Magazine article American Theatre

Fomenting a Denim Revolution: The Guerilla Artists of Belarus Free Theatre Perform Underground While Arguing Openly for Regime Change

Magazine article American Theatre

Fomenting a Denim Revolution: The Guerilla Artists of Belarus Free Theatre Perform Underground While Arguing Openly for Regime Change

Article excerpt

72 percent of Belarusians find it difficult to define the word
Belarus holds 186th place out of 195 countries in the degree of
freedom of the press.
And is on the list of 13 countries--enemies of the Internet.
--from Numbers, the third part of Zone of Silence
by Belarus Free Theatre

BELARUSIANS TODAY LIVE IN A RUSSIFIED INDEPENDENT state called Belarus. If your GPS brain-unit simply draws a blank or if you feign recognition but dismiss the place as yet another inconsequential, archaic, East-European Slavonic post-Soviet satellite, then you have just demonstrated that Communism is having the last laugh.

You have also unintentionally suggested that the West lacks a clearcut ethical stance vis-a-vis the repression of young people, avant-garde artists, conscientious liberals and independent intellectuals struggling to survive in the undemocratic regimes of the post-Cold War world. The question has been asked too many times before: Why should the government of a modern European nation-state be afraid of a play, a performance, an audience--or of a small theatre collective?

Step inside the cold oblivion into which Belarus condescendingly gets assigned. Americans and Western Europeans picture Belarus as a black hole, a negative space hermetically sealed from the rest of the continent, ruled by an authoritarian who has clung firmly to power since 1994. The country's economy and information technology, especially its media, is almost entirely under state control. Its state-owned artistic institutions, we are told, remain frozen in the Soviet past. Anecdotal proof: Its security service is still called the KGB. Lenin's monument still stands proudly in central Minsk in front of the House of Government.

Unlike its European kin, many of whom have emerged as feisty democracies, Belarus failed to develop independently from Russia after formally becoming a republic in 1991. Because of its recent Soviet past and its complicated earlier history (World War II laid Minsk to waste), Belarus never made a sharp break with the past. The removal of the Communist Party from its political scene may have deprived the country of its driving force, but instead of building new state institutions based on the rule of law and adopting democratic procedures and a market economy, Belarus (along with Moldova and Ukraine, after a brief perestroika) inherited the dysfunctional essence, the corrupt practices (only mildly reformed) and ideological resilience of the Leninist mindset. (In Belarus, that flowering of openness and competition lasted from 1991 to 1994.) Although its 9.9 million inhabitants have attained the basic prerequisites to pursue their own destiny, in the understanding of those who advocate for political and social change, Belarusians remain meek and obedient and, from a Western standpoint, delegitimized--stuck in a Communist-era time warp. Orphaned by the collapse of the U.S.S.R, the country has actually lobbied for state reintegration with Russia in some form. The Belarusian language and specifically Belarusian aspects of history are shunted aside and discredited in public life. Under the regime of President Alexander Lukashenko, the country also bends to the will of what the international media likes to call "the last dictatorship in Europe."


This epithet (foisted first by the former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice) is sadly true. On the map of Europe, Lukashenko's Belarus remains of the last few places where free speech and assembly are considered criminal acts. Opposition activities and counterculture forces are frequently harassed and repressed. There have also been instances of politically motivated killings, kidnappings and disappearances. With a few exceptions, the names of relevant artists and cultural producers both at home and abroad have more or less been eliminated from the public discourse--in a figurative sense, they have disappeared. …

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