‘We are in limbo’: banned Belarus theatre troupe forced into exile

For 16 years, the Belarus Free Theatre has advocated for freedom of expression, equality and democracy through underground performances from ad hoc locations to audiences hungry for an alternative voice to the country’s repressive dictator, Alexander Lukashenko.

Now the banned company has taken the momentous decision to relocate outside Belarus, saying the risk of reprisals against its members is too great for it to continue its cultural resistance under the Lukashenko regime.

Sixteen members of the BFT ensemble in London rehearsing for a production at the Barbican next year, plus another nine family members, have decided they cannot return home for the foreseeable future. The BFT is the only theatre company in Europe to be prohibited on political grounds.

Its new base has not been established, but Poland and other eastern European countries are being considered. The troupe has ruled out applying for asylum in the UK as its members would be barred from working during the process, which could take more than a year.

Several members of the BFT were 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 forced into exile in 2011.

Kaliada said it was unprecedented in 2021 for a theatre company to be forced to relocate out of a European country “for fear of persecution and torture”. She added: “It is a disgrace that we allow not just artistic freedoms but basic human freedoms to be absolutely disregarded in a country that is a three-hour flight from London.

“The sheer existence of Belarus Free Theatre and our continued work, despite repression, is the greatest threat to dictatorship – the will of the people to continue telling the truth is the greatest show of power imaginable.”

As the regime cracked down forcefully against protests after the disputed 2020 election, “it became clear we needed to get our team out of the country”, said Kaliada. “There was very severe repression and people being arrested every day.”

The members of the company left Minsk in October, taking different forms of transport. Some were smuggled out of the country, she said. All left parents and other loved ones, and brought nothing apart from clothing and small personal items. “It is very painful for them to leave their families, and they have feelings 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 were granted six-month artists’ visas, which expire after their production of Dogs of Europe, a dystopian thriller, ends its run at the Barbican in March. In the meantime, the company will travel to Poland later this month where they have been offered accommodation, and return to the UK in February. “We are in limbo,” said Kaliada.

Svetlana Sugako, the BFT’s managing director, was one of those arrested in August 2020. She was held for five days, along with 35 others crammed into a cell meant for four people.

“There was no air, for three days we had no food, and we had to drink dirty water. I could hear people screaming and shouting as they were beaten. You don’t know how or where it will finish,” she said. “I didn’t want to leave Belarus, but I had no choice. The future is unclear, but I’m alive.”

Lukashenko’s crackdown on dissent has ripped through the Belarusian arts community, leading to purges at state cultural institutions and driving hundreds of writers, actors, painters, musicians and others into exile.

“There were a huge number of creative people working in the context of protest,” said Khalezin, a founding member of the independent Belarusian Council for Culture. “People of art were among the first cast into Lukshenko’s cauldron of repression.” He said the number of people involved in the arts jailed in connection with the protests rivalled that of other at-risk groups such as journalists and human rights workers.

Belarusian security services have made it nearly impossible for independent artists to continue working in the country. One Minsk-based visual artist said she had abandoned a shared studio space after police began visiting her at home this year in connection with the protests. She asked a friend to retrieve and hide her paintings and other artworks because she was afraid they could be confiscated or destroyed.

Kaliada and Khalezin of Belarus Free Theatre pose in their apartment in London.
Natalia Kaliada and Nikolai Khalezin in their apartment in London. Photograph: John Sibley/Reuters

Vlad Kobets of the Belarusian Solidarity Centre, a non-profit group in Warsaw connected to the BFT, said the troupe’s expected arrival there in mid-December was part of a tide of prominent cultural figures choosing to live away from Belarus due to their opposition to the government.

“These people of culture … are often young people, the generation that is the driver of the protest,” said Kobets, pointing to other recent émigrés such as the opera singer Margarita Levchuk. The exodus had exposed the cultural impoverishment of the Lukashenko government, he added. “You can’t build a country on nightsticks alone.”

The BFT has streamed many of its productions outside Belarus to audiences inside the country, and has clandestinely performed in residential courtyards, warehouses and garages in Minsk.

“We know we are stronger than the regime,” said Kaliada. “The authorities are more scared of artists than of political statements. Everyone believes that things will change in Belarus, but for now the company needs to be safe.

“We ask the UK public to stand in solidarity with us at this most critical time in our history. Solidarity is crucial for our survival.” The company 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 Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office had been very supportive, Kaliada said.

Will Gompertz, artistic director of the Barbican, said: “We are delighted to be working with our friends at Belarus Free Theatre and to be able to give the company a platform for their important work at this difficult time.”

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