Many Crimean Tatars continue to be imprisoned in Russia-occupied territories. Among the most recent and high-profile cases was the deputy head of the Mejlis of Crimean Tatars Nariman Dzhelyal, arrested and sentenced to 17 years imprisonment last year.
Since Russia’s full-scale invasion, the persecution has got worse. The additional problem is that it is now harder to create “buzz” around the issues, says Nataliya Gumenyuk, a Ukrainian journalist who has covered Crimea extensively since 2014. Based on her years of reporting on Crimea, she wrote a book, The Lost Island. Tales from the Occupied Crimea.
“With the horrors happening around the country, another detention of another Crimean Tatar in Crimea wouldn’t reach the news, even Ukrainian news. So, of course, if earlier the Crimean Tatars were capable of creating buzz, nowadays if they take risks and do something, it might not get mentioned by anyone,” she added.
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Spreading Awareness in the UK
To create more buzz about the issue of the Crimean Tatar persecution, London-based theatre group Dash Arts has staged a play called ‘Crimea 5 am’. Written by Natalka Vorozhbyt and Anastasiia Kosodii, it tells the stories of about 11 Crimean Tatar activists and journalists who have been detained and imprisoned over the last eight years, with sentences up to 20 years. It was shown at London’s Kiln Theatre on January 16, 2023. I was lucky to have been invited to take part on stage.
The director of the London staging and co-founder of Dash Arts, Josephine Burton, says she’s been interested in Ukraine and the Ukrainian spirit since the 2013-2014 Euromaidan Revolution.
“It moved me enormously to meet young and very determined people who were at Maidan, fighting. I think it was that experience and all the amazing art and work that emerged in 2014 that inspired me to want to keep making work with artists from Ukraine, but it has also inspired me in my life: to be more of an activist and stand up for what I believe,” Burton explained.
She admits that even though she had met Crimean actors, activists, artists, and musicians before, her first real encounter with the issues of Crimean Tatars did not happen until December 2021, when she was staging another Ukraine-related play in Kyiv.
“I was handed the ‘Crimea 5 am’ script, (and) my lovely contacts and colleagues at the Ukrainian Institute in Kyiv said: ‘We’d love you to put it on in London’,” Burton recalled. “The war postponed everything, and then the British Council kind of got involved, so it became part of the UK/Ukraine Season of Culture.”
‘Crimea 5 am’ at London’s Kiln Theatre. Photo: Ikin Yum Photography
Burton cast 13 performers, most outside of the traditional white British establishment. Ten were professional actors, three were activists and journalists like myself.
Among the professional acting cast are Hemi Yeroham, Laila Alj, Chiraz Aich, Laura Hanna, Waleed Elgadi, who come from places influenced by the Arabic and Turkic worlds — the two worlds influencing Crimean Tatars.
“The Crimean Tatars are Muslim,” Burton said. “I felt it was crucial to bring in Muslim actors who have backgrounds outside of Western Europe and the Turkish background.”
The non-acting cast also included Byline Times Co-Founder Peter Jukes and former British Ambassador to Georgia and Byline Times columnist Alexandra Hall Hall.
“I approached Alexandra Hall Hall because of her profile, her background as a diplomat, and how she publicly presents herself,” Burton said. “I thought she’d be a very interesting person to bring in with other experiences and would add something to the show,” Burton said.
With regards to bringing in Ukrainian war refugees, of which the UK has around 150,000 now, Burton felt cautious.
“I’m very mindful of the challenges many Ukrainians, including yourself, have faced over the last year by being here and the potential language (issues) and trauma. I didn’t want to be burdening people more by asking them to overcome and absorb (these challenges) and share them publicly with the audience,” she said, adding that she cast me because I seemed “public-facing” and “resilient”.
The show also cast Lana Biba, a Swedish-Ukrainian actor who was born in Dnipro but lived in Sweden for many years.
“There aren’t enormous amounts of Ukrainian actors in the UK. Svitlana actually flew in from Sweden to be with us because I know her and worked with her,” Burton said.
The director explained that she was “really committed” to “building texture into the reading and the backgrounds of the people reading the performance.”
An Eye-Opening Experience
The London version of the play tells the stories of Suleiman Asanov, Rustem Sheikhaliev, Server Mustafaiev, Remzi Bekirov, Ruslan Suleimanov, Tymur Ibrahimov, Amet Suleimanov, Osman Arifmemetov, Seiran Saliev, and Nariman Memedeminov through the words of their wives, children, and mothers.
“The play itself is immense. It has over 40 voices,” Burton explained. “What’s interesting is that there is a paragraph in the end notes from the authors, which says, ‘We’ve never really imagined that this could be fully staged. This production is too immense and too sprawling’, and it adds ‘We would love it to have non-professional actors in the piece.’ It’s just got this idea of being read out. And I love that intention behind the piece, that it was a work of activism in itself.”
Burton says she is committed to making “meaningful and artistically powerful work” with her work at Dash Arts, one that has “an impact on the world and the potential to change people’s minds and change people, open their eyes.”
“To me, this play does that. It’s both, at its heart, a work of great artistic merit and also a work which has the power to change,” she noted.
It’s important to carry on telling stories about the persecution of Crimean Tatars because when all of them are gone, there will be no one to report on what’s happening in occupied Crimea.
“The reason we don’t hear much from Crimea today is that (Russia) has been detaining people for many years,” Gumenyuk said. “Detaining enough people like Nariman (Dzhelyal) and others within the past couple of years made the war in Ukraine possible. Crimea became a garrison. It’s a military base from where all the military attacks on the Ukrainian mainland are made and from where the tanks are coming.”
Gumenyuk says that she is confident that without militarily overtaking Crimea, Russia would not have been able to launch a full-scale war on Ukraine.
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