How Repression in Belarus and Revolution in Ukraine Provides a Warning and a Lesson for Brexit Britain
Natalia Kaliada of the Belarus Free Theatre and the stars of ‘Counting Sheep’ Mark and Marichka Marczyk, explain how protestors can’t abandon the barricades if they are to defend their freedoms.
“This show is not about Ukraine. It’s for all of us, so we can understand that we could lose our freedoms very easily and you can just sit and observe and think that it will pass, but it will not pass.”Natalia Kaliada
In 2005, Natalia Kaliada and her husband Nicolai Khalezin founded the Belarus Free Theatre – an artistic resistance to the 25-year-old authoritarian regime of the country’s president Alexander Lukashenko.
Belarus is known as the “last dictatorship of Europe”. Having gained independence as a republic after the fall of the Soviet Union, it is a repressive society in which political opposition is violently suppressed, free and fair elections are not held, and the media is not free.
Now political refugees in the UK, both Natalia and Nicolai were beaten and imprisoned by the regime after setting up their theatre company. The murdered bodies of those close to them have never been found.
‘Counting Sheep’ is the latest immersive production from the Belarus Free Theatre, currently showing at London’s The Vaults in Waterloo.
“Here, [the protest] starts at nine, finishes at five and at 5pm it’s a very amazing tradition – you put the placards against the wall and jointly go to the pub. With that particular version of resistance it’s not possible to change anything.”Natalia Kaliada
Telling the story of Mark and Marichka Marczyks’ fight for freedom and love during the 2014 Ukraine uprising, known as the ‘Maidan revolution’, it is another frightening but life-affirming example of people fighting a corrupt state for their human rights.
In the winter of 2014, protests were organised by students in Kiev’s main square, the Maidan Nezalezhnosti, to force Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovych to keep to his word and sign an association agreement with the EU – a move he had backtracked on in favour of closer ties with Putin’s Russia.
As the resistance developed, special forces police used violence against protesters, sparking mass protests which turned into a revolution overthrowing the Ukrainian Government.
Speaking at a post-show talk on Sunday, Natalia said her company is bringing the story of Ukraine’s revolution to UK audiences because it is “very relevant” to political and social issues facing the country now.
“After the revolution happened and Trump showed up on the scene, we looked at each other and went ‘he’s getting elected 100%’. This was way before he had a running shot, when he just appeared on the scene because we just knew the model.”Mark Marczyks
“The show is about Ukraine and the starting point of the EU really resonated in us because, now, in this country, people are taking it for granted,” she said.
“We people who come from Belarus, we have a very high sensitivity to any form of control and observing what’s happening with the UK and the US, it was a very clear understanding that we need to make an artistic statement in order to shake downtown London and to send a message.
“It doesn’t matter from where we come, even though, yes, we come from Belarus. Yes, it’s a dictatorship for 25 years. But, at some point when we became political refugees nine years ago in the UK, it became clear it’s not about Belarus and this show is not about Ukraine. It’s for all of us, so we can understand that we could lose our freedoms very easily and you can just sit and observe and think that it will pass, but it will not pass.”
The Belarus Free Theatre has been targeted by the dictatorship because of its campaigning stance.
“Our company is the only campaigning company in the world so every single show is linked to a campaign,” Natalia said. “So, if we do a show on a specific issue, such as capital punishment, then we are campaigning against capital punishment. As a result of our activities, we have been beaten up, sent to jail, my husband was a prisoner of conscience… I was in jail several times but it was very short. I have a few ribs broken, but it’s okay… bodies of those people who have been killed, who are our friends, have never been found.”
Natalia, Mark and Marichka warned those in the UK not to be complacent about their freedoms and said people “really need to stand up” for them if they are under threat – even if they are not living in an overtly oppressive state.
“We people who come from Belarus, we have a very high sensitivity to any form of control and observing what’s happening with the UK and the US, it was a very clear understanding that we need to make an artistic statement in order to shake downtown London and to send a message.”Natalia Kaliada
All of them found the British form of protest – a 9-to-5 affair with placards discarded on the streets by 5pm in time for the pub – peculiar.
“It’s very different in Belarus or Ukraine and protests that we participated in here,” Natalia said. “There, you stay for days and nights, you will not leave the square… Here, it starts at nine, finishes at five and at 5pm it’s a very amazing tradition – you put the placards against the wall and jointly go to the pub.
“With that particular version of resistance it’s not possible to change anything.
“So, if you feel that you are fed-up with something, then you just really need to stand up for your rights. For now, I’m sure you didn’t yet get that feeling, but, when you get it, try not to be there just until 5pm and then go to the pub. Stay overnight.”
Mark and Marichka, who now live in Mark’s native Canada, said they had experienced the same thing on the Women’s March in Washington, which was held on the same day as Donald Trump’s inauguration as President.
“At five o’clock, it was done,” Mark said. “The bars were packed and the streets were empty… we went into a bar and had a couple of drinks and listened to people having conversations. At a certain point we left and went out into the street and it was empty and all the garbage cans were just trashed with placards. We went home, we got up in the morning, and the placards were gone. All the garbage cans were clean. It was as if it never happened.
“And while we were going there, in the march, it was amazing. There were a million people in Washington and it was happening all over the US and the feeling was good. Everyone had the placards and everyone was screaming and hugging in the streets. The entire city was completely over-run by people who believed in a brighter future.”
“The street was empty and all the garbage cans were just trashed with placards. We went home, we got up in the morning, and the placards were gone. All the garbage cans were clean. It was as if it never happened.”Mark Marczyks
Mark said those in the Ukraine did not think twice about Donald Trump’s potential election as President after living through their experiences in Ukraine.
“After the revolution happened and Trump showed up on the scene, we looked at each other and went ‘he’s getting elected 100%’. This was way before he had a running shot, when he just appeared on the scene because we just knew the model.
“Every Ukrainian knew that and I think every Belarusian knew that as well. All of our friends back home went ‘are you nuts? Nobody’s going to vote for this clown’ and we went ‘this was orchestrated in Ukraine, we saw this happen with a clown exactly like him’… Actually, to focus on the individual is not quite the right way, it is all the forces behind them.”
In the wake of Kiev’s Maidan Revolution, Russia annexed Crimea and invaded the Donbas region of the Ukraine in support of pro-Russian separatists. The war is still ongoing.
Official estimates suggest that 11-12,000 Ukrainians have been killed in the protests and conflicts since 2014.
More information about the Belarus Free Theatre can be found here.
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