A Call to Help Support Detained Members of the Free Theater in Belarus

First off, I apologize for the incompleteness of this article, but I’m trying to do my small part to help the international campaign. Yesterday in Belarus, strongman President Alexander Lukashenko won a fifth term in a vote the international observers determined fell far short of international standards for free and fair elections, which is basically journo speak for, he’s a dictator and steals elections he’d probably win anyway. Belarus’s fragmented opposition protested in Minsk, the capital, and were brutally cracked-down upon by security services. Various reports suggest several people were killed and several hundred detained.

Among the detained is Natalya Kalyada, the director of the dissident performance group Belarus Free Theatre, and her collaborator Nikolai Khalezin. One of–if not the only–independent theater companies in the country, the Free Theater has, along with pretty much every other facet of open society, faced severe repression. Lukashenko–a former manager of collectivized farm prior to entering politics–has maintained a Soviet-style state, complete with secret police and a command economy that has substantially hampered economic development, leaving the nation poor and dependent on outside aide. For much of the last 15 years, that aide has come from Russia, but the relationship has cooled over the past couple years, leaving the regime isolated and increasingly paranoid. In the run up to the election, they even allowed some free speech from opposition parties, but Lukashenko handily won with arround 80 percent of the vote.

Unfortunately, at the moment, there’s simply not a lot that can be done to help Kalyada or other dissidents other than to express support. This is not an entirely empty act: while hopefully all will be released with little more than another police beating to show for it, permanent disappearances are not uncommon in Belarus (in fact, such has been the subject of Free Theater’s work). Aaron Landsman, a theatre artist and friend of the company in New York, has asked people to support the cause by sharing the below letter. While there’s nowhere to send these, per se, other than to friends and acquaintances, the idea is that the only thing that can be done to help Kalyada is to make her case such a cause celebre that more extreme measures by the regime against her would be untenable.

Landsman is also in contact with the Public Theater in New York, who produce the Under the Radar Festival at which the Free Theater is to appear in early January, and where supporters are hoping to develop a more directed strategy to help secure Kalyada’s release.

So please, read the letter below, share it or this entire article by email, on Facebook, Twitter, whatever, and check the Public’s or Under the Radar’s website for potentially more information about what you can offer besides solidarity. Finally, a friend of a friend is a photographer in Minsk, and photos and some information about the protests can be found on his website.

Statement demanding release of political prisoners in Belarus:

As American theater artists and professionals, we wish to express our support of Free Theater Belarus. We demand the immediate release of political prisoners and Free Theater co-directors Natalya Kolyada and Nikolai Khalezin and all others jailed in the wake of Belarus’ most recent elections. When any artist, in any country, is jailed for expressing herself freely, for making art, or for challenging a repressive state our entire field is diminished and we must, as they say, act.

Since 2006, Natalya and Nikolai have led a courageous group of underground theater artists in Minsk. Their work together includes producing original devised theater, and presenting the work of emerging and recognized writers from Belarus and many other countries. In Europe’s last dictatorship, this simple act has meant they and their families have been blacklisted, beaten, jailed, and censored. They have seen their friends disappear, their families fired from state jobs, and seen the bodies of their murdered colleagues turn up unexplained.

One of the most damaging things about a country in which individual expression, the freedom of press, art and public assembly are all curtailed unilaterally by the government, is that the truth is compromised at every level. It is impossible to know exactly how many have been jailed, what conditions they are being kept under, and when or if they will be released. As theater artists, a part of our worth rests on our ability to channel fundamentally truthful moments and craft them in such a way that they expand what we think is humanly possible and meaningful. When any of our colleagues is kept from doing this work, we are all responsible to help keep them free.

Update: Reuters has a story on their arrest.

Update2: According to Mark Russell, artistic director of Under the Radar, Natalya Kolyada has been released on $1 million rubles bail, as opposed to a one- to two-week detention as other protestors face. However, another member of the Free Theater, Artsiom Zheleznyak, was also apparently arrested by the KGB (yes, that’s what they’re still called there) and his whereabouts are unknown.

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