(Harriet Sherwood and Andrew Roth in Moscow—their article appeared in the Guardian, 12/6; Photo: Some of the 16 Belarus Free Theatre members currently in London rehearsing for a production. Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian.)
Members of Belarus Free Theatre say authorities ‘are more scared of artists than of political statements’
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.