Belarusian political dissidents on spreading their message of freedom: ‘We never know when our life will end’

Belarusian political dissidents Nikolai Khalezin and Natalia Kaliada are the artistic directors of the Belarus Free Theatre. (KK Ottesen/For The Washington Post)

By KK Ottesen
The Washington Post
August 10, 2021 at 7:00 a.m. EDT0

Belarusian political dissidents Natalia Kaliada, 47, a former diplomat, and Nikolai Khalezin, 57, a writer, are the artistic directors of the award-winning Belarus Free Theatre. With Kaliada and Khalezin living in exile in London and most of the troupe still based in Minsk, the company rehearses over Skype and performs its provocative works around the world and at undisclosed locations in Minsk in defiance of a Belarusian government ban.

Can you explain how you came to start the Belarus Free Theatre?

Kaliada: Everything in Belarus was under censorship. And it’s even worse now. So we had a conversation with friends, brainstorming what we could do in order to free Belarus — and what it means to have a free Belarus.

Nikolai was a journalist, editor in chief of the most famous newspapers in Belarus. But authorities closed down his free newspapers. And so he started to write plays to be staged outside of Belarus. And we decided to establish a theater. But we knew from the very beginning that it will be prohibited, because if you talk to KGB, there were, like, very thick logbooks on us.

Because of your previous work?

Kaliada: Because of previous work, yeah. Nikolai as a journalist — and since [President Alexander] Lukashenko got elected, elections are falsified every single time; I worked to stop that. In Belarus, or in former Soviet Union, they call it “fifth column,” those who are promoting Western values, democracy. They say democracy brings harm. And it’s better to keep dictatorship. And that those people promoting it are outlaws. And so, from Day 1, we were underground.

Why do you think the theater’s work was seen as so threatening?

Khalezin: Theater has its weight when it’s based on what is happening now, with lives of people. Our theater became part of that major global threat: freedom of expression. Authorities — not only Belarusian — understand that if an article gets out, it will live, in the best-case scenario, like, a week, in terms of the news. But when it gets into the theater or a book, it will stay. Politicians are afraid of that. I mean, think about why they are always putting artists under repression, and writers, journalists — because these are those people who convert [others].

Kaliada: In Belarus they [would] attack prominent public leaders, creative leaders, political journalists, right in front of their apartments. Our friends had been kidnapped exactly like that. Our daughter was 9 when my father and Nikolai and his brother were severely beaten up outside of our apartment. Because of us. She saw it, and she started to scream. And that’s what saved them. The guy said, “Don’t go to police. I’m from police.” They were following me all the time. For example, I would leave my apartment in the morning, and when I get back, they put everything in the center [of the room]. Or they open windows around the apartment. Just to show that they’ve been here, so that I understand that they follow me nonstop. Leaving to go to work, there will be KGB cars, and they will say good morning; they stopped hiding at all. It was very intense.

We got smuggled out of Belarus to come to perform at the Public Theater in New York. [Nikolai] was laying on the floor of a car. There were many blankets on him. And our younger daughter was sleeping on those blankets when we went across Belarus-Russia border. That was how we got out. Later, we thought: We will fly back. And we were on a flight from New York to London, from London to Minsk. In London, we got phone calls from our friends who said, “Don’t come back because everyone going to trials, and they get up to seven years.” We had 15 minutes to decide: Are we flying back to Minsk and go to jail? You understand that everyone is in jail. And we need to continue to campaign. So we stayed in London to continue to push with sanctions.

And did much of the company go back?

Kaliada: We said we will organize everything for [them] to stay as well. But they said: “Listen. You met with Hillary Clinton, you could change situation in Belarus. We are actors. So we’re flying. We’ll continue to perform while we can. And you continue to fight for us.” So that’s what continues to happen. Unfortunately.

The whole idea of Belarus Free Theatre was to create kind of one body from those who are onstage and who watch the show, because every single show has its own campaign. So if we do a show on death penalty — because Belarus is the only country in Europe with the death penalty. And when people are executed, bodies are never given back to families. Never. And we have a campaign that is called “Give a Body Back” campaign. And we invite our audience to be active participants. So, for example, we’ll finish the show. I go onstage. And I say, “The show is over. Real life is here. Families can’t get bodies of their family members. Could you come with us to the protest that we organized and lay down with us in body bags?” And we did that everywhere — in London, New York, Amsterdam. The art that we do is not convenient. The art that we do tackles dictators.

You’ve been warning about authoritarianism in the U.K., where you live now. Do you think authoritarianism is getting worse across the world?

Kaliada: We do. It’s getting worse. Dictatorship is contagious.

Khalezin: There are countries that the structure might be very strong, so that it will be very difficult to move that country to the authoritarian regime — for example, Finland or Estonia. If Russia doesn’t invade. But there are countries that are happily absorbing elements of authoritarian regimes: Hungary, Poland. Last four years in United States. And there are, of course, elements that different politicians are trying from dictators in order to control population. Obviously, we saw in the States with Trump how he was trying to incorporate all of it into American society. But America is strong, structurally. And that probably helped to get out of that crisis. But the question — if it’s already happened — is whether it will happen again and how soon.

Recently, a Ryanair flight from Greece to Lithuania was diverted to Belarus and a journalist taken off the plane. Living in exile in the U.K., how does that make you think about your own safety?

Kaliada: Since December, in official Belarusian newspaper they started publishing death threats say[ing] they need to hunt us down — both of us — and to hang us next to each other. So, yeah. I mean, you never feel safe anywhere. And that same day, when the [Ryanair] flight got hijacked, we were on a flight, London to [Lithuania], as well. When we got on the plane, the captain said, “Don’t worry. We know who you are.” It was planned that we [would] be flying two minutes over Belarus. But because hijacking happened earlier, and I guess the whole aviation world was informed about that even before news, they made a recalculation. He said they made sure that, even with the storm, it will not push the plane to the Belarusian territory.

Given all the reasons to fear, how do you trust people?

Kaliada: We put fear aside. Of course, I mean, we will be sociopaths if we will not have fears. But you understand you have that fear. And almost deal with that separately in order to stay calm and logical, rational. In order to achieve what we want to achieve.

The turning point for me, personally, was when our friends started to be kidnapped and killed. And when another friend of ours was — it was a staged suicide. So they hang you. He was an amazing journalist. At that time, he and [Nikolai], every single morning, would start the day just texting each other a joke. And that particular day, when he was killed, he didn’t receive a joke from him. And, of course, at that moment, when you lose your friends, close family members, you understand: We need to do everything in order for those type of things never to happen. And we need to find the truth of what’s happened to them. And to achieve it, we need to put fears aside. Even though we have them.

We don’t have luxury to be apolitical because we never know when our life will end. And at least we will know that we did everything in order to stop murders and kidnappings. We are promoting nonviolent resistance. And theater is always a great tool to fight. Because you must create the highest level of performance art. And then it opens hearts and minds of people. And then you can talk to them.

Khalezin: There is no sense in fears in our case. Because the moment you start emotionally to [frame] your fears, you are not able to work. When you’re in countries that surround Belarus, you are looking around all the time. But fear is not a constructive feeling. And the only way is to fight for that life and not to allow other people to go through what we’ve been going through.

So you need to come to the conclusion that this is the war. You can’t be emotional at war. And with what we are dealing, you need to deal only with whole mind. Because if it will be pure emotion, then even if we talk about politics, world leaders will not be able to talk to us, because we will not be able to deliver that clear message, what we need. There is a saying that revenge is a dish best served cold.

Do you think change will happen in Belarus sometime soon?

Kaliada: It will. This is the end for Lukashenko. The question is how long that end will take. And how many people it will cost lives. People of Belarus made their choices. On the 9th of August [2020], they voted for Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. The person who is in power, he is a usurper. Lukashenko is hijacking flights, exploiting the issue of refugees. He is dangerous for the world. And the world needs to deal with him as international criminal. That’s very simple. Not just making joint statements expressing how deeply they are concerned with the situation in Belarus, but financial and economic sanctions. It’s like our favorite 49ers coach would say: “Don’t tell us. Show us.”

KK Ottesen is a regular contributor to the magazine. Follow her on Twitter: @kkOttesen. This interview has been edited and condensed.

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