“Many years ago it was the resistance against Russia, then not so long ago it was resistance against communism and now it is resistance against Lukashenko. It has been happening since the 11th century according to our family tree.”
Natalia: How did we first meet? Well, let Nicolai tell it first and then I will give my version…
Nicolai: I was a journalist at an independent newspaper and Natalia showed up in our newsroom with colleagues working on a campaign around media freedom in Belarus. I was really angry because they were interfering with my work because the newspaper was about to go to print. It was love at first sight, but I didn’t show it. Anyway, I was recommended to her as the right press person to help with a new campaign about enforced disappearances in Belarus. But Natalia said no thank you…. In the end, she agreed to meet me and she explained clearly what needed to be done and I did it. After that, we began to communicate more regularly and Natalia thought that I was arrogant and didn’t like me. But on 11th September 2001 I kissed Natalia for the first time an hour after the first tower fell in New York City. It is strange because that time is such a tragedy for people, but for others, that day has some strange fond memories.
Natalia: Well by that day in September I had known him for four years and he had already created an arrogant snobbish impression on me and I was like, “Listen, I am here to help you with your newspaper and you don’t show any sign of acknowledgement.” I was shocked but he was Editor-in-Chief and we came right at the time the paper was going to print, so it was a stressful moment, but we just arrived and expected everything to stop. So he really annoyed me. And for four years - I didn’t know his feelings for me - but I did not like him as a person. When I saw him at a major protest he was wearing leather pants and a leather jacket with very long hair. I was like, for God’s sake, who do you think you are? But it was a different world to observe him in. And then when the international campaign about enforced disappearances started I was told that the only person who could create the materials for the tour was Nicolai. I said no, no, no I will find someone else, but my friends said look, no agency will take the job and secondly you want to do it with no money, no one in the country is so creative in terms of marketing and Nicolai is also an amazing writer. They said, look I will come with you to the meeting with him and will tell him he doesn’t need to be how he usually is. So we had the meeting and it was different. He created huge portraits about the people who were kidnapped - many of whom he had known personally, some were very close friends. We spent time discussing things and when you have several meetings with someone, of course, you start communicating, you talk about life and family and suddenly you have a different person who you see was using arrogance to protect himself. Sometimes when Kolya is tired with everything, sometimes if he is in the wrong mood I tell him “No, no, no, I will not allow you to be that person I couldn’t stand for a second.” It is interesting how we have different faces for society and for our personal lives.
Nicolai: How did it feel when Belarus was dissolved from the Soviet Union? There was a sense of freedom but there was also a feeling that we had no idea what was going to come next. Also there was a feeling of uncertainty because there was this massive country – over 250 million – behind you, Russia, and suddenly we became ten million, a small country. And there used to be free movement into Russia and all of a sudden these borders came up. But on the other hand, we could travel out of Belarus to other countries. I had to make a decision on who to vote for at the elections and my mother was worried I would vote for Lukashenko. And in the end, she went with me into the polling booth – she said I want to make sure you do not vote for that farmer. I just replied I wasn’t even planning to. I voted for Stanislav Shushkevich, the former Head of the Parliament and my parents voted for the Prime Minister, Vyacheslav Kebich. So both my parents and I were voting for safe options. Those candidates who meant physical safety. That was paramount. But unfortunately, the majority chose otherwise and that is why I cannot stand the majority. When I hear people say, “hang on, most people voted for Lukashenko”, I just start running from these people and these conversations.
Natalia: I was voting for the first time ever in my life and the whole family voted for Shushkevich. The result was devastating even for my eighty-three year old grandmother. She thought people would not vote for Lukashenko. She was from a noble family and they were completely destroyed by the communists. She knows that when a farmer comes to power – it is what Dogs of Europe is about – her fear of the past will become a reality for us, and unfortunately, this is what has happened. The Soviet Union collapsed when I was sixteen which was when I went to university - I went early because I went to school early and it was a brilliant time. I was very happy to leave my school and that awful system…I refused to go into the Komsomol and it was a time then when you could say that out loud. It was a time when all the news about Lenin and Stalin started to come out. I studied history and after I graduated I decided I wanted to become an actress, but because my dad was Vice Chancellor of the Academy of Dramatic Arts they wouldn’t let me. So I moved into politics instead. My brother said, well you are still an actress, you need to pretend, but on top of it, you will speak English. It was brilliant studying between the ages of 16-20 and I also did my secondary education in business management through the American system.
It was the golden age for businesses, a renaissance until Lukashenko got into power. My brother was a businessman, in fact, what he was doing is the same model we use for Belarus Free Theatre (BFT). His company was dealing with tourism all over the world. At the same time he had a publishing house, he was a major philanthropist and helped a classical music group tour all over Europe - they even had their own aeroplane. I was spoiled those few years - it was enough for me to look at a particularly beautiful dress and he would just buy it for me. It was incredible. A bumpy time, but with hope. And you just knew everything would be amazing. It was a parallel reality. But it did not last long because when Lukashenko came he destroyed everything. And it was sad because it was an amazing time for philanthropy when wealthy people had started to support the arts or were building cancer hospitals. Lukashenko was like an alien coming for us. And my brother’s business had money which led to several attempts to kidnap me. Sometimes someone would call saying that there is a car waiting outside for me because my mother just got rushed to the hospital. Of course, in any other circumstances, I would have gone to the car except for the fact that on that occasion my mum had arrived home thirty minutes earlier. My brother’s partners got arrested and businesses were nationalised when Lukashenko came into power. One day we got a call – we still don’t know who it was. They said, “leave the house by 5am because it will be searched”. My brother had an American visa so he left saying that he would be back in two weeks. It has been twenty years. It is the same phrase Nicolai and I said to our parents on 31st December 2010: “we will be back, it will only be two weeks.”
Nicolai: My political awakening? It was after the first time I was hit by riot police, or the OMON, in the head. It was in 1988 at an anti-Stalin demonstration on the forefather’s commemoration day and it was the first time the Soviet Union used tear gas against people. That was a very personal awakening. I remember as a kid my dad always listened to Voice of America and Liberty Radio. And also my family had a good sense of humour so things were called out for what they were. I knew that they were old farts in the Soviet Union, they were a facade and they did not really lead. And soon as things started to change and the most difficult times came, I received them with gratitude. But even now, when I hear people reminiscing about the Soviet Union my only wish is to borrow that baton from the riot police.
Natalia: I remember when Kolya was released from jail we went to visit my gran who was ninety and she said she thought it would never happen to her grandchildren – that they too would be jailed and even tortured. She thought that was all over with her generation. My grandfather was in a concentration camp in Germany and after that when the Soviets freed them they were sent to Stalin’s gulags. When Stalin died he was released; severe and tragic consequences followed. My great, great grandfather was the financial manager of the resistance movement centuries ago. I said to gran when she said she was sad at Kolya’s arrest and mine and because our theatre was being compromised, that the problem is in our DNA. There are different waves of it. Many years ago it was the resistance against Russia, then not so long ago it was resistance against communism and now it is resistance against Lukashenko. It has been happening since the 11th century according to our family tree.
Nicolai: Is it difficult to maintain a sense of identity? I needed ten years to transform from being a Soviet citizen to being a Belarusian. It was difficult, I needed to do a lot of research to familiarise myself with the history and to find out who I am. But then when we had to move to the UK I lost that sense of self-identity. I feel I still remain a Belarusian but I also understand I don’t have a country of my own. Despite the fact I am doing all I can to improve the situation there, I still feel I don’t belong and that it is not my country. And the same is being repeated in the UK where I also feel that I am trying to contribute to society, to make it better. So despite the fact it is wonderful that the UK has accepted me, I still feel I have the special guest status. I have to accept the fact it is possible that for the rest of my life I will have to live under this special guest status. If we look for parallels in art, it is Dogs of Europe that reflects my life – it is about me. I lived under a Reich and I fled to a Europe which has, like in the book and the play, stopped reading books. But my mystery still lies in a time capsule underneath Siadych Street in Minsk. The most frightening thing for me in the novel is that there is just one school on Siadych Street - it is the school that I went to. So when I got to that moment in the novel and I read the street name and about the school, I felt cold sweat on my back. I had to put off reading the book and writing the play for several weeks because it is about my life. Because then subconsciously you are already looking for these details, for proof that this is your story.
The scariest thing is that it is not just my future, Dogs of Europe is about everyone’s future and I feel the fear in every scene. Unfortunately, Belarusians who are basically living under a third Reich now, they understand the fear more greatly, UK people do not. The Belarusians are already living under it, but people in the UK have not realised that they have stopped reading books. It is crucial and very important to understand that the Boris Johnson regime is one of manipulation, it is prepping for living under an authoritarian regime.
Natalia: When you are a kid or a teen you take all the shit a bit more easily. I don’t think about the Soviet Union, but I know that after the Russian Revolution the only thing my gran had left was a diamond ring which she managed to hide. The day before yesterday, when we got back from Germany – only just before they closed the borders because of Covid-19 – we went to see my mum and she gave us a basic list of foods to buy for her. Bread, eggs and sunflower oil and as it was a forty-five minute virtual queue with online shopping I said the sun is out, let’s go outside instead. So we checked five stores and they had none of the things we wanted and I felt heartbroken to see elderly people not being able to buy what they needed. And that was when I had a most horrific flashback because although my family did everything they could to protect us against the Soviet Union we still had food shortages. I cannot forget when my mum used to wake me up at 5am when I was a tiny child and we would go and queue in -20 temperatures to get meat bones for broth soup. I hated it. I was six or seven years old. The cold – I can’t stand the cold now – it gets into my bones. I can’t deal with my childhood memories, this frozen condition and hunger. And seeing what is happening in London I can’t believe it. It is very difficult psychologically when the Soviet Union is hitting back from nowhere, especially in one of the oldest democracies in the world.
Natalia Kaliada and Nicolai Khalezin are co–founding Artistic Directors of Belarus Free Theatre and Trustees of its Board