Sitting cross-legged on the floor of an abandoned building, watching an underground theater performance as the main source of expression activists have against their dictatorship government, made me thankful I was from Australia.
Belarus has been dubbed many names like: ‘the last dictatorship in Europe’ and ‘the North Korea of Europe’. President Alexander Lukashenko has ruled Belarus for 21 years after being re-elected on October 11, 2015, for his fifth term. He rules with an iron fist, changing the rules to allow himself to stay in government. He has jailed opponents for trying to challenge him, prevented any opposition marches and many believe even sanctioning the murder of rivals, the last country to have the death penalty in Europe. In 2010 when Mr. Sannikov ran as an opposition candidate, he was beaten up and jailed for 16 months the evening following the failed election. It is even said that he has lined up his 11-year-old son in a North Korea style reign, to take over as his successor.
It’s safe to say, voicing your opinion against him isn’t common, as many fear for the repercussions. When we found ourselves in a small indie bar talking to a group of locals, at the mention of their president one lowered his voice, looked over his shoulder and whispered ‘Lukashenko…’
Stories involving political motives or stories the government wishes to be hidden from the public are banned from the theater and bands have been suppressed from playing such lyrics. In order for people to voice their opinions and make a political stance, the underground theater was created.
Started in 2005 by human rights activists Nikolai Khalezin and his wife and Natalia Koliada, Belarus Free Theatre was created as an artistic form of resisting the pressure and censorship of the authoritarian regime of Lukashenka.
Sometimes when the government has been informed of the whereabouts of the performances, the locations have to change. A few times the secret police have even shut down performances generally held in private homes or in some instances the woods. Staff members of the theater have claimed to be repeatedly harassed by authorities for their participation and stage the director along with other people involved have been sacked from their state jobs in theater companies.
The theaters first production addressed many themes such as suicide, suppression and depression, themes that are taboo in state-controlled Belarusian art.
On December 19th, 2010, fifty thousand people took to the streets to protest against what they believed to be the rigged election of Lukashenka. More than a thousand of those people were beaten and arrested, including Natalia Koliada and many members of the theater. In London at the Belarus Embassy, dozens of leaders from the artistic community protested her arrest and it brought international attention, resulting in her release. Her, along with Nikolai Khalezin are currently in exile in London with their 12-year-old daughter. Their other 16-year-old daughter and their parents are still living in Belarus.
Staying with a couch surfing host we were lucky enough to be introduced to some of his friends who were interested in political activism and attended many Free Theatre performances. He was able to secure us last minute seats at the performance ‘Discover Love’. We were extremely lucky to have this opportunity, as it’s hard for tourists to become involved in due to its secrecy.
Arriving at the metro station as we walked past a lady wondering around the outside of a local supermarket, our friend nodded acknowledgment to her and she walked briskly in front of us to an abandoned building where we had to give a password to enter. We all sat around on the floor, legs crossed in rows of three. The performance was in Belarusian but they had two scripts printed in English ready for us, which we were extremely grateful for, as it would have been impossible to follow without.
The play, titled ‘Discover Love’ (directed by Nikolay Khalezin) is part of a campaign against enforced disappearances, cases when oppositions to the government have been kidnapped and killed. The true story follows Irina Krasovskaya, whose husband was kidnaped and killed in 1999 USSR times, after supporting Belarusian democratic opposition. Sitting several feet away from the actors really interacts you with their performance. You feel connected to their roles, even if you don’t understand what they’re saying. The story follows the love story of Irina and her husband, transports you back into the 90s and gives you an inside into the Soviet times. The actor’s performances are amazing, and by the final scene when Irina explains they never found what happened to her husband, I sat with tears in my eyes and goosebumps like the rest of the room.
Not only was the story being told so impactful and emotional, listening to the stories of people who had been killed for supporting a political party, but the setting gave it a whole new level of meaning. It was 2016 and we had to sit in a small room, on the floor, in a location that has to constantly change, just to be told this story. The people of Belarus still don’t have their rights to free speech, and instead, must express these stories through theater.