Category Archives: Belarus

EXILED EXPRESSION: A RUSSIAN STREET ARTIST’S DEFIANT POLITICAL ACTIVISM FROM ABROAD ·

(Neil Bowdler’s report appeared on Radio Free Europe, 1/9.)

A street artist known as Philippenzo has left his native Russia after authorities issued arrest warrants over his stance against Moscow’s ongoing war in Ukraine. Filip Kozlov, 39, now lives in Lithuania but continues his activism. He recently sold a work in support of Russia’s LGBT community for over $7,000 after the Russian Supreme Court ruled that the nonexistent “international LGBT social movement” was “extremist.

UKRAINE WARTIME MEMOIR AND PLAY NAVIGATES LOSS AND PRESERVING MEMORY OF FALLEN SOLDIERS (VIDEO) ·

(Kate Tsurkan’s article appeared in the Lyiv Independent, 12/30; Photo:  LVIV, UKRAINE – NOVEMBER 1: Graves of Ukrainian soldiers during the memorial day at the Lychakiv military cemetery on November 1, 2023 in Lviv, Ukraine. On November 1, Ukrainians mark the memorial day. The memory of fallen soldiers was honored at the Lychakiv Cemetery in Lviv. People leave flowers and candles on the graves. (Stanislav Ivanov/Global Images Ukraine via Getty Images; Below: Watch the play, produced at Molodyi Teatr London.)

A historian by profession who has studied war for over a decade, Olesya Khromeychuk found her research spilling over into real life when her older brother Volodymyr was killed in 2017 near Popasna in Luhansk Oblast, nearly two years into his military service.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine’s Donbas region, which began in 2014, had mostly disappeared from international headlines by then, and “most Western Europeans did not even remember that there was a war raging in Eastern Europe.”

However, for the majority of Ukrainians, terms such as shelling, bombing, captivity, casualty, and war crimes have become more than just words in history books. These terms have increasingly encapsulated their reality over the past decade.

“The Death of a Soldier Told by His Sister,” Khromeychuk’s memoir, which was written mostly before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February of 2022, is a reflection not only on the loss of a family member.

The book’s core delves into a profoundly personal experience of loss during the war in Ukraine. However, thanks to Khromeychuk’s strength, openness, and vulnerability, it also serves as a compass for navigating grief within an ever more conflict-ridden world.

The exact number of Ukrainian soldiers that have been killed since Russia launched its all-out war is unknown, but nearly every cemetery in the country has a section dedicated to the soldiers who have given their lives to defend Ukraine against Russian aggression.

As the prospect of a long-term war drags on, and more people are called up to serve on the front line, Ukraine is faced with questions of how, as a society, to mourn and commemorate the fallen.

Grieving the loss of a loved one is typically a personal journey. The lives of those who outlive them become divided into periods of “before” and “after” their death and the impact of this loss is not necessarily something that one wishes to divulge to just anyone.

However, when a life is taken during a war, loss inevitably transcends the personal realm. It becomes a collective grief felt by the nation and requires navigating sometimes surreal experiences accompanying such a tragedy. As Khromeychuk describes it, “there is nothing natural, nothing normal about death in a war.”

A poignant example of this in the memoir is how the public obituaries written for her brother deviated from who he really was. “If reality didn’t make it into the obituaries, then what does?” she wonders.

Given his previous military experience, Volodymyr Pavliv didn’t wait to be summoned for service. He volunteered to fight in the Donbas because he saw the Russian invasion as “a European war that just happened to start in Eastern Ukraine,” as he told his sister before his death.

Pavliv had been residing in the Netherlands beforehand, working as a laborer. After his death, the Ukrainian media portrayed him as a man who had given up his privileged life in the West to return and defend his homeland, mythologizing his decision. And yet, as Khromeychuk points out, the life of Ukrainian migrant workers is often anything but privileged.

Khromeychuk also writes about how she dealt with the layers of bureaucracy leading up to her brother’s funeral by writing down each task in the kind of small notepad she’d normally take with her on a research trip. Instead of conducting trips to archives or interviews, her tasks included visiting the morgue and picking a restaurant for the wake after the funeral service.

On the day of the funeral in Lviv, the church was filled not only with Pavliv’s loved ones but also with soldiers and members of the public. Khromeychuk and her family could not yet mourn him privately, something that was underscored by the presence of the media.

“They seemed to be everywhere: filming, taking photos. Part of me felt sorry for them: how do you find a good angle and decent light, in order to get good footage of a funeral in a gloomy old church?” she writes.

“But mostly I felt annoyed. With their lights and cameras, they were turning one of the most intimate moments–a final farewell–into something that resembled a theater show. I knew it was their job, but the last thing my family and I needed was to be filmed as we were being torn to pieces by grief.”

At the cemetery, the defiant wartime slogan “Heroes never die!” echoed among the crowd. While Khromeychuk acknowledges the sincerity and meaningfulness of the sentiment behind this powerful phrase, she confesses having dreaded that moment, feeling an overwhelming urge to shout: “Stop! He is dead! They’re about to put him in a grave!”

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LES KURBAS, THE MAN WHO FORMED UKRAINIAN THEATER ·

(Andriy Bondar’s article appeared in the Kiv Post, 12/3; Photo:  Les Kurbas, c. 1908.)

The seeds sown by Les Kurbas on the Ukrainian stage sprouted in the following generations of artists, with great works of theatrical art and bold innovations of modern theater.

Theaters, streets and art centers bear the name of Les Kurbas, books and theses are written about him, his creative system is studied at art schools, and his phenomenon is scrutinized by numerous scholars and experts. A hundred years ago, the young man from western Ukraine, who preferred philosophical books and meditations to noisy pastimes, threw down the gauntlet to the old Ukrainian theater.

Les Kurbas (full name: Oleksandr-Zenon Kurbas), the famous Ukrainian director, philosopher, publicist and teacher, was born on Feb. 25, 1887, in the small town of Sambir, 70 km southwest of Lviv. His parents, who were actors, did their best to give him the finest education they could afford. He was one of the brightest students at the Ternopil gymnasium, and then Lviv University, where he took an active part in the student movement advocating Ukrainianization as opposed to Polonization.

In protest against the university leadership’s policy, he left Lviv for Vienna University, where he studied philosophy and took lectures in Slavistics. He also graduated from a drama school at the Vienna Conservatory.

He started out at several theaters in western Ukraine where he performed as an actor, but after several years he made what he described as a “decisive upshift,” becoming a stage director.

In the fall of 1917, two weeks before the Bolshevik coup, he founded and headed the Young Theater in Kyiv, and in March 1922 the Berezil Theater in Kharkiv. Berezil became a unique, innovative union of likeminded theater enthusiasts, with more than ten labs and workshops, including four in Kyiv. The others worked in Odesa and three towns near Kyiv. He sent his disciples to those labs to stage theatrical performances there. “My choice is Berezil, because it is a tempest, because it is a force, because it is an upheaval from which summer is born,” wrote Kurbas.

Berezil theater, Kharkiv. In 1922-1933, its walls witnessed a grandiose theatrical experiment under the guidance of the legendary reformer of the Ukrainian stage who was later expurgated as a “formalist” and a “political felon.” Here began his last road to the GULAG.

Raised at the threshold of great historical turbulence and transformations, Kurbas filled the stage with the sensation and spirit of his time, its dynamics and pulse. Destroying frozen forms of the old realistic art, he created a theater of revolutionary experiment, a theater that did not mirror life but turned it into a new esthetic reality; a theater of symbols and metaphors, of expression and grotesque; a theater dominated by the spirit of studio work and creative quest; a theater where the actors were masters of any genre – “intelligent harlequins,” as he called them.

Kurbas said, “Theater must be very modern.” He created his own theatrical system and brought up a generation of actors, directors, playwrights and stage designers who became the pride of Ukrainian theater.

Les Taniuk, the renowned Ukrainian stage and film director, member of parliament and public activist and one of the leaders of the People’s Rukh of Ukraine in the 1990s, described Kurbas as “a figure of the Renaissance scale” and a powerful personality: “I would say he was more than just a director. He was a philosopher who modeled a new reality. Kurbas was a trailblazer. When someone says that Kurbas reformed Ukrainian theater, I can’t agree with that. Kurbas didn’t just reform Ukrainian theater. He formed it.”

Cut down by the NKVD in his prime

Kurbas dreamed of elevating the Ukrainian stage up to the world level, but his wings were clipped at takeoff. The irrepressible reformer, who did not fit the canons of socialist realism and went against the grain of Communist policy, was excommunicated from theater. In 1933, he was arrested, charged with “counterrevolutionary and nationalist activities” and thrown into the chasm of Stalin’s concentration camps, where the best sons and daughters of Ukraine were exterminated.

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APPEALS BY RUSSIAN DIRECTOR, PLAYWRIGHT AGAINST EXTENSION OF PRETRIAL DETENTION REJECTED ·

(from Radio Free Europe, 11/20; Photo: Russian stage director Yevgenia Berkovich; Creator: Anton Novoderjozhkin|Credit: Sipa USA via AP Copyright: Sipa USA.)

The Moscow city court on November 30 rejected appeals filed by theater director Yevgenia Berkovich and playwright Svetlana Petriichuk against an extension of their pretrial detention on charges of justifying terrorism with the production of the play Finist-The Brave Falcon, about Russian women who married Muslim men and moved to Syria.

The court upheld a lower court decision in early November to extend the two women’s pretrial detention until at least January 10.

During the hearing, Berkovich expressed gratitude “to all who were involved” for allowing her to travel from a Moscow detention center to St. Petersburg to attend the burial of her grandmother, noted human rights defender Nina Katerli, who died at the age of 89 on November 20.

However, Berkovich said “the act of mercy had tuned into an act of torture” as while being transported to the funeral she spent 25 hours in “a cage of avtozak” — a special vehicle designed for transporting suspects and convicts, which affected her health.

“I did not have warm clothes with me because I was not aware where I was going and my lawyers did not know. It was a cage — a piece of an iron cage 1 meter by 2 meters, in which it is not possible to stand or properly sit. Because of that, it is painful for me to stand up or sit down. It was not possible to sleep there either as there was no heating…. For those 25 hours, I was allowed to get out to a toilet only twice,” Berkovich said.

But Judge Oksana Nikishina rejected Berkovich’s complaints, saying that she should be grateful that she was allowed to attend her grandmother’s burial at all.

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RUSSIA ISSUES ARREST WARRANT FOR UKRAINIAN EUROVISION WINNER ·

(from RadioFree Europe, 11/29; photo: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy (left) poses with Jamala in Kyiv on November 29, 2022. )

The Moscow prosecutor’s office said on November 29 that an arrest warrant had been issued for Ukrainian Eurovison Song Contest winner Jamala, who is of Crimean Tatar origin, on a charge of distributing “fake” information about Russia’s armed forces involved in Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. Earlier this month, the Russian Interior Ministry added the singer, whose real name is Susana Dzhamaladinova, to its wanted list. In 2016, Jamala won the Eurovision Song Contest for performing a ballad that described the brutal 1944 Soviet deportation of Crimean Tatars from Crimea to Central Asia. To read the original story by RFE/RL’s Russian Service, click here.

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FATHER OF SELF-EXILED BELARUSIAN WRITER JAILED FOR REPOSTING ARTICLE ·

(From Radio Free Europe, 11/10; Photo of Sasha Filipenka, from Radio Free Europe.)

Self-exiled Belarusian writer Sasha Filipenka told RFE/RL on November 10 that a Minsk court sentenced his father to 13 days in jail for reposting an article by the Zerkalo (Mirror) website that the government has labeled as extremist. Filipenka wrote on Facebook earlier that police detained his father on November 9 and that it is “obvious that they are putting pressure on me and want me to stop talking to the European media.” The 39-year-old writer is the author of several books for which he has received literary prizes. He fled Belarus after he took part in anti-government protests in 2020. To read the original story by RFE/RL’s Belarus Service, click here. 

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THESE UKRAINIAN ARTISTS, WRITERS WERE KILLED BY RUSSIA’S WAR ·

(Dinara Khalilova’s article appeared in the Kyiv Independent, 10/25/23; Photo:  Ukrainian ballet dancer Oleksandr Shapoval (top left), artist and researcher of Ukrainian cuisine Olha Pavlenko (top right), film editor Viktor Onysko (bottom left), artist and fashion designer Liubov Panchenko (bottom center), conductor Yurii Kerpatenko (bottom right). All of them were killed by Russia’s full-scale war against Ukraine. This audio is created with AI assistance.)

“My worst fear is coming true: I’m inside a new Executed Renaissance. As in the 1930s, Ukrainian artists are killed, their manuscripts disappear, and their memory is erased,” Ukrainian writer Viktoriia Amelina penned in the foreword to the published diary of another author, Volodymyr Vakulenko, murdered during the Russian occupation of Izium.

Amelina, who dug up Vakulenko’s notes he had hidden from the Russians in his yard and initiated the diary’s publication, was also killed by Russia’s war. She died on July 1 after being critically injured in a Russian missile strike on Kramatorsk.

Vakulenko and Amelina are among dozens of Ukrainian cultural figures killed by Russian aggression. There is no official record of such losses, but two lists compiled by PEN Ukraine suggest that the full-scale invasion has claimed the lives of at least 65 Ukrainian cultural figures.

Some were killed as civilians in missile attacks or in occupation, others as service members after joining the Armed Forces to defend their country. But all of these deaths have contributed to what experts call Russia’s hundreds-year campaign against Ukrainian culture.

“(Russian President Vladimir) Putin has said that Ukraine has no right to exist as a state, so they (Russians) are trying to erase all evidence of this existence,” Olha Honchar, director of Lviv’s Memorial Museum of Totalitarian Regimes, told the Kyiv Independent.

“If you have a pro-Ukrainian position, engage in culture, language, literature, history — then you are a target for destruction on the occupiers’ lists.”

The Kyiv Independent tells the stories of five cultural figures Ukraine has lost to Russia’s war since Feb. 24, 2022.

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RUSSIAN POET GETS FOUR YEARS IN PRISON FOR RECITING VERSES AGAINST UKRAINE WAR ·

(from Radio Free Europe, 5/10; Photo: Nikolai Daineko.)

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A Moscow court has sentenced a poet to four years in prison for publicly reciting verses condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The Tver district court sentenced Nikolai Daineko on May 10 after finding him guilty of “inciting hatred and calling for anti-state activities.” Daineko, who agreed to cooperate with investigators, was arrested along with two other poets, Artyom Kamardin and Yegor Shtovba, in September after they presented their anti-war verses in public. Kamardin’s girlfriend has accused police of subjecting the poet to sexual violence during his apprehension. Kamardin and Shtovba will be tried separately. 

UKRAINE ARTISTS PUSH BACK AGAINST IDENTITY DENIAL ·

(Juri Rescheto’s report appeared on DW, 4/21.)

View at: https://www.dw.com/en/ukraine-artists-push-back-against-identity-denial/video-65401461

Vladimir Putin claims Ukraine has no national identity and is historically part of Russia. Many Ukrainian artists are pushing back against that narrative. A new Ukrainian ballet has opened in the Latvian capital Riga. The dancers are from Latvia, but the creative team behind the production comes from Kyiv.

‘NOBODY CAN GO BACK – WE ALL FACE JAIL’: THE DISSIDENT THEATRE COMPANY OPENING ADELAIDE FESTIVAL ·

(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.

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