Tuesday

17th Sep 2019

Investigation

Belarus underground culture defies KGB goons

  • The Belarus Free Theater in Minsk - non-existant according to officials, but celebrated around the world (Photo: Nikolaj Nielsen)

Underground culture is flourishing in the heart of Belarus despite regime attempts to establish control.

In public, the residents of Minsk consume a cocktail of Western pop culture and lumbering propaganda: concert posters for rockers Megadeath and jazz-man Kenny G adorn city walls alongside notices of operatic-military stage performances in the country's National Theatre.

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Meanwhile, the likes of 27-year old Maryna Yurevich stage - illegaly - world-class plays in a tumble-down house in a north-Minsk suburb.

She belongs to the Belarus Free Theatre, which last year took first prize at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe for its play A Reply to Kathy Acker: Minsk 2011 about homophobia and prostitution. In Thessaloniki in 2008, the troupe took the European Theatre Prize.

"The Greek minister of culture called the Belarus ministry of culture to congratulate them ... Our ministry told the Greeks there is no such thing as the Belarus Free Theatre," Yurevich recalled.

Back in Belarus, Yurevich and her fellow artists risk arrest at the hands of the thick-necked and black-leather-jacket-clad brigades of the state security service, the KGB.

"When people come to see us perform, they bring their passports," Yurevich told EUobserver in a cafe in Minsk situated across the street from the KGB headquarters.

They bring their passports because if they are snatched by police, formalities for getting released go more quickly. Three years ago, the KGB descended en masse and arrested everyone at its theatre-cum-house, including audience members. Six actors now live in exile in London.

Inside the home of the Belarus Free Theatre, the roof looks like it is collapsing at one end. The performers knocked out a wall to make a big open space. About 60 people can fit in, most of whom sit on the floor. Performances are free but audiences give donations.

In the back, a small shack is used to stage plays in summer. Yurevich says nobody lives in the house, except two rats who constantly eat through wires.

Yurevich graduated from the Belarus state university of culture and arts in 2007. She found her first acting gig in the Belarus military theatre but could not stomach the constant World War II re-enactments. The troupe used to tour provincial army bases where she danced to hip-hop in front of bored cadets.

The military theatre director, Alexey Dudarov, wrote four plays about the war. Yurevich described them as "horrible" but nobody dared say it out loud. Dudarov also directed a fifth play - Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet - which barely got past KGB censors, who said it was against Belarusian "values."

'We are all free here!'

For his part, Lukashenko introduced a blacklist of artists and musicians in the crackdown after his own piece of political theatre - his fraudulent 're-election' on 19 December 2010.

The Belarus Free Theatre is on it but so are dozens of other artists, including singer and writer Lavon Volski, who is banned from giving public performances. "The first time we were banned we became depressed. Now it's normal," he told this reporter in November. His songs have since become the unofficial anthems of the fragmented opposition.

Elsewhere, young people organise clandestine shows in private homes, in cellars - anywhere away from the eyes of the KGB.

In October last year, this reporter attended one event in the attic of a house in a Minsk suburb. Headlining the show was popular hip-hop group, Vinsent. The band, headed by a 22-year-old front man, raps in Belarusian while kids as young as 15 in the audience throw around the banned white-red-white Belarusian opposition flag.

"We are all free here!" Vinsent yelled in Belarusian before dimming the lights. People went nuts when the music began.

EU ambassadors trickle back to Minsk

All EU ambassadors are returning to Minsk in a bid to improve deteriorating relations with Belarus dictator Alexander Lukashenko, in power for the past 18 years.

'Lukashenko put cucumbers in my trunk'

Belarus' former leader - Stanislav Shushkevich - says Lukashenko is an "arse-kisser" whose power will wane if the EU imposes economic sanctions.

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