Politics and Theater in Belarus

Reports from Belarus in this morning’s New York Times painted a grim, but not unexpected, picture of the state of affairs following the re-election–if one can call it that–of Aleksandr Lukashenko to the presidency of Belarus. Despite the window-dressing of opposition candidates that appeared in the weeks of campaigning leading up to Sunday’s balloting, Lukashenko claims to have commandeered nearly 80 % of the vote. There are, of course, actual supporters of Lukashenko. But, as I recall from a visit I made to that country a decade ago, measuring accurately levels of support and protest is almost impossible, given Lukashenko’s iron hold on the country.

It had been little more than a decade since the fall of the Berlin wall, when, in December 2000, I attended a conference entitled  “Women, Education and Democracy,” sponsored by ENVILA, a non-governmental institute of women’s education. Arriving in Minsk airport in that bitterly cold winter, I was immediately struck by its Soviet feel, a design, I soon learned, that continued to pervade not only the buildings, but the mind set of those who dominate its political and cultural scene.

And yet, partly with the support of international organizations, ENVILA had been able to sponsor a conference that brought together a number of scholars with different perspectives on gender and women’s studies from various parts of the world.  As I discussed their work with these scholars in formal and informal sessions, I became increasingly impressed with their bravery at seeking to introduce new ideas into the former Soviet Republic as one way to foster a democratic transition. How had they done it?

As Galina Shaton, one of the founders of ENVILA had explained to me in an interview in 2000, to become an organization approved by the state Ministry of Education, ENVILA had to be perceived as supporting education that was not threatening to the established order. Although they worked hard to secure the endorsement of the Ministry—because without it they would have been unable to function—they continued to believe that their work would grow ideas unable to be contained within the confines of the present Belorussian order. She hoped that by encouraging gender equality and the development of feminist perspectives in scholarship, cracks in the old regime might be made more visible.

Only last year, in an article in Social Research, Shaton noted how humanities scholars continue to be the particular targets of to censorship and control in Belarus:

“In undemocratic political contexts, limitations on academic freedom are predominantly connected with attempts by powerholders to impose a ban on certain dimensions of inquiry and discourse. Of course, they primarily affect explorations in the field of humanities, which go beyond the borders of the dominant ideology. These constraints are obvious to the majority of scholars involved in research activities. Being under constant control and criticism from the side of powerholders, they try not to express their views explicitly.” (“Academic Freedom in Belarus,” Social Research, vol. 76, no. 2, Summer 2009, p. 615)

The same situation prevails among the arts. As protestors filled the streets of Minsk on Sunday night, following the election, government forces attacked, intimidating and arresting political activists, including some of the leaders of the Belarus Free Theater, who have subsequently gone underground.

Yet the troupe remains eager to make it New York, where they had been scheduled to present new work in the Under the Radar FestivalAs Natalia Kolyada, one of the theater’s founders, put it to New York Times: “we still hope to go to New York, because we understand it is important to speak on behalf of Belarus, so that the voices of those arrested can be heard in the world.” (December 22, 2010, C1). She called on American artists to “make statements in solidarity.”

“Voices that need to be heard around the world.” And theatrical works may be one of the most compelling ways to make those voices heard.

Hannah Arendt once called theater “the political art par excellence.” (The Human Condition, p. 188) In the theater, “actors and speakers…re-enact a story’s plot” (p. 187) to convey its significance and meaning to us, a living audience. The action of the spontaneous intervention against a regime’s perpetuation of itself is “imitated” in theater. And re-presentation thereby expand and widen its meaning and reach of its message.

Action in concert with others brings something new into the world, breaks with the past. Theater, as re-enaction, remembers this action and, bringing it to life again on the stage, makes it mean something by “memorializing, however tentatively, the ‘new things’ that appear and shine forth.” (The Human Condition, p. 204).

Let us hope that Belarus Free Theater makes it to New York. In the mean time, let’s see who answers Kolyada’s call to lend their voices in solidarity, like those in London did earlier this week.

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