If you’d told me in the spring of 2006 – after Alexander Lukashenko’s latest election fix, in the face of vigorous street protest and EU and U.S. condemnation – that six years later I would be watching the Belarus Free Theatre perform in international exile, I would have been dispirited, to say the least. Looking back, those years have been hard and barren times for the Belarusian opposition. Beaten by Lukashenko’s security state, but also weakened by the President’s own troubles – from the Russian war with Georgia in 2008 and an energy dispute with Putin, to the global financial crash and the Minsk subway bombing – its leaders have been dispersed, incarcerated or co-opted. The defiance and street camaraderie of 2001, 2006 and 2010 has been neutralised, if not totally silenced. Some have chosen the easy option and turned to Moscow; others, like the Theatre, have been forced out and gone West.
Minsk 2011 – a Reply to Kathy Acker is BFT’s hastily devised British debut and it is fully charged with an angry emotional thrust, focussed on the melancholy fate of Minsk and the longing for home. The BFT do symbolic violence to their home city as it exists today, under the conservative domination of Lukashenko, through sex in its most outré and hypocritical forms, echoing Acker. Only the political context makes this performance at all radical or stirring — but that is some context. The undertone reveals it: this is not just provocation, it is also an elegy. Despite the conditions at home, BFT did not choose life on the road or the disconnection and loneliness of exile: they would have chosen the danger and dreariness of Minsk over wandering appeals to foreign audiences, however temporarily sympathetic. This is the hard route and in some ways the hardest – even if Lukashenko’s KGB is now running the nastiest political prison in Europe from its central Minsk headquarters. The exiles can be the most despised – alienated and mocked from both sides, doubly dislocated. (Just ask the Iraqis.)
So something, or somebody, raised the stakes.
We’ll twist their heads off as if they were ducklings.
Lukashenko, referring to protesters in October Square, March 2006
After Lukashenko’s 2006 re-election – conducted against the glowing hues of Rose, Orange and Tulip– the badly-organised and poorly-resourced Denim Revolution did not really need to be crushed. Compromised and broken by internal discord, KGB infiltration and basic incompetence, the movement ended after relatively limited assaults from Lukashenko’s security squads. Everything was misjudged: even the attempt at Orange-style branding was a fatal miscalculation. As Andrew Wilson noted in his recent, essential study Belarus – the Last European Dictatorship: “denim was an invisible brand. When the international media did eventually show pictures of post-election demonstrations, they just showed a lot of people dressed in denim, like normal Eastern Europeans, or most crowds anywhere.” Yet, for that short period, the opposition and the young activists seemed to be pushing against an open door. Even at such a desperate and disappointing moment there was optimism and satire in abundance — sporadic street demos, jamborees, satirical masques and absurdist stunts rippled on for days. Free Belarus graffiti appeared, fresh paint dripping, across the country, while Zubr activists published satirical bulletins and circulated lists of political prisoners. There was a sense of momentum, if only for a short moment, a defiant humour that was hard-edged, chaotic, creative, until it was, suddenly, shut down and locked away forever.
Meanwhile, the EU added fresh flesh to Bush’s Belarus Democracy Act of 2004 by imposing visa bans on regime officials, including those involved in the 2001 “disappearances” of opposition activists and journalists. Lukashenko actually vanished for a funny fortnight after the election, only to resurface at his own morose inauguration ceremony, flanked by a visibly contemptuous Putin. People began talking about a booze-fueled mental breakdown or cardiac arrest, although the juiciest gossip had come from the offices of the weird Russophile, provocateur and Social-Democratic candidate, Aliaksandr Kazulin. All these rumours turned out to be false. Lukashenko was physically healthier and politically stronger than his opponents wanted to believe. He was hiding out, playing with ice-hockey pucks. He would survive another term and another election with brutality, cunning and breathtaking good fortune. The 2010 election was engineered and stolen two months before the Arab Spring that consumed the last secular authoritarians of the Middle East – an event that would have drastically changed the dynamic for Lukashenko, as the Colour Revolutions threatened to do in 2004-6.
BFT formed in the midst of this hard and bleak third term – when the opposition was broken or incarcerated and during a period of Russian aggression and energy conflicts. Tension mounted following mass arrests after Lukashenko’s fourth term message and in the wake of the Minsk subway bomb. This was a time of external threat and internal aggression and BFT wear the scars of this period. During the most effective sequence in their production, the Minsk bomb scatters ash across the stage; this turns to snow as it descends, covering a glowing red floor. This is the prelude to a quiet and simple paean to the city in which they belong but have been forced to leave. But this is not despair: they want to go home because they want to repair it. Like their comrades in the post-06 opposition rallies who took to the streets with masques and stunts, they have seen enough of Lukashenko’s brutal, fraudulent dictatorship. He has retained order and loyalty in rural heartlands with Russian contracts that cannot be sustained; KGB-enforced chauvinism and conformism; and a posturing foreign policy that now unites Belarus with North Korea, Iran and Venezuela. Belarus, like Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova, is a jagged fault line on the edge of Europe and is intimately tied to the fate of the continent.
While Viktor Yanukovych and Lukashsenko enjoyed the Euro 2012 final together in Kiev, Yulia Tymoshenko remained ill in her jail cell and the Belarus Free Theatre continued their impassioned and inspiring slog around the United Kingdom. Not enough people noticed any of this, or understood how it will define their futures. As the young Belarusians told their story on British stages, watched by tiny audiences, they brought with them a message about security and freedom – of Belarus, Europe and the world.