Author Says Censors Halted Hostage Play

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

The play was based on events at Moscow's Dubrovka theater six years ago, when Chechen terrorists stormed in as more than 700 people watched a musical. About 120 theater-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 performance in Russia, in Dagestan, local officials told the director the play's first night would be its last.

Dagestan's President, Mukhu Aliyev, was in the audience for the performance. He denied that he had ordered its cancellation or that his administration practised 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 web 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 theater siege was one of the bloodiest attacks by Chechen rebels in a separatist war that lasted over a decade. The attackers stormed the theater during a packed performance with bombs strapped to their bodies.

After a standoff that lasted three days, special forces pumped a gas into the auditorium that rendered most people inside unconscious. They shot the terrorists.

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

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

The country's cultural establishment has shied away from the sensitive subject matter. Pelevine said several theaters she approached turned it down before she received an invitation from a theater company in Dagestan to stage it there.

She said her aim was not to romanticize the terrorists, but to explore what compels people to commit 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.

"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.