(Kelly Burke’s article appeared in the Guardian, 2/26/23; Photo: … Nicolai Khalezin and Natalia Kaliada of Belarus Free Theatre in London. Photograph: John Sibley/Reuters.)
Belarus Free Theatre currently face years in prison if they return home. Now living in exile, they’re bringing their show Dogs of Europe to Australia
Long before the pandemic, working over video calls was completely normal for husband-and-wife team Natalia Kaliada and Nicolai Khalezin. The founders of Belarus Free Theatre, who arrive in Australia soon to put on the production Dogs of Europe at Adelaide festival, have worked under extreme conditions since the company’s birth in 2005.
Then, the repressive regime of Alexander Lukashenko had already been in power for 11 years. Performing arts companies were owned by the Belarusian government; artistic directors appointed by the country’s ministry of culture. From the moment it was created, Belarus Free Theatre was an illegal entity.
‘Today there are more artists in jail in Belarus than journalists and human rights defenders’ … Nicolai Khalezin and Natalia Kaliada of Belarus Free Theatre in London. Photograph: John Sibley/Reuters
Kaliada and Khalezin directed their actors remotely using Skype and a network of CCTV cameras, installed in a secret rehearsal room. To attend a performance, the phone number of a theatre administrator would be quietly circulated by word of mouth.
A meeting point would be arranged and the audience would proceed to the secret venue – a private apartment, a vacant warehouses, sometimes a forest – that would be constantly changed to elude authorities.
Audience members were told to bring along their passports: if the performance was raided by special forces, being able to easily prove your identity meant less time in a cell.
In October 2021 Belarus Free Theatre’s actors, directors and audience were all arrested. Released pending a trial, most were facing a prison sentence of up to eight years. The company fled to Ukraine using a border resistance network. When Russia declared war on Ukraine in February 2022, the company crossed the border to Poland.
“Now we are all in different locations, but nobody can go back to Belarus,” Kaliada says from London. “We all face jail. Today there are more artists in jail in Belarus than journalists and human rights defenders.”
According to Pen International, almost 600 writers, artists and cultural workers alone were targeted by armed forces in the aftermath of the 2020 election that reasserted Lukashenko’s dictatorship. Pen estimates that almost one in 10 political prisoners held in Belarusian prisons, as of 2021, are citizens working in the cultural sphere, found guilty of charges such as “extremism” and “petty hooliganism”.
Kaliada now accepts that she, her husband and the dozen or so actors and technicians that make up the permanent company, likely face permanent exile from their home country. Belarus’s collusion with Russia in the invasion of Ukraine has only cemented that belief.
A single production of Dogs of Europe would mean facing a maximum eight-year prison sentence for those involved if staged in Belarus. Copies of the 1,000-page novel by Alhierd Baharevich, upon which the play is based, were seized by the regime when published in 2017. Notwithstanding its political content, the book is written in the Belarusian language; myriad ethnic languages and cultures within the broad sweep of the Soviet Union were stamped out and the Russification of Belarus has continued under Lukashenko. His regime has overseen a renewed crackdown on booksellers and publishing houses specialising in Belarusian language publications, likely to appease the Kremlin.