Roman Shytsko

Verity Healey

For a while, I didn't notice the dictatorship or the state of my country, but then I became more aware when I was about twenty when I had to serve in the army – we have conscription in our country. It was like a trip, like getting stoned, it is like you just understand it and you can do nothing.

It was the army's treatment of people that made me aware. For example, one day my nose was very painful from a bad cold and the medical unit said I needed an urgent x-ray, but the army said there was no car to take me to the hospital. The next day the pain was much worse and this time we got a car and we set off to get my x-ray, but halfway there they turned back and took me for target practise instead – this was in winter! It was only on the third day that I finally got to the hospital, had an x-ray and got given antibiotics, but when I went back out to the car, the driver told me he needed to go somewhere else and to wait for him to pick me up. I was waiting outside for that car for five hours in minus temperatures! I couldn't just go because otherwise that would have made me a deserter – so I had to wait. I got very cold and when the car finally turned up I had a very bad headache. This kind of treatment is not unique, this is the system that operates in the army. I knew one guy who stopped being able to feel in one arm and one leg because he got meningitis. The army had to pay him compensation, but they made him stay until the end of his term. The army is a small model of Belarus, it is the state downsized. Until I had to attend it I did not realise this. There is corruption. Stealing. Misbehaviour. People in the second year bully those coming into the first...

All the teachers at my school told me to go and work in the town factory in Zhodzina. It’s not a good job, but they told me I was incapable of doing anything else because I had bad marks and I was not a good student. I remember how my physics teacher said I would not achieve anything because I am so bad, so I tried to understand what I could do…of course, now I realise it was not me, but the educational system that was the problem. But I had some experience of acting in the church school and I realised that I enjoyed being on stage and communicating to the audience, so I decided to become an actor and I got a place at the Academy of Dramatic Arts in Minsk. Towards the end of my course, I realised that I would need to find somewhere where I could work as an actor, but there was nothing I really enjoyed in state theatre... and then I heard about Belarus Free Theatre. And at the same time, there was a call out to audition for Fortinbras and I realised that I wanted to join, it resonated with me. 

I started attending Fortinbras after I left the Academy and at the same time, I had to serve in the army. During the second term, I was very afraid because it was after I got arrested for an LGBT action when we dressed as police officers with rainbow epaulettes for a public performance. I was afraid because I thought that I would be imprisoned by the army, and there is no court system, they just jail you and you have no rights and you can't defend yourself. Luckily I didn't go to jail, but I was bullied, they called me a faggot and I was beaten. It was not that bad – it was bad, but not all bad. They were doing it because I was outspoken. It was scary because you can die in the army, there are a lot of suicides or “accidents” and I was afraid to die there. Once on my day off I was using the metro and I understood it was the last time I would use it because I thought I would die in the army. It felt like hell.

Being in the theatre has given me back different things. It’s given me inner freedom and I am not afraid to talk about anything. For example, I can talk about politics, sexual orientation and some people are afraid of such topics. The first LGBT action I did with Fortinbras challenged me and I was afraid that I might get hit because there are a lot of homophobes. In Zhodzina it is risky to talk about being gay, in fact the word gay is not normally used, it is more like faggot. But during the action people perceived us pretty well and they smiled back and for me, it was more like a theatre performance – it gave me a lot of positivity. I realised that this is a way to change some things. My mum does worry about me being in the theatre but she likes the company too and she supports me, she was there at the first performance of Dogs of Europe. She brought me some medicine when the police were looking for me after my action and I went into hiding and she supported me and calmed me down and reassured me everything would be fine.

I knew Belarus Free Theatre would be risky. I do it because everything else is boring. And it is very cool when you can change something with your profession. I just feel it is the right way. Belarus Free Theatre to me is like family.

Sometimes I dream that I am waking up in a free country, in free Belarus. And everything goes from there, it is the core of everything because we have a list of forbidden jobs for women - two hundred jobs! And you can be forbidden for holding hands with a guy, you can be beaten for it. For the state, the best picture of a man is a drinking person with two kids and a wife who he violates and all the laws are for him.

It will change, oh yes! And I am very happy I probably will take part in such a process because later I can tell my children that I was a part of it.