When I was three I accompanied my mother to a KGB interrogation. It was a bit of a shock for the agents that I could speak English and that I was bilingual. I was screaming and shouting “Leave my mummy alone.” I was quite a feisty kid so I was trying to kick and bite them. I think after a couple hours we were released and we tried to run to my grandparents in Izhevsk. We managed to leave Sverdlovsk where we lived, but before we reached my grandparents’ house, the local KGB took us straight off the plane and brought us for interrogations again. They wanted to know what books we were reading. They even searched our room in the hostel in Sverdlovsk and came with a warrant to search my grandparents’ flat. They searched for any books on the distribution chain samizdat. I mean, we didn’t even have anything Western. I think my mum may have had a George Orwell but it was predominantly Russian writers that were banned. So they were trying to find evidence and the sources of the chain, who we were seeing, all the stuff that the authorities thought undermined the Soviet Union. My dad and my uncle got it really bad – they were tortured with sleep deprivation and dehydration. They used what was called “bicycle torture” on my uncle. It is when they stick matches between your toes and light them and you have to move your feet quickly in order not to burn. If he went to sleep, a burning cloth was thrown at him to keep him awake. Some nights I would wake up and my mum would just sit there with a candle and I would ask where daddy was and I would vomit from stress. We also realised that we were being followed and bugged because at the hearings the KGB would be using things that my father had said to my mother. So we knew they were listening. I remember my mum and dad would just write notes to each other in our room. So at home, there would be silence. Those were trying times.
Now I have this absolutely visceral reaction to authorities that try to limit your freedoms or tell you what to do. I couldn’t stand the Soviet regime. I was a real pariah. I was six when I started in first grade at school. My teacher was a Stalinist and she hated me and she would beat me when I said something wrong. I also refused to become an Octobrist. It was a big deal where the whole school came together and the pupils were accepted into the Little Octobrists, a komsomol youth organisation. I refused. And not only that I was explaining to the other kids how Lenin was horrible and that he killed people through starvation and food shortages – how he was in a pact with Hitler. Obviously, this was not taught on the curriculum. And interestingly I wasn’t indoctrinated like my teachers thought, my parents never sat me down and told me what to think. They were actually surprised I did not become an Octobrist and that I refused to wear little Lenin on my dress and they were concerned that I was causing so much trouble. They knew the teachers would be harsh and there was still corporal punishment. I mean it wasn’t still accepted, but you couldn’t really complain if your child was being hurt. But they supported me. I think I just picked these attitudes up because I’ve heard things and my family has always had a deep relationship with Scott Shane at the Baltimore Sun, a paper based in Maryland, US, and other friends who were foreigners. I was four when I first visited the Baltimore Sun’s Moscow Bureau with my parents. I was aware of life. What really hurt me though was when my parents asked me why I was against Lenin. I said two things – one) he was killing children, it was something I could relate to. I saw some pictures of naked Ukrainian children with big, big tummies and I was so shocked by it. At first, I thought they were really fat but then someone explained that they were being starved to death in the Holodomor. (crying) Sorry, it’s been such a long time, I am not even sure I ever told anyone about this since then. But I think it is because I have my own child now… The other thing for me – so two) was that Lenin and the regime were killing priests and dismantling churches. For me this was a big thing. My parents were friends with those leading the Norway movement of Moral Re-Armament (now Caux Initiative of Change) which was based on Christian values. Victor Sparre was a Norwegian artist who was part of it, and he became my adopted godfather. We had conversations about God and how moral re-armament was set up. I think that had an effect on me. I think those people were incredibly selfless. And I could not understand how you could destroy churches and kill people who were doing such good things for the community. How can you dismantle such beautiful churches and cathedrals? It was breaking up communities. So I can’t stand Lenin, but obviously when I said these things in classrooms people were shocked.
I was born in Moscow and then my parents were sent to Sverdlovsk (now called Yekaterinburg). My father was a filmmaker “attached” to the Sverdlovsk film-studio. Back then, all professionals would be allocated work wherever there were openings, even if the worker had no friends or family in that place. I think I was eighteen months old when we arrived in Sverdlovsk and I lived there until I was eleven, then I went with my mum to the States and close friends of my family became my legal guardians. Basically, I was going between Russia and the US in my teenage years, but then in Summer 1998 I just stayed with my dad in Russia because it was an exciting time. My parents were divorced and I just told my mum that I was not going back to America. It was pre-Putin, the time when it felt like things were falling into place. Everyone knew Yeltsin was a clown and a drunkard but things calmed down, the mafia stopped random shootings and businesses sprang up, but also creativity was improving. There were all these theatre and film festivals and film clubs opening up. My parents were part of the intelligentsia so I felt involved. But then it all got worse when Putin came to power. I went to Moscow after I did my first degree in Linguistics and Intercultural Communication (I focused on cognitive linguistics and the media) and I worked for the Baltimore Sun and then for the US Embassy. But in 2006 the human rights activist, journalist and writer Anna Politkovskaya was killed and it was like, we need to get out of here. This was around the time when I first met Natalia and Nicolai because we came down to cover the Jeans Revolution story where people were protesting against the Belarusian elections in 2006. Back in Moscow, I went to see Belarus Free Theatre’s (BFT) shows whenever I could and Being Harold Pinter and Generation Jeans blew me away.
It was different from the stuff I was used to seeing. It was the time when Teatr.doc was starting in Moscow. But of course, for me the human rights angle was important. It sounds clinical and it is so broad – but it is just something you can relate to in BFT – finally, someone is talking about something that matters. In your early twenties, you are trying to reflect and crystallise your feelings about the outside world and it is so difficult to do that. You have a lot of frustration, but you can’t pin it down and so when you see a drama that reflects your feelings of being dissatisfied with the government, you feel oh yeah, this is what it is and where it comes from.
So I have known Natalia and Nicolai for a long while and I am really glad that our paths have crossed now. I am at the stage in my life where you feel that urgency, where you want to focus on things that matter, things that count. Particularly after my uncle was killed in 2014 in Ukraine while reporting on the war. It stung me to the core. I can’t waste time at all. I want to be working with people I want to work with on projects I care about that have the most impact.
Sophie Kayes is co-Executive, Development and Education Director at Belarus Free Theatre