Belarusians battle for artistic freedom

Picture the scenario: Sir Paul McCartney criticises a British prime minister. And in a couple of days, he’s banned from all concert halls and every other live venue across the country. His songs are barred from all radio stations, and he cannot even arrange a gig in a small club. When journalists call the venues and radio stations that refuse to put on the former Beatle, they get no quotes but are told off-the-record by the venue and station controllers that they’ve had phone calls from local-government bigwigs suggesting a choice: Drop Paul McCartney or the business closes…

Implausible? Yes. But it’s not far off what happens in Belarus, a country that is just outside the European Union and, geographically at least, in the centre of Europe.

The Belarus Free Theatre has a burgeoning international reputation, including in Britain, as one of the bastions of the country’s uncensored culture. It has consistently raised contemporary political and social issues through its creative work: political prisoners, disappearances of opposition leaders, oppression of dissent. Its supporters include Tom Stoppard, Kevin Spacey and Jude Law, and it is has been critically acclaimed for performances in Britain, the US, Australia and elsewhere. But in Belarus it’s almost impossible to see Free Theatre productions unless you’re one of the lucky few who knows and is trusted by one of its organisers and is invited to an almost-clandestine performance in a private home in the outskirts of Minsk (see their play Numbers below).

It is effectively banned, and the main reason is political, says its art director, Nicolai Khalezin.

“We have told the world about the fate of Belarus political prisoners, who have been put in jail after being framed-up. We gave the British news media a way into looking at Belarus and focusing on the links between British business and the Lukashenko regime.”

The Free Theatre is not alone in the Belarus cultural opposition. Rock music has always been a focus for protest. It started in the Soviet era, when the first rock bands of the perestroika period made their stand against communist rule. When independence came to Belarus in the early 90s, musicians turned from protesting to putting forward new ideas to inspire change and the building of a new country. Many emphasised themes of Belarusian national culture and history which had been long suppressed under the Russian empire and later the Soviet Union.

But under the rule of Alexander Lukashenko a new wave of Russification began. The first Belarus president changed the national symbols of the newly independent republic to the old Soviet coat-of-arms and flag, and the Belarusian language declined again, its proponents labelled “oppositional” by the regime.

Under Lukashenko, society and culture became increasingly polarised. In 2001 a rock concert took place in Minsk at which musicians protested against changes to the Belarus constitution to allow the president to stay in office for an unlimited number of terms. That was the last uncensored open-air concert in Minsk; the musicians who played found themselves denied radio airplay and started having difficulties organising concerts.

Aleh Khamenka, a leader of the folk-rock group Palac, says that the spirit of 2001 lives on.

“What we are doing is asserting a Belarusian, non-Soviet identity. We sing in Belarusian. We sing about what is ours, about what we love that is ours — our country, history and people. This approach contradicts the Soviet ideology that is based on total collectivism and neglecting the importance of individuality. We attract modern Belarusian youth and influence them. But the authorities are almost entirely people from the Soviet era. They see us as a threat, because they’re losing their leadership of public opinion to us.”

The authorities have maintained unofficial blacklists of musicians who are effectively banned form broadcasting and whose concerts are discouraged. There have been numerous occasions when a band’s gig in a club has been cancelled five minutes before it is scheduled to start after a phone call from local authorities. Among the acts that have been targeted are NRM, Krambambula, NeuroDubel, Palac and Krama, but at least two dozen bands have faced restrictions of one kind or another in the past ten years.

Liavon Volski, frontman of NRM and Krambambula, says he was really depressed when he first realised he was blacklisted. He stopped writing songs for almost three years.

“I got over it. My concerts are still cancelled in Belarus. It’s annoying, but the state’s interest in our work is a fact of life and part of the work. If you complain all the time and get desperate, you only harm your own health. What keeps me going in Belarus is the power of irony.”

The internet remains a critical free media platform in Belarus, not least because the state authorities have failed to find any means of controlling it — but otherwise Belarusian performing artists have to do their work abroad or in small clubs or private apartments, where small improvised concerts called kvaternik (kvaterameans “a flat” in Belarusian) are held.

The same problem applies to other creative activities. Authors that are at odds with Lukashenko’s policy soon fall out of favour — whether or not they have expressed political disagreements with the regime. One of Belarus’s most prominent national historians, Uladzimir Arlou, no longer gets mentioned in school textbooks after he argued for an independent European orientation for the country’s politics.

Visual artists too find themselves up against the authorities time and again. One group of artists, Pahonia, which takes its name from the traditional national coat-of-arms of Belarus that was dropped by Lukashenko, has faced repeated obstacles to mounting exhibitions that include paintings making allusions to past communist crimes or the authoritarianism of the current regime.

And if you’re blocked by the state, you don’t have a lot of independent outlets available. There are only a couple of private book publishing companies in Belarus, just a couple of private art galleries and no private theatres. Overall, about 80 per cent of the economy is state-run.

The last time blacklisting hit hard was during the 2010 presidential elections, when the rock band Liapis Trubetskoy released a song, “Don’t be a Beast”, that became an anthem for oppositionists whose protests against the authorities’ fixing of the elections was brutally suppressed. The band got no airplay on FM stations, but the video of the song on YouTube was viewed more than a million times.

And the lyrics … well, they’re a poem by Janka Kupala, a classic of the Belarusian literature, written 100 years ago, when Belarus was a part of the Russian empire. But its message is bang up-to-date for everyone in Belarus. The struggle for freedom continues.

Sieviaryn Kviatkouski is a Belarusian journalist, writer and blogger