In 2020, Covid-19 went from being “a small flicker in the world’s consciousness to the defining crisis of a generation” (The Guardian). As countries across Europe went into lockdown, there was one major anomaly. In Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko denied the existence of Covid-19 claiming that “no one in the country will die from coronavirus”. On 30 July 2020, the death toll in the country was 548, with 67, 518 confirmed cases.
Medical professionals, journalists and bloggers who criticised the regime’s approach to Covid-19 swiftly faced arrest and imprisonment. Sergei Satsuk, Editor of Yezhednevnik, an online publication specialising in investigative pieces on the Belarusian healthcare system, was arrested on 25 March 2020 after his editorial questioned “official” infection and death toll figures. Satsuk was arrested on charges related to bribery, which can carry a ten-year sentence, and Yezhednevnik’s headquarters were ransacked and searched.
Lukashenko has been challenged by the world’s press and leaders for his cursory and casual approach to the virus, but politically it could undermine his regime. With echoes of the country’s mismanaged Chernobyl crisis in 1986, Lukashenko’s approach follows the “soviet rule book.” But the virus could either severely undermine Belarus’ relationship with Russia or conversely Putin could use the crisis to exploit its integrationist relationship with the country. Belarus, already ridden with poverty, is now in a situation where it desperately needs money and has already applied to the IMF for a loan of up to $900 million. If pressure continues and the humanitarian crisis worsens in Belarus, the authorities will increasingly look like they can no longer efficiently run the country – a problem for Lukashenko’s dictatorship.
Throughout the months of April and May 2020, members of BFT’s permanent ensemble together with some of the company’s famous friends – including Will Attenborough, Stephen Fry, David Lan, Juliet Stevenson and Sam West – read extracts of their favourite fairy-tales and short stories.
A new story was published each evening on BFT’sYouTube channel with highlights including Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen, Oscar Wilde’s The Selfish Giant, Sergey Mikhalkov’s Feast of Disobedience and Roald Dahl’s take on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
Speaking at its launch Belarus Free Theatre’s co-founding Artistic Director, Natalia Kaliada, said: “As the world is united in the greatest fight for survival many of us have ever known, over in Minsk – just a three-hour flight away from London - Alexander Lukashenko continues to insist that the coronavirus does not exist, claiming that “the world has gone mad”. The population of Belarus – 9.5 million people – already living under dictatorship for more than 25 years, now endure the double threat of deadly misinformation handed out by an authoritarian leader. Nicolai and I fled Belarus a decade ago and have been political refugees in the UK ever since. We have both been imprisoned for our political work, so know first-hand how important it is to bring dreams, imagination and hope to the fore even in the darkest of times. Stories allow us to dream, to freely explore the outer reaches of our imaginations. At a time of unprecedented insecurity and fear we wanted to create an online space to celebrate and share these enduring stories together”.