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‘I wasn’t ready to be killed’: Belarus Free Theater prepares for UK performance

In August 2020, a leading figure of the Belarus Free Theatre, the renowned Minsk-based company, found himself in a stranglehold. “A police officer forced me to my knees and choked me [the crook of] her elbows,” says Svetlana Sugako. “I said, ‘Now you’re going to kill me and you’re going to live with it for the rest of your life.’ She was very angry because I had to sign a protocol [with falsified details] my arrest and I said, ‘I’m not going to sign it because it’s not true.’”

Sugako and her partner Nadia Brodskaya, the administrative figureheads of the Belarusian Free Theater, both in their early 30s, were arrested on the eve of the August 9 elections. There was much optimism that President Alexander Lukashenko would finally be voted out after 26 years. Because his despotic government shut down the internet, Sugako and Brodskaya were awaiting the results at a polling station in the capital’s largest public space when a police officer approached them and ordered them into a van.

They were taken to Okrestina, the notorious Belarusian KGB prison in the heart of Minsk. After being forced to stand in a corridor with many others for hours, they were separated and detained. “It was a horrible night of screaming and screaming,” Sugako recalls. The next day, she was one of 36 women crammed into a cell designed for four people.

“Inside was a toilet, a hole with a door. And all that smell. Because a lot of people have been very stressed, your body and stomach react and you can’t do anything. We spent three days there without water and food. It was very warm and the window only opened ten centimeters. I thought that’s it, I’m done – you couldn’t breathe.”

It’s only when I ask her about her release after five days that Sugako starts to cry. “They took us off this bank and released us to a completely different country. We have made a quantum leap. You had that feeling, him [Lukashenko] couldn’t survive the next year. Now, a year and a half later, it still has power and we were wrong.”

The Belarus Free Theater is making a belated return to the UK, where several of its previous productions have been celebrated. Dogs of Europe, which was set to run at the Barbican for three nights, was originally scheduled for May 2020 until the pandemic intervened. In the meantime everything has changed.

More broadly, there’s the Russian invasion of Ukraine, using troops partly based in Belarus, and the result of Sunday’s referendum amending the constitution, which will allow Belarus to relinquish its non-nuclear status and thus Russian nuclear warheads allowed on its territory. Just a day later, video surfaced of a Belarusian convoy gathering at the Ukrainian border. However, circumstances have already changed for the Belarus Free Theater: last fall, the entire company made the momentous decision to go into exile.

Nicolai Khalezin (centre) leads the rehearsals

(Kolya Kuprich)

“It wasn’t an overnight decision,” says Natalia Kaliada, who founded the company in 2005 with her husband Nikolai Khalezin. “We discussed moving for 12 years. We spoke to the actors a few times: ‘Should we get you all out of Belarus?’”

It was the election that finally changed minds. When I visited Minsk in September 2017, the canvas on which the company operated looked very different. While it had performed clandestinely in private homes for most of its history, the Belarus Free Theater made its home in a converted garage for two years. Shows were announced through VK, the Russian social media site, and Brodskaya took bookings through her phone. Beginners were told to gather outside a nearby supermarket, where they were picked up and escorted to the theater.

I went to three very different productions on three consecutive nights. There was no attempt to prevent these performances. Company members were only arrested when they protested disability rights and LGBT+ equality in public campaigns they described as “artivism”. A status quo that allowed the company to operate domestically and internationally rested on a Kafkaesque rationale. “Officially, we don’t exist here,” Sugako explained at the time. “It means they couldn’t close us because we weren’t open. You cannot close what is not open.”

Even the pandemic did not initially affect the company’s work. They were used to working online. Its founders had been forced into British exile in 2010 to avoid imprisonment, and Khalezin directed every production and presented every performance via Skype from London. But after the election, despite best efforts to password-protect email links for livestream shows, its digital footprint left the company more vulnerable to government surveillance.

Alexei Saprykin, who spent 15 days in prison in December 2020 after taking part in one of the post-election protests, decided to go into exile after seeing his name publicly mentioned as a person of interest. “It was a pretty complicated decision to leave,” he says. “Every day we woke up and read the news about people who had been mugged by the police – journalists, musicians, actors, civil rights activists. I understood that there would come a time when we could get the ‘knock knock who’s there’ from the police.”

Among the many egregious attacks on freedom of expression was the 11-year prison sentence handed down to flautist and leading political activist Maria Kalesnikava in September 2021, more than a year after her initial arrest. The following month, the entire Belarusian Free Theater troupe, some with family members, was smuggled out through secret channels.

Largely funded by two anonymous donors, one British, the other American, they spent a month in Ukraine. Kaliada and Khalezin arranged for her to have trauma therapy with a specialist who had helped soldiers with PTSD after serving in eastern Ukraine. The company moved on to Poland, where it began working with refugee children from Belarus. When they return later this month, they expect to continue with Ukrainian children.

Nicolai Khalezin and Natalia Kaliada

(John Sibley/Reuters/Forums)

rehearsals for Dogs of Europe took place on Three Mills Island, the network of studio spaces in east London. I happened to be there on Thursday February 24th, the day Russia invaded Ukraine. Several employees of the company – two composers, the co-executive director, the video animator – have family members in Ukraine. The mood was somber. A couple of actors performed in the cavernous rehearsal room, in front of a huge projected image of the Belarusian landscape. Those not rehearsing sat in corners scrolling their phones.

When I met her four and a half years ago, nobody was more effervescent than Marina Yakubovitch, a vivacious woman with short blonde hair who has come into exile with her husband and young son. “I’ve been thinking all morning about rehearsing and performing the show during a war,” she says. “And how can audiences get to the show during the war? And I gave myself an answer: That’s my job.”

Dogs of Europe is an adaptation of a banned dystopian novel by Belarusian writer Alhierd Baharevic, who left the country to work in spring 2020 but has not returned. Like most shows in the company’s history, it will indirectly comment on life in what has been described as Europe’s last dictatorship in the 1990s before the rise of Putin. “We need to understand why we did this show,” says Kaliada. “Everything that was considered dystopian in the book in 2049 is now happening in reality. We’re allowed to be angry, but we need to channel that anger into the best possible theater to shake up any politicians who will be attending the show.” Plans are to invite Liz Truss, but whether she will take the photo opportunity remains to be seen.

The past few weeks have given the world a rapid education in the geopolitics of Eastern Europe. Belarus’ plight risks drowning in the flood of news about Ukraine. It would help if a wider audience could be found for it couragean inspiring feature-length documentary about the 2020 election protests, focusing on members of the Belarus Free Theater including Marina Yakubovitch.

Meanwhile, the company is working on a show tentatively titled Gloomy Sunday, based on her own experiences in prison. The irony that it can only be created and performed outside of Belarus does not escape Svetlana Sugako.

“There was a time when I couldn’t talk about leaving the country without crying,” she says. “I was like, ‘No way, it’s my home, why the fuck would I go?’ Then I worked with a trauma therapist. You can bring attention to Belarus while you’re outside of prison, and you can do that means you have to be out of the country. That’s the only thing we can do: scream as loud as you can about the situation. I was ready to go back to prison, but they started killing people. And me wasn’t ready to be killed.”

Dogs of Europe takes place from March 10th to 12th at the Barbican in London

https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/theatre-dance/features/belarus-free-theatre-uk-russia-b2025075.html ‘I wasn’t ready to be killed’: Belarus Free Theater prepares for UK performance

Tom Vazquez

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