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Belarus theatre group in exile: ‘We are stronger than the regime’ | Belarus

For 16 years, the Belarus Free Theatre has advocated for freedom of expression, equality and democracy by underground performances from advert hoc areas to audiences hungry for an alternate voice to the nation’s repressive dictator, Alexander Lukashenko.

Now the banned firm has taken the momentous determination to relocate outdoors Belarus, saying the danger of reprisals in opposition to its members is just too nice for it to proceed its cultural resistance underneath the Lukashenko regime.

Sixteen members of the BFT ensemble in London rehearsing for a manufacturing at the Barbican subsequent yr, plus one other 9 members of the family, have determined they can not return residence for the foreseeable future. The BFT is the solely theatre firm in Europe to be prohibited on political grounds.

Its new base has not been established, however Poland and different jap European nations are being thought of. The troupe has dominated out making use of for asylum in the UK as its members can be barred from working throughout the course of, which may take extra than a yr.

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A number of members of the BFT had been imprisoned amid widespread protests after Lukashenko declared victory in flawed elections in August 2020. The theatre group’s co-founders, Natalia Kaliada and Nikolai Khalezin, have lived in London since being pressured into exile in 2011.

Kaliada mentioned it was unprecedented in 2021 for a theatre firm to be pressured to relocate out of a European nation “for concern of persecution and torture”. She added: “It’s a shame that we permit not simply creative freedoms however primary human freedoms to be completely disregarded in a rustic that could be a three-hour flight from London.

“The sheer existence of Belarus Free Theatre and our continued work, regardless of repression, is the biggest risk to dictatorship – the will of the individuals to proceed telling the reality is the biggest present of energy conceivable.”

As the regime cracked down forcefully in opposition to protests after the disputed 2020 election, “it turned clear we would have liked to get our group out of the nation”, mentioned Kaliada. “There was very extreme repression and folks being arrested day-after-day.”

The members of the firm left Minsk in October, taking totally different types of transport. Some had been smuggled out of the nation, she mentioned. All left mother and father and different family members, and introduced nothing other than clothes and small private objects. “It is extremely painful for them to depart their households, they usually have emotions of guilt,” Kaliada added.

Oleg Sidorchik in Being Harold Pinter by Belarus Free Theatre at Soho Theatre in London in 2008
Oleg Sidorchik in Being Harold Pinter by Belarus Free Theatre at Soho Theatre in London in 2008. {Photograph}: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Members of the BFT had been granted six-month artists’ visas, which expire after their manufacturing of Canines of Europe, a dystopian thriller, ends its run at the Barbican in March. In the meantime, the firm will journey to Poland later this month the place they’ve been supplied lodging, and return to the UK in February. “We are in limbo,” mentioned Kaliada.

Svetlana Sugako, the BFT’s managing director, was a kind of arrested in August 2020. She was held for 5 days, together with 35 others crammed right into a cell meant for 4 individuals.

“There was no air, for 3 days we had no meals, and we needed to drink soiled water. I may hear individuals screaming and shouting as they had been crushed. You don’t know the way or the place it is going to end,” she mentioned. “I didn’t wish to depart Belarus, however I had no selection. The longer term is unclear, however I’m alive.”

Lukashenko’s crackdown on dissent has ripped by the Belarusian arts neighborhood, resulting in purges at state cultural establishments and driving tons of of writers, actors, painters, musicians and others into exile.

“There have been an enormous variety of artistic individuals working in the context of protest,” mentioned Khalezin, a founding member of the impartial Belarusian Council for Tradition. “Folks of artwork had been amongst the first solid into Lukshenko’s cauldron of repression.” He mentioned the variety of individuals concerned in the arts jailed in reference to the protests rivalled that of different at-risk teams corresponding to journalists and human rights staff.

Belarusian safety providers have made it almost not possible for impartial artists to proceed working in the nation. One Minsk-based visible artist mentioned she had deserted a shared studio area after police started visiting her at residence this yr in reference to the protests. She requested a good friend to retrieve and conceal her work and different artworks as a result of she was afraid they could possibly be confiscated or destroyed.

Vlad Kobets of the Belarusian Solidarity Centre, a non-profit group in Warsaw related to the BFT, mentioned the troupe’s anticipated arrival there in mid-December was a part of a tide of outstanding cultural figures selecting to dwell away from Belarus as a result of their opposition to the authorities.

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“These individuals of tradition … are typically younger individuals, the era that’s the driver of the protest,” mentioned Kobets, pointing to different latest émigrés corresponding to the opera singer Margarita Levchuk. The exodus had uncovered the cultural impoverishment of the Lukashenko authorities, he added. “You possibly can’t construct a rustic on nightsticks alone.”

The BFT has streamed a lot of its productions outdoors Belarus to audiences inside the nation, and has clandestinely carried out in residential courtyards, warehouses and garages in Minsk.

“We all know we are stronger than the regime,” mentioned Kaliada. “The authorities are extra petrified of artists than of political statements. Everybody believes that issues will change in Belarus, however for now the firm must be secure.

“We ask the UK public to face in solidarity with us at this most important time in our historical past. Solidarity is essential for our survival.” The corporate is appealing for donations.

The award-winning BFT’s patrons and supporters have included Václav Havel, the Czech playwright, dissident and president who died in 2011; the late Nobel laureate Harold Pinter; the Czech-born playwright Tom Stoppard; the actors Jeremy Irons and Kim Cattrall; and the Pink Floyd guitarist and vocalist David Gilmour.

The UK International, Commonwealth and Improvement Workplace had been very supportive, Kaliada mentioned.

Will Gompertz, the Barbican’s joint interim managing director, mentioned: “We are delighted to be working with our pals at Belarus Free Theatre and to have the ability to give the firm a platform for his or her essential work at this tough time.”

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