A Belarusian Carnival at Gunpoint
default, A Belarusian Carnival
at Gunpoint, A woman protests at the Yanka Kupala National Drama Theatre, Minsk, Belarus, 20th August 2020, photo: Valery Sarifulin / TASS / Forum, center, #000000, yuri_bondar_spotaknie_z_aktorami_teatr_narodowy_minsk_en.jpg
On the eve of the centennial of the Janka Kupala National Theatre, the cast was unable to perform. The director of the theatre was dismissed after the release of a video in which the actors expressed their civic stance. The actors and artistic director handed in their resignation notices in protest. The literary manager of the Kupala Theatre, Volha Babkova, shares what’s happening in the theatre and in the country now.
Reality has captured our dreams. We cannot escape it. We are tortured by nightmares filled with monsters and the death of loved ones…
I dreamed a fog was swallowing up the Alexandrovsky Public Garden, near the Kupala Theatre. As I approach the fountain (the oldest in the city!), the nightmare begins: fog, haze and shivering, twisting shadows of century-old trees form a kind of net that I can’t break through. I look around, but I can’t find the way back. Just a moment earlier, I could hear music. I could smell linden trees and coffee. Chestnuts were germinating in silence. Birds were standing on a fountain, spraying streams of water from their beaks.
Raman Padaliaka’s Difficult Choice
You can’t get into the theatre now. I tried to today. It took about five minutes for a police officer to confirm my identity. Then they had an escort take me to my office in the literary department to pick up the things I needed (a book by Friedrich Schiller translated by Ales’ Dudar, Minsk, 1934 edition). There were four more police officers in the foyer. They had moved our new sofa to make it more comfortable to watch TV. What else can you do at a theatre?
I’m almost certain these people never saw one of our plays. In the presence of these strangers, the space inside the theatre has become much more cramped. Old Kupala ghosts have hidden in the cracks, behind the stage props, under the stage. Some of them have returned to the frames of their portraits in the gallery on the third floor.
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Belarusian Minister of Culture Yuri Bondar surrounded by protesters at the Yanka Kupala National Drama Theatre, Minsk, 18th August 2020, photo: Valery Sharifulin / Getty Images
The 130-year-old theatre building (designed in the late 19th century by the Polish architect Karol Kozłowski, the designer of the Warsaw Philharmonic) is a true island of freedom in Minsk’s downtown. It is tightly surrounded by massive governmental buildings of great importance: the presidential residence, the Trade Union Palace of Culture, the Palace of the Republic… Some of these have grown roots and have been warmed up by the creative presence of local residents, but still…
Recently, during an ‘event’ (I hate this word!) held at the Palace of the Republic, the theatre was tightly fenced off. It was encircled, and only the main exit for the audience was left open. This was when I first associated it with an island. And now, near the theatre, there is a meeting spot for the siloviki who gather here in the evening before they start dispersing the protesters. Police vans with state flags (the latest fashion), dark blue and grey buses with tinted windows carrying plain-clothed goons, all sorts of military vehicles. Hordes of people in black wearing facemasks are walking on the terrace of the Austeria Urshulia theatre café.
The Cinema of Change Comes to Belarus
Can actors go on stage in times like these? Can they cheer up audiences or move them to tears? That would be unbearable hypocrisy!
Kupala artists were amongst the first to sound the alarm: ‘Stop the violence in the streets and prisons!’; ‘Release the detainees!’; ‘Hold a new election!’ For there is a sea of lies, meanness, boorishness and impunity behind this pit of misery. The past two decades have seen the nurturing of a whole tribe of unthinking executors of orders, of lackeys for the regime. But at the same time, there are so many bright faces!
A country drowned in a pit of misery is illuminated from within by the colours of its long-suffering historical symbol – the white-red-white flag.
Belarusians are true partisans. Nearly one in three families kept a banned flag hidden until the time was ripe. Even veterans of the national revival movement cannot recall such a sea of beauty, such a variety of colours or such freshness in city squares. There is a flag in nearly every hand. And this is irreversible.
Every single day we are witnessing inspired creativity that originates in a sea of people which cannot be called a ‘crowd’. Self-organisation and the absence of a defined leader are indeed impressive. Volunteer work (helping people get released from prisons, sorting garbage after mass protests, etc.), creativity and ingenuity, sharp wit, singing and dancing in city squares, food and water distribution, church bells chiming in support, the sound of car horns and loud protest songs on the roads, white and red ribbons on people’s wrists…
The White-Red-White Banner of Polish-Belarusian Literature
This is an immense Belarusian carnival at gunpoint.
Each day engenders a beautiful new idea. Girls in white and holding flowers float down the streets like bright springs of water. They remind me of the people wailing in Jan Barszczewski’s beautiful collection of stories Szlachcic Zawalnia, Czyli Białoruś w Fantastycznych Opowiadaniach (Nobleman Zawalnia, or Belarus in Fantastic Stories). The Kupala Theatre staged Barshcheuski’s stories quite recently. Similar to every other performance at our national theatre, the premiere of these stories was very timely.
Every morning, a memorial is revived in Minsk at the site of the death of a protester who was shot almost point-blank, at a distance of 12 metres. And every night the mourning site is ‘cleaned up’. They want to cleanse the entire country of anything authentic and creative. But that is already impossible. The spirit of freedom has captured our cities and towns. Its bittersweet taste has awakened our joy, dreams and hopes.
Rise of a Nation: Siarhiej Dubaviec on Belarus
The 101st season is ending with an exceptionally dramatic production featuring an immense crowd of extras and constantly changing scenery, day-night-day, clouds, fog… The stage is the city; the director is life.
Originally written in Belarusian by Volha Babkova, 27 Aug 2020, translated by Natalia Mamul, Sep 2020