Between the toppling of Ukraine’s president following a months-long protest movement and the re-arrest of Pussy Riot’s Nadya Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina during massive demonstrations in Moscow, it has been a big week for political activism in Eastern Europe. With the spotlight focused on Ukraine and Russia, it is easy to overlook equally significant efforts by activists in other parts of the region. Though many view Ukraine’s northern neighbor Belarus as a lost cause, its pro-democracy activists have not given up the struggle, continuing to find creative, new ways to fight.
In a country often referred to as “Europe’s last dictatorship,” even the act of producing art is a fundamentally political one. When the directors of the Free Belarus Theatre began production on their first theatrical project in 2005, they were not setting out to become political activists. However, the pervasive culture of silence and repression in their native country made it impossible for them to explore even ostensibly apolitical subjects without consequences. Co-founders Natalia Kaliada, her husband Nicolai Khalezin, and acclaimed director Vladimir Shcherban are now public enemies in Belarus and currently living in exile in London, where they continue to operate the theater.
Even before its founders sought asylum in the United Kingdom, the theatrical troupe by necessity operated underground in order to avoid harassment and arrest at the hands of Belarus’s security forces. In an interview with Blouin News, Kaliada explained that the group’s desire to explore personal, emotional questions in their first production ensured that they were blacklisted from every Minsk theater they approached. They were told “‘it’s not possible to perform in any public space in Belarus because such topics do not exist and such problems do not exist in Belarusian society…’ This is exactly the point when you understand that everything in Belarus is political. When you talk about sexual minorities, it’s political. You talk about suicide, it’s political.”
This is not to say she engages in knocking audiences over the head with the club of activism. The group, as Kaliada makes a point of emphasizing, is committed to producing theater so powerful on its own merits that that it could not possibly be construed as propaganda. Indeed, it functions as almost anti-propaganda. Which is, as we see it, precisely what has allowed the group to function on the global stage as a powerful interlocutor on behalf of their national (and oft-neglected, by the public do-gooders of the world) political causes — a dynamic, notably, also on display recently in neighboring Ukraine. Ukrainian superstar and Eurovision-winner Ruslana was a leading figure in the pro-European Union protests in Kiev’s main square. Though she claims to be uninterested in politics, the singer has been vocal in lobbying Brussels on behalf of the movement.
The explosive situation in Ukraine following the flight of (now-former) President Viktor Yanukovych is attracting the attention of its northern neighbor. Kaliada has called the transformations next door “absolutely amazing,” stressing that “it’s not possible to look at the situation in Ukraine completely isolated from Belarus.” The connections are deep and painfully clear: the spectacular failure of Belarus’s own protest movement following President Alexander Lukashenko’s 2010 re-election (widely seen as rigged by international observers) arguably had some bearing on the shape of the current Ukrainian movement, which has shown its determination to avoid the same fate. And Belarusian figures took places of prominence in Kiev’s “Euromaidan”. One of the first protesters to be killed in Kiev, Mikhail Zhiznevsky, was a Belarusian activist and veteran of his country’s own pro-democracy struggles. According to Kaliada, he had been wielding Belarus’s now-banned pre-Soviet red-and-white nationalist flag when he was shot by a sniper. And Belarusians have used their current situation as a rallying cry for the E.U. in support of Ukraine, serving as a living worst-case scenario of what the failure of this movement could mean.
Activists are not the only ones taking notice. Lukashenko has done his part to flex his muscles in response to Ukraine, issuing ominous statements, including one earlier this week that warned that such a scenario would be impossible in Belarus: “Our military will carry out duty and tasks to maintain peace and stability . . . We should learn from other people’s mistakes and prevent even the slightest manifestations of instability in our country.”
If it were possible for Lukashenko to tighten the bolts of his dictatorship any further, now would be the time to try. According to Kaliada, the regime’s fear is showing. A Belarus Free Theatre performance of Chekhov’s “The Seagull” was raided by the state’s KGB security forces earlier this week as an “anti-governmental show.” “They said, ‘we will not allow a second Maidan for you to organize.’ So they consider us as that force who organizes a second Maidan in Belarus. Even if you continue to do theater they have this absolutely unbelievable fear.” Yes, this fear is contributing to even further suppression of freedoms, but it is in a paradoxical way giving pro-democracy activists hope for Belarus’s future insofar as it hints at the fear Kaliada outlines.
While the members of the group that remain within the country continue to do their part fighting towards that end in Belarus, Kaliada and the Theatre’s exiled contingent have also worked towards broadening the group’s scope through an engagement with global political activism. “We became people of the world . . . we don’t belong to ourselves any longer . . . If there is a chance for us to talk not only about us, in Belarus, but about others then we should do that.” Education, which is a key part of the group’s mission, has been essential here. The group has used their workshops with students from around the world to impart their artistic methods while using these methods as a means of empowering others to bring the same interrogative lens on their own contexts. Again, a focus on taboos is a crucial component in this process. As Kaliada points out, taboos are not exclusive to authoritarian countries — though it might take some coaxing to locate them in more open societies. “When we went to France, and talked there and said let’s name all the taboo zones, they said ‘we don’t have [any]’. Yeah, right, of course you don’t. It took about three days . . . ”
Identifying subjects that inspire silence: this is the real work of the Theatre. Which, it should be noted, for many years maintained that it would continue its artistic project only until the situation in Belarus changed – until the regime went democratic. Kaliada has since, however, changed her mind. “We understood that every single country needs Belarus Free Theatre, even democratic ones.” She’s correct there: activism is in all senses easier to undertake in open societies, and as such is often a refuge for dilettantes, or an enervated form of the radicalism found, so to speak, at the point of a security officer’s gun. She has pointed to the group’s involvement with anti-fracking efforts in the U.K. and the fight against Petrobras in Brazil as examples of their activism within democracies. This, as a cursory glance at their global media footprint shows, is not a good strategy for winning the headline wars. It is — we’d argue — a much savvier play in the long game of social change.