Stories: Belarus Free Theatre
"The deeds of the people are immortal" reads the bold, red Cyrillic script above Victory Square in Minsk, Belarus. The Belarusian government claim to celebrate people power, but their authoriitarian style of leadership belies this claim. The realitiy is very different.
Belarus emerged from the old Soviet Union in 1994. Unlike other former Soviet republics which embraced Western style reform Belarus remains firmly entrenched in old school Soviet values. The country is frequently referred to as the 'last dictatorship in Europe'. According to The Economist magazine Belarus is currently at 'high risk' of social unrest.
The people of Belarus, nearly ten million, live under conditions defined and controlled by President Alexander Lukashenko who has been in power for twenty years. Events in 2014, specifically in Ukraine, have made conditions in Belarus potentially more oppressive as the authorities fear a challenge to the status quo.
After re-election in 2010 Lukashenko ordered the arrest of many opposition members following street protests alleging rigged results. The lucky ones, such as husband and wife Nikolai Khalezin and Natalia Kaliada, were eventually smuggled out of hiding in Belarus. They now live under political asylum in London, less than three hours away but a whole world apart.
Belarus is Europe's forgotten state, swept under the carpet for convenience. There are gestures to a more open society; McDonald's, an Adidas store, casinos and the recent Ice Hockey World Championships, yet visiting Minsk leaves one with the sense that the art of self expression is a long time lost for most people.
In 2005 Khalezin and Kaliada created the Belarus Free Theatre to promote free speech, creative expression and to counter widespread censorship resulting from the government's stifling ideology. Normally cultural activities are controlled by the state but the theatre has been operating 'underground' since 2007 when armed Belarusian special forces raided a performance being held in a private apartment.
Many from the international acting and human rights communities have spoken out in support. This has enabled the group to establish a home in London and to perform around the world at theatres with conditions offering a stark contrast to those in Minsk where the artisitc resistance mission continues weekly amidst incessant harassment. They operate under the constant threat of being raided and arrested by the KGB so performances are held at secret locations.
Last year the New York Times described the theatre as "one of the most powerful underground companies in the world". Those connected with the group or who question Lukashenko's authority are often banned from the country. Yet Belarus Free Theatre continues to speak out about issues that its audience stays silent on. In the words of Natalia Kaliada "we perform if we are alive and we are alive when we perform. Every day we wait to start rehearsing again but besides being artists we are also just human beings. As human beings we need to raise awareness about our country where people are kidnapped, killed and tortured".