Beaten Belarus Keeps Fighting

This interview with Belarusian playwright and director Andrei Kureichik, who was granted a national visa in Slovakia following his persecution by Lukashenko’s regime, did not come easily. It took several months between the initial idea and the publication of the interview. Though conspirators would say that someone must have sabotaged the interview, it was just a coincidence of various circumstances – from Andrei’s arrival in Slovakia being delayed until completing the search for an interviewer who would be in the know not only geopolitically, but also culturally and artistically. Eventually, philosopher and activist Fedor Blaščák managed to capture both layers in an interview about staggering political manipulation and an artist’s choice to respond and resist despite the existing danger.

Andrei Kureichik, photo: archive of Andrei Kureichik

Andrei Kureichik, photo: archive of Andrei Kureichik

How long have you been in Slovakia?

For a few weeks. I had to escape from Belarus in September 2020 because at that time, severe repressions were directed at the Minsk Coordination Council of which I was a member. The Council associated numerous cultural and public figures, including Literature Nobel Prize laureate Svetlana Alexievich. We founded the Coordination Council as an attempt to stop the escalating violence of Lukashenko’s regime.

What were you facing?

Imprisonment. One morning, I was told that I would end up like eleven of my colleagues who were arrested before, including Maria Kalesnikava, Maxim Znak, and others. I packed a small suitcase and flew to Ukraine with my son. The pretext was that I was accompanying him on a rehabilitation stay. We were lucky. We successfully boarded a plane in the evening of the same day and flew to Odessa. We kept travelling here and there for weeks. After a while, however, we really needed a break and had to take a rest. So, I got this idea to go to Africa. We were then hiding in Tanzania for three months.

How did you get to Bratislava from there?

I was granted your humanitarian visa. It’s really an incredible story. In short, when Lukashenko accused the members of our Coordination Council of terrorism, I realized that they could arrest me in Tanzania. I was staying in an unknown African country with my little son and had no visa to travel to Europe. Borders were closed everywhere. So, I wrote a letter and sent it out to the world. It was my call for help. I received a response from the Theatre Institute in Bratislava. Director Vladislava Fekete and Romana Maliti promised they would help – and ultimately, because they involved the Slovak Ministry of Foreign Affairs, I received your visa via the Slovak Embassy in Kenya. I also have to thank your Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Minister Ivan Korčok, and diplomat Igor Slobodník. They are the people who saved me. I will never forget how Slovakia helped me.

Let’s return to the day when you ran away from your country. What was it like?

I was in a shock. Not only was I leaving my home – I have my family with five children and a house in Minsk – but I also left behind my production company with five employees, pending film projects, and a lot of commitments. But it was clear that the best way to help my family and company was for me to stay out of prison, even if I had to be abroad. It was better for me to be free abroad than in a prison in Belarus. I heard about how brutally the imprisoned people were tortured. I have a high regard for all who have to keep up with such abuse. I said to myself that even though I had to run I would not be a quiet fugitive, but that I would resist from a distance. It took me a few days to write a theatre play about the revolution – it’s called Insulted. Belarus(sia). It was quickly rehearsed and staged at a theatre festival in Ukraine. The play was completed in three weeks and I contacted the eminent critic John Freedman who translated it into English. We sent the text of the play out to the world and since then it’s had more than 160 repeat performances – readings or theatre productions all over the world, from Hong Kong, through Stockholm, Prague, all the way to Los Angeles.

The play describes real events – events that are still taking place.  What kind of genre is it?

It’s documentary drama. It portrays the real dramatic events in Belarus in August 2020, events I personally experienced. Together with millions of Belarusians who stood up against the regime and took to the streets. We saw a lot of violence, but also a great wave of solidarity and inspiration. After twenty-six years of dictatorship, millions of people changed their attitude and resisted. The dramatic characters in the play are modelled on real people. Lukashenko is one of them. More than two thirds of the text are made up of information and quotes from news, politicians’ statements, interviews with people on the streets, investigation files, court testimonies, and so on.

What was your artistic goal?

I believe that artists should hold up a mirror to the society. You can be a very truthful mirror, or you can be an artistically “distorted” one. Either way, you should reflect what is going on and use your own language to talk about it. This revolution is a historical landmark and the most important event since the establishment of independent Belarus. I wanted to capture events I am convinced will be taught in our schools in thirty years or so, similarly to how students now are learning about the events in August 1968 in Czechoslovakia.

What did they teach you in school about 1968?

I was lucky to have gone to school at a time when the Soviet Union had already disintegrated, but Lukashenko was not yet in power. In the first half of the 1990s, we could talk about these things openly and truthfully. And we were taught that it was an invasion and an effort to keep Czechoslovakia under Soviet influence. My children have not been so lucky to be taught the same.

When Swiss playwright Friedrich Dürrenmatt visited Prague in 1968, he met with his fellow theatremakers there. Later on, in an interview with Irena Brežná in 1985, he said that he was most impressed with the theatre audiences in Prague. “The audience is doing the job of political opposition there,” he said. For people from free countries this might sound surprising, but for us, who have had an experience with totalitarian regimes, the political layer of art is very natural. Did theatre operate similarly under Lukashenko, too?

The tradition of the political layer in art, the artistic testimony, which could not be presented openly, but only through metaphors and latent meaning, goes back to the Soviet times, to such directors as Lyubimov, for example. In Belarus under Lukashenko, the political opposition among artists acquired a very peculiar form – by means of supporting the Belarusian language. Lukashenko suppressed the use of Belarusian and promoted Russian. However, the artists created their work in Belarusian and so Lukashenko thought any artist speaking or writing in Belarusian was a member of the opposition.

Theatres in Belarus are state-owned, which was why they could not afford to be openly critical. But this changed in 2020. The National Theatre in Minsk stopped being obedient and was given support by twenty-nine theatres all over the country. Everyone who got involved was fired and the National Theatre was closed. For the first time in a hundred years, there were no performances in the National Theatre. This did not happen even during Nazi occupation.

The promotion of a nation’s own language as a manifestation of a political attitude was common in Central Europe during the national revival movement in the 19th century. Is this the case of Belarus today?

Essentially yes. As you know, the Soviet Union and the idea of building and spreading communism were both based on the notion of internationalism. For the communists, it didn’t matter where you were from or what language you spoke, but whether you believed in the communist ideology. National movements were ruthlessly repressed. After the break-up of the USSR, all of the successor countries – Ukraine, the Baltic states, Georgia, Armenia, and others – had to search for and create their national identities anew. This, however, was not our case. Lukashenko wanted to renew the Soviet Union and so he supported Russian as a state language. He enforced it as the language of instruction in schools – Belarusian is taught almost as some kind of foreign language.

In what language do you write?

I write in Russian because it’s my mother tongue; I come from a Russian family. And the majority of my audience is Russian speaking. However, I translate some of my plays, or their parts, into Belarusian.

Has there been any independent art scene under Lukashenko?

There have been several independent associations, groups supported by rich people, but they were all closed one by one. They staged sharp productions that were not only about politics, but also about various social issues and taboo themes.

What was the position of the Free Belarus Theatre?

It was a strongly political opposition theatre group that was forced to emigrate around 2010. Since then, they’ve been active in London and I think also internationally

Andrei Kureichik taking part at the demonstration in Minsk, Belarus, photo: archive of Andrei Kureichik

Let’s return to the events of August 2020. What were the main reasons why – after the rigged election – the situation in the country changed and the mass protests started?

There were three main reason why the revolution started. The first was that the election was rigged – but all elections since 1994 have been rigged. After each election, there were public displays of resistance. However, there were never mass protests, and it usually took the regime only a few days to suppress them.

The events in 2020 were also affected by the pandemic. Lukashenko downplayed the coronavirus; he never adopted any measures and faked the statistics. In spring 2020, the situation in hospitals was critical and the number of victims of the pandemic was so enormous that new cemeteries had to be built quickly. At the same time, official statistics only showed absurdly low victim totals – zero, two, perhaps five deaths each day. While this was happening, Lukashenko organized military parades in Minsk, attended by large numbers of senior citizens. This attitude towards the health and lives of his citizens was shocking to many – and this was the second reason.

The third reason is related to demographics and the generational change. Lukashenko’s electorate included many elderly people, people who felt nostalgia for the socialist times. But this particular social group is slowly dying out. The middle aged and younger generation does not remember the Soviet Union – it means nothing to them. Many of them have visited foreign countries, been to Lithuania, Poland, the West. There, they saw in their own eyes that these countries are doing much better. The traditional narrative spread by Lukashenko about socialism and order has no meaning for them, so they said to themselves: enough!

And as far as the idea of nationalism is concerned, it never came up during the revolution as something related to the national language, but through the visual symbol of the national flag. When Belarus became officially independent in 1991, it drew on the idea of the 1918 independent republic and the historical white and red flag then became the official state symbol. This flag, however, was removed by Lukashenko’s doing, which was one of the reasons why the flag became a symbol of resistance against him in the revolution.

Lukashenko is still in power. Why did the revolution in Belarus fail?

That’s an intricate question. Let me try to explain by describing the events that took place. In May 2020, poll results were leaked according to which Lukashenko’s support was at around eighteen percent. The poll was done by the State Academy of Sciences and because of the leak, the director of the sociological institute was fired at once. At that moment, Lukashenko understood that he had no support and started arresting the opposing candidates. Popular blogger Sergey Tikhanovsky ended up in prison, along with successful banker Viktor Babariko. Other ten, perhaps fifteen people who could run in the election and threaten Lukashenko’s political position were arrested as well.

The only person he left alone was Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, Sergei’s wife. She was a housewife and was not politically involved in any way until then. Nobody knew her. I guess Lukashenko thought that she wasn’t at all dangerous and let her campaign continue. And then a huge thing happened – all the other teams joined her in the campaign. She received financial support from Barbariko, from her husband’s supporters, creative teams from other candidates joined her… ultimately, this made a very strong political campaign. Together with Svetlana, the campaign was led by two other strong women – Maria Kalesnikava and Veronika Tsepkalo – who started organizing meetings attended by dozens of thousands of people. Lukashenko realized this was bad for him and prohibited the meetings one week before the election. But it was too late. And then the election came.

The international community, the EU and the USA did not recognize the results.

There is a lot of direct evidence that the election was rigged. A third of all election committees – over 1,200 – published the actual results. According to them, Tikhanovskaya got seventy percent, while Lukashenko only received twenty percent of the votes. The other two thirds published false results in which Lukashenko won eighty percent of the votes, so naturally everyone was asking: how is this possible? The votes were counted simultaneously by independent organizations.

How did that work?

Online. The voter would take a picture of the ballot and passport to avoid cheating and sent the pictures to a database programmed by specialists from our big IT companies. The system was called Golos (a vote, and more than 1.6 million voters participated in it. This way it was demonstrably shown that in the other two thirds of the constituencies, the results were evidently falsified. It was obvious that this could not be hushed up. Lukashenko tried to hush it up by shutting down the Internet in the entire country.

Shutting down the Internet is like declaring a war to the IT business, which is highly developed in Belarus.

Someone calculated that each day without the Internet cost the country two hundred million dollars. I don’t know what kind of pressure was made, but the Internet was back on after three days. But even without the Internet, the information about Tikhanovskaya’s victory was spread at huge public protests, which were so very brutally suppressed by the police. 750 people were arrested. Six or seven people were killed, including Alexander Tarakovsky who is, by the way, one of the characters in my play. He was the first victim. He was shot on the street in Minsk. There is even a video of the unfortunate incident that was broadcast on the BBC and everywhere else.

This mobilized millions and the world was watching as the country took to the streets, including workers in state companies, the elderly, women, students. It was huge and hopeful.

Yes. Those were the days. During the two weeks, until the end of August, the country belonged to the protesters. I was there and it was all about freedom; you could do anything. You had the feeling that this square, this city, and the whole country was ours.

On Sunday, the 16th of May, the largest protest in history took place in Minsk. There were more than three hundred thousand people. Lukashenko understood that the end was near. And what did he do? He took Tikhanovskaya, he literally kidnapped her. We don’t know what went on in that room, but she was threatened and driven away. She had to escape to Vilnius in Lithuania. At that breaking point in history, she had to leave the country and that was fatal. There was no one to tell the people what to do. There was no one around to say: “I am the new president of Belarus.” These two weeks were enough for Lukashenko to get the situation under control and gradually turn it around, mainly because of the support from Vladimir Putin. The support from workers in factories got weaker as well, as they decided to keep their jobs instead of fighting.

What will happen now?

Lukashenko knows he will never again win any election or referendum. His support is around ten, maybe twelve percent. He will try to turn Belarus into a mass concentration camp in which he’ll no longer need public support because he’ll be able to enforce it violently. And in the meantime, he will negotiate and trade the country’s sovereignty with Putin. He signed contracts that will allow Russians to build military bases in Belarus. This is extremely dangerous for Ukraine, but Lukashenko will unashamedly continue doing this to stay in power as long as possible. For a year, perhaps two.

And then? Do you believe you’ll be able to return home?

Of course. Soon. I don’t believe my country can become another North Korea. The issue of succeeding power in Belarus will be resolved somehow. Even Putin understands that Lukashenko has lost his legitimacy and a change is also in his interest.

Reading of Kureichik's play

Reading of Kureichik’s play “Insulted. Belarus(sia)” at DJGT Zvolen, Slovakia, photo: archive of DJGT Zvolen

Andrei Kureichik

Is a prominent Belarusian playwright, screenwriter and producer. He is the author of thirty theatre plays staged in theatres in Moscow (MCHAT), Minsk (Yanka Kupala National Theatre), and other scenes of the former Soviet Union. He is a member of the Coordination Council of the Belarusian opposition. Many members of the Council are now in prison. Kureichik’s play Insulted. Belarus(sia), which depicts the revolutionary events, was translated into several languages and staged in theatres worldwide – both as stage readings and other forms of production – as an act of solidarity and engagement against the practices of the Belarusian president. In Slovakia, the play was translated by Romana Maliti and produced by the Jozef Gregor Tajovský Theatre in Zvolen, and in Studio 12 in collaboration with director Ondrej Spišák and the actors of the ASTORKA Korzo ’90 Theatre.

Interviewer: Fedor Blaščák, philosopher
Translation into English: Ivan Lacko
The interview was published in the Slovak magazine kød – konkrétne o divadle 5/2021.