On January 3, 2011, troops in Belarus surrounded the international airport in Minsk, from where a group of theatre artistes was to travel to the US. Natalia Kaliada and Nikolai Khalezin, founders of the company, Belarus Free Theatre (BFT), had been arrested and warned several times for creating works critical of President Alexander Lukashenko yet their new production, Being Harold Pinter, featuring testimonies of political prisoners, was scheduled to be performed in New York. All the president’s men were at the airport to stop the duo but they never showed up to collect their boarding passes. “We had left two days before. We were smuggled out of the country in an operation that involved three types of transportation. It was 20 minutes past midnight, as revellers celebrated the passing of 2010 into 2011, when I saw Belarus for the last time,” says Kaliada.
BFT is one of the most wanted theatre groups in the world, the only one in Europe banned on political grounds. Kaliada and Khalezin have been declared enemies of the state on national television, accused of spreading public disorder and now live in exile in London. “The notion of artists struggling against an oppressive state is always inspiring . . . But theatre professionals also praise BFT for consistently producing work that is moving and powerful, and not agitprop,” said Larry Rohter in The New York Times in 2011.
BFT, which celebrates its 15th anniversary this year, has created 46 plays that have been performed in over 40 countries to five-star reviews by prominent critics. In Belarus, attending their shows is illegal but the group performs every single day of the year in secret locations such as warehouses, cafes, private homes and forests, with a 50-seat venue selling out in less than half-hour. Their admirers include British playwright Tom Stoppard, former Czech president and playwright Vaclav Havel and Harold Pinter. “Our plays are about peaceful resistance because we are deeply inspired by the philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi,” says Kaliada.
The philosophy of non-violence is integral to Belarus, whose brutal past bleeds into every family history. More than a quarter of the population was decimated by the Nazis and mass murders continued under Joseph Stalin. The fall of the Soviet Union in 1988 brought a few years of freedom before Lukashenko, elected president in 1994, turned Belarus into “the last true dictatorship in central Europe”. Today, cities, towns and even small villages in Belarus have risen against Lukashenko through peaceful marches. The protesters allege that the August 9 election was rigged to ensure that the president, who has been in power for 26 years, stays on. In the capital, Minsk, almost 7,000 people were detained on the first day. Since then, thousands of people, especially women and students, have been marching as riot police greet them with water cannons, prison vans and rubber pellets. As protests continued for the second month, Kaliada took time out for a Zoom interview from a secret address in London. Excerpts:
What price have you paid for dissent?
My younger daughter was three when police came to our home and she asked them, ‘Have you come to arrest my mum?’ She is 20 now and she is still afraid when somebody knocks at the door. I tell her, ‘You are in London now and all this happened in your childhood. We have been trying to create an illusion of safety while we are living a nightmare.’ She said, ‘I can’t help it. I remember every single KGB raid and all the police raids.’ I know that fear is now a part of her life.
How did you come into theatre?
My family is from theatre and I wanted to become an actor. But my father, Andrei, was president of the Belarusian State Academy of Arts and he said he could not let me in because people would think it was corruption. My father’s sense of ethics was unbelievable. I worked as a diplomat but found my way into theatre to resist the dictatorship of Lukashenko. My husband (Khalezin), who was a famous journalist and editor-in-chief of three major newspapers, and I were among those who decided to establish BFT.
How do you combine art with activism?
We didn’t have money, only the bodies of actors. So, it was necessary to understand what actors could tell with their bodies to the audience. We create spaces for different forms of art such as multimedia, music and photography as well as economy and politics. We need to make our audience think, because when people are able to think for themselves and not what politicians want them to think, they become strong enough to provoke regimes.
Do you run the risk of your stories becoming too localised in Minsk?
Most of our shows are not only about Belarus but about the world. The plays deal with refugees, climate change and death penalty but we use Belarus as an entry point. We travelled to illegal refugee camps in Morocco before the European refugee crisis happened and created a show titled Red Forest (2014), about a girl who is forced to flee her village and give birth to her baby in the Sahara. Young critics loved it but older reviewers said, “This is far-fetched. The refugee crisis will never come to us.’ Politicians never immerse themselves in people’s conditions, that is why they do not understand or feel the reality. Artists are the best x-ray machines of society because we scan it without any political agenda.
Did the pandemic impact your plays?
We say that we were the first theatre group to rely on the internet to direct and create art. Since my husband and I are in London and our 12-member troupe is in Minsk, we create and rehearse shows over Skype and Zoom. In June and July, we presented a new show, A School for Fools, based on an experimental novella by Sasha Sokolov (one of the most important 20th century Russian writers). It was broadcast live, with actors in Minsk performing in their bathrooms, kitchens and bedrooms.
What do you feel about the rise of the strongman leader across the world?
Since 2005, we have been warning the world that if one dictator is not stopped, another, more sophisticated one will come up. What we are seeing is that in different countries, dictators use the democratic systems of the government but with autocratic resolve. Dictatorship is contagious. If Trump continues to stay in power, it will be a big disaster, not only for the US but the world at large.
What are the signs of a democratically-elected regime turning fascist?
I was a teenager when the Soviet Union collapsed. It was an exciting time, as businesses started to develop and there was a lot of support for the arts. When I graduated from university, Lukashenko was in power. Let me illustrate what changed with an example. When my daughter was very young, we went to a bookstore where there was a portrait of Lukashenko. We knew him as a person who had arranged the execution of businessman Anatoly Krasovsky, whose body was never found. My daughter said, ‘Why is there a portrait of a man who killed Anatoly?’ The whole bookstore looked at me and I thought they would tear me apart. Suddenly, an elderly woman looked at us and said, ‘At least a child tells the truth.’
With unprecedented protests in Belarus, do you see an end to your struggle?
My sister and I have been practising sahaja yoga since I was 16. She would always say, ‘Be in the present and not in the past or the future.’ In the protests in Belarus, our solution is to stay in the present. When the future comes, we will respond accordingly.
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