Nestled between Russia and Poland sits an autocratic state dubbed “Europe’s last dictatorship”, whose public enemies include Hollywood actor Jude Law and German heavy metal band Rammstein.
Artistic directors and founders of The Belarus Free Theatre (BFT), Kaliada and Nicolai Khalezin, are also public enemies of their home country. Their crime is setting up an underground company aiming to cast a spotlight on the day-to-day struggles faced by their countrymen and women.
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They established the theatre in 2005, along with critically acclaimed director Vladimir Shcherban, and, just six years later, the couple were forced to seek political asylum in the UK – fleeing alleged harassment carried out by officials in the administration of President Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus with a self-described “authoritarian style” since 1994. They are now living in exile in London.
The theatre company itself is increasingly being forced to operate in exile. Kaliada told Al Jazeera that many people found it hard to believe a European country has been battling being under the control of a dictatorship for the past 20 years.
“We founded the free theatre because we wanted something that could not be destroyed or shut down,” she said. “Nikolai led three independent newspapers which were shut down, and also an art gallery. We wanted something that would last, and the only space it could survive was underground.
“People, when they come to our performances, they know that they are not safe – that they might be arrested just for being in the audience – but they come anyway. It feels like, when we perform, we are all speaking the same language and they are not afraid any more.”
Following the dissolution of the Soviet state, Belarus declared its independence in 1991, electing Lukashenko in 1994. After his election two decades ago, initially for a maximum of two five-year terms, Lukashenko continued many Soviet-era policies – including keeping the KGB as the nation’s security service and continuing state ownership of the economy.
Performing in secret
Kaliada said actors and directors who wanted to be part of the Belarus Free Theatre faced losing their jobs and educational opportunities, because of their affiliation with the blacklisted group. They perform in secret locations, from private houses to secluded woodlands.
1994 – Alexander Lukashenko became the first president of the Republic of Belarus.
October 2004 – Referendum allows president to serve beyond his previous term limits.
December 2005 – Parliament approves tough penalties for anyone inciting demonstrations.
March 2006 – Lukashenko declared president. Fresh protests lead to more arrests.
June 2006 – Opposition candidate Alexander Kozulin convicted of hooliganism.
May 2007 – Belarus fails in its bid for a place on the UN’s Human Rights Council.
December 2010 – Re-election of Lukashenko leads to mass protests and more than 600 arrests.
May 2011 – Opposition leader Andrei Sannikov imprisoned.
October 2013 – EU grants funds to Belarus for training and equipping police force.
“Artistically, we are self-sustaining, but it is financially that they try to hurt those who are part of the BFT so we don’t talk about political repression,” she said.
“They do not understand that the more they try to stop us and suppress us, the more we will stand up and fight. Recently they took away a private house we had been using for performances. But if they stop us performing in Belarus, we will go out into the world and shout louder.”
In 2010, Kaliada was part of a short-lived protest the night after Lukashenko won re-election as president. She, along with hundreds of protesters and seven opposition candidates, was arrested and detained by security forces during an operation that rapidly dispersed the protesters.
Five years earlier, anticipating protests around the 2006 elections, parliament had passed a bill approving tough penalties for those found demonstrating or inciting protests against the state.
During her arrest, she said she was threatened with rape and violence by the security forces – and was only released due to confusion over her identity. “When we tried to protest in 2010, we thought for a moment that there really was hope – that the country would be free. But it was stopped so quickly you would not believe. Within minutes everyone was arrested, it was like it had never happened.
“I do not talk about it much, because I was held for 20 hours and what I went through is nothing compared to those held for 16 months or more. I cannot imagine what must have been said and done to them, just know that it was a torture. When people are released you can see the signs of torture on them. One of our friends would not sleep without people around him after he was freed.”
The Belarus Free Theatre has received critical acclaim for many of its productions, and was notably given a seal of approval from Harold Pinter to perform Being Harold Pinter. The British playwright had been notorious for objecting to re-workings of his plays. Directed by Shcherban, the play uses Pinter’s words about power and violence to bring to light the plight of Belarusian prisoners, and ends with a reading of their letters.
Pinter is not the only famous name to have lent his support to Belarus’ opposition. Playwright Tom Stoppard has described Belarus as “festering like a blister” and actor Jude Law took pride in his “public enemy status” while introducing Kaliada at TEDxObserver in 2011.
State-control of theatres, galleries and radio stations mean it is difficult for artists of any type to get publicity unless they are approved by the government. While pop songs with titles such as “I love Belarus” are given international exposure in the annual Eurovision Song Contest, rock and folk musicians often find their performances banned on short notice.
Lavon Volski’s band, Krambambulya, said he was prevented from releasing an album in his home country about integrating Belarus into the rest of Europe.
“In Belarus there are a lot of banned and blacklisted bands, and Krambambulya is one of them. The blacklist works in a very cynical way,” Volski said in an interview with Freemuse, an independent organisation that advocates artistic and musical freedom around the globe. “The management of the club receives a mysterious phone call saying: ‘If you want to stay in the position of director and if you want to keep your business, you shouldn’t allow those musicians to stage a gig in your club.'”
Freemuse has worked with musicians and bands from Belarus for many years. In 2007, the group published a report examining censorship in the country.
I cannot imagine what must have been said and done to them, just know that it was a torture. When people are released you can see the signs of torture on them.
The report, Hidden Truths – Music, Politics and Censorship in Lukashenko’s Belarus, discusses this informal censorship: “The musicians on this blacklist have a specific problem above and beyond the fact that large scale live performance is next to impossible.
“The fact that the list is not the result of a presidential decree, or any official legal decision, means that it is impossible to prove. And here lies their main problem in the fight to overturn this ban – it does not officially exist, and therefore all knowledge of it is repeatedly denied by the ministries of culture and information, despite all the evidence to the contrary.”
The report also quotes artists saying they have had their lyrics checked for “offensive stuff” before concerts and being told not to discuss political freedom and ideology during radio interviews. Non-Belarusian bands such as Rammstein are accused by the Council for Morality – set up in 2009 and consisting mainly of members of the Russian Orthodox church in Belarus – of possessing the ability to “destroy the Belarusian state system” with their music.
The director of Freemuse, Ole Reitov, told Al Jazeera that little had changed since the report was released.
“In Belarus, political censorship is a fundamental part of the country. The radio stations are completely state-controlled and so bands that are not approved will not get any airtime. This obviously affects their earning ability.
“Music is a very important part of life, and if it is eliminated or controlled in a country, you see that country losing its connection with its culture and history. Censorship in Belarus is part of the system and musicians may even be considered terrorists.”
Follow Philippa H Stewart on Twitter: @Flip_Stewart