Raman Padaliaka’s Difficult Choice
#photography & visual arts
default, Raman Padaliaka’s
Difficult Choice, Protest of opposition figures and actors at the National Academic Theatre, Yanka Kupala in Minsk, 20th August 2020, photo: Tatiana Zenkovich / EAP / P, center, #000000, minsk_teatr_pap.jpg
18th August 2020… It’s around 10:00am. I’m in front of the Janka Kupala National Theatre in the heart of Minsk – across from the administration of the (so-far) incumbent President of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenka, whose official red-and-green flag hangs over it. Six white-red-white flags have been mounted on the theatre’s façade by actors and theatre staff.
Both buildings and both flags have an interesting history. Erected in 1890, the Minsk City Theatre, near the Alexandrovsky Public Garden, was designed by the then-renowned architect Karol Kozłowski – a Pole whose designs include the Warsaw Philharmonic, and who is buried in the historic Powązki Cemetery. The building’s interior was designed by an equally famous artist of the era, Vasily Maas.
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In 1917, Minsk was a World War I combat theatre. After the fall of the Provisional Government in Petrograd, a system of dual power was installed here. On the one hand, there was the Minsk City Duma and local zemstvo (local government), and on the other, a radical left-wing council of workers and army deputies consisting mainly of non-Belarusians and the commands of Bolshevik military units. In March 1917, Belarusians, scattered across the vast Russian Empire, came up with an idea to convene an all-Belarusian congress in order to establish national Belarusian authorities. It was then that the white-red-white flag became increasingly popular amongst military and refugee organisations as a symbol of all Belarusians, no matter where they were.
The congress was held in late 1917 and brought together an unprecedented number of delegates (1,872) from every region of Belarus, including those under German occupation. There was simply no better or more spacious hall to hold plenary sessions than the city theatre. And it was then that the white-red-white flag was raised over it for the first time.
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In the minutes of the first plenary session of the congress from 7th December 1917, one can read about an episode that occurred there:
Ludvig Rezausskiy [representative of the Latvian section of the Minsk Committee of the Russian Social Democratic Party]: We stand for the brotherhood of all nations. There should be no division into nations. [Pointing to the national Belarusian banner:] Get rid of this flag! [Incredible noise, and screams of: ‘Out! Out with him!’ Many rush to the speaker. There is noise in the hall until the speaker is taken backstage.]
Yazep Mamon’ka [congress deputy]: I know Latvians’ attitude to national self-determination, but yet there are some kind of renegades here. Who are you to demand that we drop our banner? [Applause and indignant outcries directed toward the Latvian representative.]
Fabian Shantyr [congress deputy]: I understand leftist social revolutionaries, but when we are told to forget our motherland, I don’t get it! Assimilation is slavery. Why have we gathered here? You, brothers, have been drawn here by your national feelings. The national revival will never die. [A big round of applause.]
Pavel Aleksyuk [congress deputy]: Let us swear before the banner that we will never abandon it!
[General Konstanty Aleksiyevski approaches the banner and kisses it. Noise, applause...]
Plishevich [congress deputy, a peasant from the province of Minsk, wearing a sheepskin coat: What a disgrace! We’re not bright people, but we don’t need lecturers like this Latvian guy. [Applause; several people rush up to him, pick him up and swing him around.] We need to protect the banner and honour it. [Enthusiastic applause.]
It should be added that, on the night of 18th December 1917, the All-Belarusian Congress was violently dispersed by an armed detachment of Bolsheviks, and its executive committee went into hiding. In March 1918, the independent Belarusian People’s Republic was proclaimed by the underground executive committee, representatives of local government and the Vilna Belarusian Council. The white-red-white banner became the state flag of the Belarusian People’s Republic. From that time on, this symbol of Belarusian democratic statehood aroused hatred among the Bolsheviks. Today’s usurper of power in Belarus, who is proud that ‘he never got rid of his party membership card’, also deeply loathes this banner.
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The First Belarusian Drama Theatre, later renamed in honour of the Belarusian writer and national prophet Janka Kupala, came into possession of the building of the former Minsk City Theatre in the early 1920s. It became a tradition that the best Belarusian actors and directors would work here.
The building of Lukashenka’s administration opposite the theatre was designed by the Soviet architect Alexander Voinov and erected from 1939 to 1941. It was supposed to house the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Belarus when the war broke out. Thus, the governing bodies of the Generalbezirk Weissruthenien, established by the German occupiers, became its first tenants in 1942.
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After the reinstatement of Soviet power, the communists moved into the building, remaining there until 25th August 1991, when the Belarusian branch of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was dismantled following the decision by what has thus far been the only democratically elected Belarusian parliament. A white-red-white flag was raised from the roof.
Later, on 16th May 1995, the flag was ripped to pieces in front of journalists by representatives of Lukashenka’s administration which had moved in. The red-and-green banner was designed by the Belarusian Bolsheviks in 1951 and approved by Josef Stalin as the official flag of the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic. Lukashenka returned it, in a slightly modified form (without the hammer and sickle), to the building that once housed the former occupying forces in our country.
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But let’s get back to the Kupala Theatre on 18th August. The day before, the authorities had fired Pavel Latushka, the director of the theatre, for openly expressing his attitude to what was happening in the country. Latushka had been appointed after being recalled from the post of ambassador to France about two years earlier. (Lukashenka publicly expressed his disapproval that ‘Latushka paid too much attention to cultural contacts and did not engage in economic projects’.) The staff of the theatre strongly supported their director. Not only did they demand his reinstatement, but they also demanded that Minister of Culture Yuri Bondar and the president himself step down, since it was obvious that the latter had lost the presidential election on 9th August…
At least 100 people gathered near the theatre to support its staff. Raman Padaliaka appeared on the porch and announced that the Kupala Theatre staff would insist that their demands be fully met. My heart leapt for joy, because Raman is my former student. Back in 1994, he was brought to our Belarusian Humanities Lyceum by his father, Vladimir, formerly a well-known Belarusian athlete (and amateur painter!). At the time, the lyceum was still legal – it had to go underground in 2003.
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A school drama group and, later on, studies at the Belarusian Academy of Arts, which could still breathe freely in the late 1990s, shaped Raman’s creative and civic-minded personality. He is one of the most talented actors of his generation in Belarus and has starred in many foreign series, including Russian ones (Belarusian cinema was virtually destroyed under Lukashenka). One of his best theatrical performances was the role of Gustaw/Konrad in Adam Mickiewicz’s Forefathers’ Eve (originally: Dziady), staged several years ago in an independent theatre.
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Raman Padalyaka, photo: from the author’s personal archive
Today Raman is in the vanguard of those who are fighting for the future of Belarus, the future of its humanistic and creative potential. If Lukashenka somehow succeeds in keeping his grip on power, Raman, chief director Nikolai Pinigin and nearly the entire cast of the Kupala Theatre will be fired. As I’m writing these lines, the building is occupied by OMON troops, while Raman and his colleagues are not allowed in.
In any case, Kupala’s new season has been cancelled. The first performance was to take place on 19th August, but for obvious reasons, that didn’t happen. It is impossible to perform plays in a country run by authorities who have committed terrible crimes again and again, who have turned into the chiefs of militants armed to the teeth, whether uniformed or not…
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Originally written in Belarusian, 22 Aug 2020, translated by Natalia Mamul, Sep 2020