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Crimean Tatar poet under criminal investigation in Russian-occupied Crimea for anti-war verse

Halya Coynash
Crimean Tatar poet Aliye Kenzhalieva is facing possible criminal charges over poems about the tragedy of war, which the Russian-controlled Investigative Committee is trying to claim falls under the article of Russia’s criminal code on ‘rehabilitation of Nazism’

Crimean Tatar poet Aliye Kenzhalieva is facing possible criminal charges over poems about the tragedy of war, which the Russian-controlled Investigative Committee is trying to claim falls under the article of Russia’s criminal code on ‘rehabilitation of Nazism’.

Kenzhalieva’s poem was published on 9 May in the local paper Qirim, and is a reflection on Victory Day which, in Russia under President Vladimir Putin and now in Russian-occupied Crimea, has become less an occasion to honour the memory of those killed achieving victory over Nazi Germany, and more a festive celebration of militarism. As reported, this year there was even a fashion for dressing very small children in military uniform and staging children’s ‘military parades’. It is images like those of children in uniform that Kenzhalieva mentions in her poems.

Kenzhalieva was summoned for questioning twice – on 28 June and 2 July. They asked her why she did not respect such important dates and days of military glory in her poems, to which she responded that they had simply not understood her poem.

She says that she very much hopes that this does not reach the court since the absurdity of the situation is overwhelming. “In my poems, I don’t see any calls [to action]; any disrespect or insults against anybody or anything.  There is nothing of the kind in them. These are lyrics which express my feelings, my experiences.  If a criminal investigation is initiated, I will suggest that the investigators re-read Russian classics which express views similar to mine about the tragedy of war at any time and in any part of the world. It is about sorrow and tragedy in the first instance and not pathos and a festive holiday (albeit linked with victory”, Kenzhalieva says.

She later learned that the check began after Roskomnadzor, Russia’s effective censor, received a complaint about her poems which they sent to the Investigative Committee. The investigators, together with the police, also tried to turn up at the editorial offices of the Qirim newspaper but found it closed.  Since annexation, it has only come out once a week, and the offices are only open three days of the week.

Kenzhalieva is represented by Alexei Ladin, a lawyer from the Agora Human Rights Group, who is also involved in at least two other criminal prosecutions brought against Crimean Tatars for expressing their views.  He calls this check the result of a witch-hunt in conditions where the enforcement bodies are rewarded, or otherwise, on the basis of the number of cases initiated, ‘solved’, etc.  Such officers therefore try to come up with as many criminal cases as they can “to justify their existence”.

The material of the check over the creation and circulation of poems demonstrates the absurdity of criminal prosecutions initiated under the guise of fighting extremism, justification of fascism and other things”, Ladin adds.

Kenzhalieva, who teaches schoolchildren Russian Language and Literature is not about to be cowered. At the end of July, she wrote to the Investigative Committee asking to know the result of the ‘check’, but has thus far had no response. 

“I think that this is a kind of psychological war, a form of pressure. If they’ve got to literature, this is already smelling of the Stalinist Terror. I am not a terrorist, nor a politician, nor a criminal. I write literary texts, not even articles. What I express is even more feelings, than thoughts, inner experiences, sensations.  How can you prohibit a person from feeling what he or she feels?”

Kenzhalieva reacted through her poetry to the militarization of Victory Day.  “Death is not a reason for a festive day”, she stresses. 

They teach [people] to love war / To not remember tragedy, / To not pray for the souls of the unfortunates / to not preserve this fragile peace.

They teach [people] to love war, / To be happy that it took place, / To wear military uniform / To be proud in song and dance, / To organize a holiday……

The poem are intensely rooted in her Crimean homeland. 

“Here my great-grandfather lived, his gardens were here,

Now there are the parades of an alien country”

The above is not the only place which the occupying forces are likely to view as ‘political’, but not one could be viewed as a call to any kind of action. 

It is as yet unclear whether the two interrogations so far are aimed solely at intimidating Kenzhalieva, and will end there, or whether Kenzhalieva is to become the third young Crimean Tatar woman – after Elina Marmedova and Gulsum Alieva -  to face prosecution for expressing her opinion.

The attempt to call Kenzhalieva’s poems ‘rehabilitation of Nazism’ would be absurd, but it would not be the first such insane prosecution.  Russia’s Law on Rehabilitation of Nazism, and the article of the criminal code which it introduced were viewed from the outset as aimed at stifling historical discussion and restricting freedom of speech.  The most surreal, though not the only, application of this norm to date was the prosecution of Vladimir Luzgin from Perm, Siberia for reposting a text which stated, quite correctly, that the Soviet Union invaded Poland, together with Nazi Germany in 1939 (details here).

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