On Aug. 19 a group of burly, buzz-cut men in masks entered the Janka Kupala National Theater, the premier drama theatre of Belarus. In Belarus, people like this are called tikhari—that is, KGB agents disguised in civilian clothing. They seized control of the National Theater, forbidding anyone else to enter. Actors were driven from their dressing rooms, not even allowed to take their personal belongings.
Just prior to this event, the theatre’s entire troupe, led by managing director Pavel Latushko, had expressed open support for the enormous crowds of protesters in Minsk. The protests began in Belarus on Aug. 9, when it was revealed that Alexander Lukashenko, a dictator of 26 years (he took power in 1994), had rigged the presidential election. This became common knowledge thanks to courageous election commissions and observers who managed to film violations and conduct a parallel vote count. To prevent the spread of this information, Lukashenko turned off the nation’s internet for three days. In a 72-hour period, a European country in the 21st century not only could not access websites and news portals, but even email and bank terminals would not work. We were plunged into darkness.
Over these three days, Lukashenko’s police arrested more than 7,000 people. Many were snatched off the street for no apparent reason. The police followed no rules or regulations. Almost all detainees were subjected to inconceivable torture and suffering. Eighty-one people are now missing. Most likely they eventually will join the list of five demonstrators who have died by official count. Videos of these horrific events raced around the world.
Belarusian theatres, almost all of them state-owned since Soviet times, have officially remained outside of politics for 26 years. Everyone in management positions was appointed by the Ministry of Culture, and any political activity by employees was punished severely. Only private theatres like the Belarus Free Theater, the Che Theater, and the Contemporary Art Theater, as well as freelance actors, playwrights, directors, composers, and designers, could afford to express themselves openly.
But this August, it seems, even the Belarusian state theatres awoke from their slumber. More than 20 state theatres have now recorded frank video messages from their troupes demanding fair new elections, and condemning violence on the streets of Belarusian cities. Actors, directors, artists, and technicians protested together with workers, students, businessmen, and politicians.
The chief director of the Mogilyov Theatre, Vladimir Petrovich, was arrested not far from his theatre. Like others, he was beaten severely. He posted a video on YouTube about his trial. The witnesses were police officers whom he had never seen in his life (he was arrested by other individuals). They accused him of allegedly swearing and resisting arrest, and they confused the place and time of detention, because, of course, they had nothing to do with the actual arrest. The judge gave Petrovich no opportunity to justify himself or to introduce his own witnesses. He was found guilty and sentenced to several days in jail.
Pavel Latushko, formerly the Minister of Culture and an ambassador of Belarus to France and Italy, has served as managing director of the Janka Kupala Theater for the past three years. It came as a shock when he came out in support of the protesters’ anger. No civil servant of such a high rank has ever contradicted Lukashenko’s regime. The next day Latushko was fired and the theatre’s entire troupe, approximately 70 outstanding Belarusian actors, met and chose to leave with him.
It should be noted that during the Soviet era, the Janka Kupala Theater was incredibly famous throughout the entire former U.S.S.R., thanks to its unique acting school. Famed actors Stefania Stanyuta, Zinaida Bravarska, Gennady Ovsyannikov, Gennady Garbuk, Sergei Tarasov, and many others were huge stars of Soviet theatre and cinema. Their unique style allowed the Janka Kupala to receive numerous major state awards. In defying the government, this unique troupe has stepped into unknown territory.
“I can no longer listen to the screams of pain from demonstrators being beaten in the streets,” actor Mikhail Zui said at this meeting. Actors and directors no longer wish to be afraid, or to listen to the lies of officials. They can no longer make art in conditions of non-freedom.
It must be said that the attitude of Belarusian theatres to Lukashenko’s dictatorship was never supportive. Yes, many individuals remained silent, but the performances themselves often levied the strongest blows against Lukashenko’s ideological dogma. In the Janka Kupala Theater itself, Nikolai Pinigin staged productions of Martin McDonagh’s Hangmen in the only European country that practices the death penalty; Nikolai Gogol’s The Inspector General was staged as a wicked satire on Belarus in the post-Soviet era; and The Gentry of Pinsk, a classic drama by Vintsent Dunin-Martsinkevich, explored the destruction of national identity. Sergei Kovalchik’s production of Panie Kochanku, or My Dear Sir, at the Gorky Theater was a historical drama about Belarusian resistance and national revival. Such productions were echoed in a large number of exciting non-conformist performances at private, non-government theatres.
The Art Corporation has made major contributions to the forces of freedom in Belarusian theatre. Not only has it run Teart, the premiere Belarusian international theatre forum—thanks to which Belarusians learned about such foreign directors as Kirill Serebrennikov, Eimuntas Nekrošius, Timofei Kulyabin, Alvis Hermanis, Grzegorz Jarzyna, and many others—but in their own venue they put together a repertoire of modern Belarusian and world drama that allowed the Belarusian theatrical avant-garde to reach new heights. Coincidentally, the chief sponsor of these events was Belgazprombank (Belarus Gas Industry Bank), whose chairman was Viktor Babariko. This is the man who was the first in the recent elections to challenge Lukashenko, who in turn sent him to prison on trumped-up charges. He remains in prison to this day, and the fates of both the festival and the theatre venue are now in question.
Blogger Sergei Tikhanovsky became the election’s second prisoner of conscience. His blog revealed the difference between official propaganda and reality. He also planned to run against Lukashenko, but was arrested on the day he carried his application documents to the Central Election Commission. Unexpectedly, his place was taken by his wife Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a modest, calm woman who had never been involved in politics. She is the one who managed to unite the absolute majority of Belarusians around her.
This story is worthy of a play script or screenplay: a wife who, out of love for her imprisoned husband, agrees to become a presidential candidate in Belarus, challenging a bloody and ruthless dictator. She did not break when they threatened to take away her children, she did not break when almost all her comrades-in-arms around her were arrested, she did not break when, after seven hours of intimidation by the leaders of the security forces, she was taken out and expelled from the country across the Lithuanian border. Even from Lithuania, she has stated firmly: The majority of people voted against Lukashenko, and she is prepared to be the national leader, the person who will lead the country to new elections.
For now, however, history continues to be written before our eyes. Small theatres, puppet groups, ensembles, and philharmonic societies have joined the country’s main theatres in rebellion. What they previously had performed in metaphorical, hyperbolic, and imagistic ways, they now are finally able to say freely in their own voices. The values that they once had to convey to an audience in the figurative and poetic language of theatre can now take the form of journalism and verbatim drama. People have overcome their fear. People have sensed they have rights. People like telling the truth.
Despite the peaceful millions of demonstrators that have been marching every day, the dictator has declared he will remain at his post to the very end. He has a friend, after all, who is ready to support him: Vladimir Putin. We know that Putin is fond of supporting dictators who lose elections, then repress their opponents. Thanks to Putin, Maduro in Venezuela and Assad in Syria are still in power, inflicting incredible suffering on their people. It is possible that the fight against Lukashenko will be a long one too.
To prevent the authorities from unleashing civil war, the intellectuals of Belarus created a Coordination Council. It included prominent figures of culture and art, including Nobel laureate in literature Svetlana Alexievich; artist Vladimir Tsesler; theatre director Yury Khashchevatsky; Pavel Latushko, the deposed managing director of the Janka Kupala Theater; and more th
an 40 scholars, lawyers, journalists, economists, cultural historians, political scientists and workers’ representatives. I am honored to be part of this lofty group.
It is now down to us, the people of culture, art, politics, economics and science, who together must establish a free Belarus on the ruins of Lukashenko’s dictatorship, much as the great founding fathers of the United States did at the First Continental Congress in 1774.
Lukashenko has initiated a criminal case against the members of the Coordination Council under the article of “Seizure of State Power,” and today his forces arrested two members of the council—as if it were playwrights who rigged elections and writers and journalists who killed and tortured demonstrators. This may be the last article I write as a free man. But we are not afraid. And we will not stop. For behind our backs stand millions of Belarusians who want freedom.
Belarus will never be the same. Belarusian theatre will never be the same. This means that viewers around the world will soon discover amazing new and inspiring stories from Belarus, in plays that are yet to be written and productions that are to be staged.
Translated from Russian by John Freedman
Andrei Kureichik is an acclaimed Belarusian playwright and screenwriter. He has actively participated in the current protests in Minsk, and is a member of the Coordination Council, whose goal is to bring free elections to Belarus.
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