Belarus Free theatre’s rebel troupes stand up to the Lukashenko regime

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In the 15 years of its existence, the Belarus Free theatre has never had an ordinary season, being forced to perform in makeshift locations as it eked out a clandestine existence under Alexander Lukashenko’s authoritarian rule.

But the season due to start in a couple of weeks is the most uncertain yet, as massive protests against Lukashenko’s continued rule rock the country. Will the theatre, which has won increasing acclaim on tours abroad but puts on plays in a garage when in Minsk, finally be performing in a new, democratic Belarus? Or will Lukashenko launch a fresh crackdown that makes things even more unbearable for the arts?

Already, several members of the theatre have found themselves at the heart of the repression that followed the aftermath of Lukashenko’s declaration of victory in a flawed election three weeks ago.

Svetlana Sugako, one of the theatre’s administrators, was meant to spend much of August preparing for a planned tour to New York. That, along with a run at London’s Barbican earlier in the year, was postponed due to Covid, and instead, she spent five days in August in prison, caught up in a crackdown in which about 7,000 people were detained.

Sugako, her girlfriend and fellow BFT administrator Nadia Brodskaya and actor Daria Andreyanova were all arrested on 9 August, the night of the elections, while standing outside a polling station shortly after voting closed.

“I was just sitting there. I saw police vans drive up, but I thought they were getting ready for the evening, so I just stayed where I was, and then after a while, they just came up to us and arrested us,” she said in an interview a few days after her release, still visibly shaken from the experience.

They were taken to the notorious prison on Okrestina Street on the outskirts of Minsk, where 36 women were crammed into a cell meant for four people. The air was hot and suffocating. At night, they could hear the sound of screams from the courtyard, as male detainees were brought to the prison and ritually abused, beaten with fists and batons. Investigators demanded they sign pro forma confessions filled with incorrect details about where and how they were detained.

During those days, actors from the theatre waited outside the prison, anxiously hoping for news of their colleagues along with hundreds of other tearful, worried relatives trying to get information about those who had gone missing after being arrested.

Sugako and Brodskaya were released after five days, and the vast majority of detainees are also now free, but the violence of those days helped swell the protest movement further.

“It’s an existential crisis for Lukashenko, he just can’t win back support, he can’t be reanimated as a politician. He will have to go, but the question is how long it could take,” said Nikolai Khalezin, one of the theatre’s co-founders together with his wife, Natalia Kaliada. The pair have lived in London since they were forced into exile in 2011.

In a hypothetical new and free Belarus, Khalezin and Kaliada have plans to set up a new theatre space in Minsk that could serve as a platform for international companies to visit and perform, as well as finally giving the BFT its own space in its home city.

Up to now, the theatre has used a variety of informal spaces, including an abandoned warehouse and a garage with room for 70 spectators. Often, landlords asked them to move on after being pressured by authorities. Due to its lack of official registration, the theatre is unable to sell tickets, instead relying on donations. On tours abroad, the theatre has won admiration from actors and directors, giving it a number of high-profile backers.

The postponed London and New York tours were of a new show called Dogs of Europe, set in an anti-intellectual dystopia in the near future. “It was meant to be a warning shot to Europeans and Americans that if you don’t act now in terms of protection of your rights, then you will live the life that Belarusians have been living for the last 26 years,” said Kaliada.

As the mood of protest inside Belarus has spread to ever broader sections of society in recent weeks, the country’s most famous state theatre, the Janka Kupala, has also got caught up in the unrest. The theatre’s director, Pavel Latushko, a former culture minister, gave a supportive address to one of the protest rallies and was promptly fired, leading to the theatre’s entire troupe tendering their resignations. Latushko has gone on to become one of seven leaders of a coordination council that wants to oversee a transition of power.

Sugako said she welcomed the move from the actors, but wondered why it had taken so long. “It’s great that you’ve started protesting now, but why did you have to wait for everything to get this bad before standing up for your rights? Where have you been all these years?”

Khalezin said he understood the theatre’s actors and was pleased that they had found the courage to make a stand, but noted that some of the harshest repression against the Belarus Free theatre came between 2009 and 2012, when Latushko was culture minister. “He understood perfectly where he was working and whom he was working for,” he said.

However, the fact that someone like Latushko has joined the protest movement, along with factory representatives and others who previously would have been bastions of support for Lukashenko, shows how quickly things have changed in Belarus, from previous years when only a small hardcore of opposition supporters would dare to make a public stand against the regime.

For Sugako, it was a strange experience to have this cardinal shift in the national mindset happen during the days she was in prison.

“We went into jail in one country and came out into another. We understood that there was support for those detained, but we had no idea of the scale. When I saw the crowds of people with red and white flags, I just burst into tears, it was so unbelievable.”