Pavel Latushko was one of the important figures in Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko’s government. He had been the ambassador to Poland, France and Spain, the country’s culture minister as well as the spokesman of the foreign ministry.
In 2019, he was appointed General Director of one of the country’s most prestigious cultural institutions — the Yanka Kupala National Academic Theatre. He was at his post when protests broke out in Belarus in August 9, with people loudly demanding that Lukashenko step down as President. They alleged the presidential elections had been rigged to ensure that Lukashenko, who has been in power for 26 years, stays on.
What Latushko did next surprised many — he joined the movement. “In the life of every person there comes a line that cannot be crossed. That moment came for me when I saw people coming out of prisons, talking about the violence against them. I became ashamed. I considered it my moral duty to express my position,” he told Reuters. The government sacked Latushko — leading to a flurry of resignations from his troupe of actors.
Elsewhere in Minsk, Vladimir Petrovich, Chief Director of the Mogilev Theatre, was arrested, beaten up and put in prison. Svetlana Sugako of the Belarus Free Theatre found herself in prison on the outskirts of Minsk. The police had also picked up her colleague Nadia Brodskaya and an actor with the theatre group, Daria Andreyanova. They were locked up for five days.
How political is the theatre of Belarus?
Almost all the theatres in Belarus have been owned by the state since the country was a part of the Soviet Union. Appointments to managerial positions are made by the Ministry of Culture and political activity is disallowed and punished.
Nonetheless, many of these theatres have often put up political content opposed to Lukashenko’s policies, such as Hangmen, British-Irish playwright Martin McDonagh’s complex take on capital punishment. Belarus is the only country in Europe where death penalty is still practised and the play was seen as a critique of it.
Other productions talked of national identity, resistance and national revival through gripping stories and ample metaphors. Now, more than 20 state theatres have come out in support of the protestors. Their performers have sent out recorded messages calling for re-election and slamming the violence inflicted on protesters by government forces.
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How do guerrilla theatre groups function?
Belarus also has a section of non-conformist groups, such as Belarus Free Theatre (BFT) and the Contemporary Art Theatre, as well as independent performers, playwrights, directors and composers, who support free speech and expression. BFT is a leading guerrilla theatre group that has been fighting Lukashenko’s dictatorship for more than 15 years through their theatre.
Two of its founders, Natalia Kaliada and Nicolai Khalezin, were in New York for a show in 2011 when they heard themselves declared public enemies on the national television of Belarus. They did not return to their country and now live in exile in the UK. BFT’s theatre has not stopped.
The directors work with actors in Belarus over Skype and social media platforms. Shows are held surreptitiously in a variety of spaces, from garages and warehouses to private homes, coffee shops and forests.
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BFT calls its audiences “brave” because they form a secret group. Venues are announced only a while before a show, the group accepts donation as they cannot charge tickets and, at least once, the audience has assembled under the pretence that they were at a wedding. Even applause is silent, and is seen as a form of protest amid fears that the post-Soviet KGB agents are everywhere in civilian clothes.
BFT’s new show is Dogs of Europe, based on a futuristic novel in which a man arrives in former Belarus and Russia — now a single European territory— that is ruled by the secret service in which individual liberties have ceded to state control. The horror of the story is not how such a dystopia came to be but how much the protagonist was responsible for creating it.
How has the government responded?
After Latushko was sacked, KGB agents allegedly overran the Yanka Kupala National Academic Theatre and prevented people from coming in. Performers fled the green-rooms, leaving behind their personal belongings. When Culture Minister Yury Bondar arrived, he was met with a crowd of hundreds of protesters.
The 19th century Yanka Kupala National Academic Theatre, the oldest theatre in Minsk, is covered with red-and-white opposition flags and turned into one of the hotbeds of the protest. On the one hand is a Culture Minister who announces that he would not allow the theatre to become a political club and, on the other, are common people who are chanting lines from well-known plays and poems by way of dissent.