I remember when I was a kid how my father was screaming and spitting with anger when Russia and Belarus integrated in 1997. Because in 1991 when Belarus became independent freedom was in the air. Everyone was so happy, the Belarusian language was spreading in Belarus and everyone was saying, “Finally, finally we got this, we are Belarusian”. And then Belarus and Russia came together. What was this shit? My dad was really angry. And of course, he remembers the Soviet regime before when bad things happened.
In '88 Zyanon Paznyak, a Belarusian historian, found the remains of 30,000 people killed by the NKVD or what was then the KGB in 1937 in Kurapaty, a wood on the edge of Minsk. Stalin killed almost all of the intelligent people in Belarus. Protestors, poets, artists, actors. So if you were not educated that was OK for Stalin, you would be safe, but if you were a GP or teacher etc, you could be killed.
People go to Kurapaty now to pray for those who were killed and when it was first discovered Belarus started to get interested in what we were before the Soviet Union. Well, before the Soviet Union we had the Tsar, but before this, we had a very strong country – a Kingdom. We had a bigger land than we do now, stretching from Vilnius in Lithuania and all the way down. But what happened at Kurapaty is not taught in schools and in schools you are not taught what Stalin did. There is only a restaurant now at Kurapaty, no memorial. It is shit. We have enough places in Minsk to make restaurants.
So in 1996, my dad started to take me to protests. I was a kid, thirteen, sitting on his shoulders, I didn’t understand and I saw a lot of people shouting and screaming and at that time there was no fear, people were laughing “we will change something, we will have democracy now.” I saw everyone smiling, and so I smiled. But then the beatings started, Lukashenko started to send in the soldiers. I didn’t understand that - why? I mean thousands of people were walking with the white-red-white flag and the police beat them and took the flags away….why?
In Belarus if you are a man you are called to serve in the army before you reach the age of twenty-seven, but when they called me up I had a small child so it was suspended for three years. And after another three years they found that I had a big lump – a melanoma – on my neck. In the army soldiers wear very high stiff collars, so they worried that when I moved it would rub and get damaged. So they suspended me for another three years, but by the time these three years were up, I was too old, I was twenty-seven. So goodbye!
It is unusual to find teachers who are against the grain. When I finished school all the kids were afraid of getting bad exam results. The teachers don’t want you to think, instead you must remember things and if you think the same way as everyone else you will do well, but if you try to be creative….well you can’t be, the teachers are afraid of anyone being creative. It is Soviet, it is all about creating soldiers. But when I went to university I met someone free, he is the man in the video in Dogs of Europe, he is my old teacher Valery Mazynsky.
He also had a theatre called the Free Stage. Like Belarus Free Theatre. But he lost his theatre because of his very satirical performances. This one performance was an allusion to Lukashenko, he was alluding to him by giving the character skating blades and everyone knew it was Lukashenko because Lukashenko likes ice hockey and they realised it was him. It was just one detail and he lost his theatre over this, it was the price he paid for being free. He ran a course at the university during this time, but after this performance, they tried to fire him. We said to the Dean if you fire Mazynsky, we the students will walk out, you will lose the course and the university will lose money. “Are you ready for this?” we said. And he was like, “Guys, please understand me.” But we said, “No, him or nothing.” So he stayed and he taught us for five years. But he lost his theatre, so he had to hire places to put on shows and he rented spaces in the House of Literature in Minsk for example – I played in my first show in his theatre there.
I learned from him to be free. In the Belarusian language, we don’t have a word for free, but we use this word instead, it is Воля or volja - it means free spirit or will. Especially when you are an actor. You should say “fuck you” to everyone, just do what you feel. Don’t be or care what other people think about you, just be independent.
Mazynsky had a special medal. He had a title for services to acting. If you have this, you get given an apartment, a car, a house outside town and money. He got this because of his very good performances, it was really art. But then these things just got taken away. He is not very political, he is just a man, he is a good person. Just a man. For instance, I had no clue about theatre, I had only been to an opera and some ballet twice before and I found it so boring. But when I got onto Mazynsky’s course – he found some talent in me – I went and saw a theatre performance and I was like “wow”. But then half a year later I realised these performances were bad because Mazynsky showed me how to be on stage, how to live on stage. I then started to realise that for me theatre is a way of living.
Belarus Free Theatre is not officially here, we are underground. So every day we are trying to live here whilst pretending we are not here. We play abroad, we get five stars in The New York Times, but officially we don’t exist. A few years ago the police came to our theatre and tried to stop our performances. So for a few years, we had nowhere to perform because they took this from us. It is very hard because it is my purpose of living to act. I am in a theatre company, but we have nowhere to perform and every day you are trying to find somewhere. Then you find somewhere and you play there one or two times and then that is it because the government finds us and makes things difficult for the owner and we say sorry and we have to go. The place we are in now has not been bothered yet, but can you imagine if we played this performance Dogs of Europe and the next day the government said no, it can’t happen anymore? And we need all our staff to find another place as big as this place for this show. It is hard because for this show we have to bring our stuff to the first floor without a lift before the performance and we have to do the get-in and spend energy and then play the performance and then after, we have to take everything back in the bus and take it back to the garage. So we don’t have a home. But, this has made me stronger, it has made me ready for everything. I am not lazy, I am more concentrated and focused.
I feel good about being in Belarus Free Theatre - it is my home, and I have been with these people for a long period. We are together nine hours a day. You are close to each other, you see each other naked and you have to be honest on stage. We have performances about intimate stories and we know everything about each other.