“Belarus isn’t sexy. Sexy countries have oil, gas, diamonds, sea, mountains.” A woman named Yana is standing on a stage wearing a robe and a crown of flowers, surrounded by fellow actors and delivering a fiery speech in Russian. “The only way for the country to attract attention is to strip in front of the entire world.” This she does. She is leashed to the ceiling and her naked body is smeared with black paint. Her faux captors wrap her in white cloth until she resembles a hand-rolled cigarette, but she continues: “Belarus has only people, but people is a product that doesn’t sell.” She writhes about, breaks free of her restraints, and wields her leash like a bullwhip.
This is a scene from “Minsk 2011”, a performance by a group called the Belarus Free Theater. It appears in Dangerous Acts Starring the Unstable Elements of Belarus, a new documentary that won plaudits at the Toronto International Film Festival and will premiere on HBO this summer. Much of Dangerous Acts was smuggled out of Belarus on flash drives, and the result is one of the most detailed depictions of life in the famously opaque post-Soviet republic ever captured on film. The ongoing crisis in Ukraine has drawn some of the heaviest coverage of the former Soviet Union in years, but neighboring Belarus, the country that most closely resembles Vladimir Putin’s vision for Ukraine, remains obscure. The producers of the film hope to change that.
Dangerous Acts concerns a small group of Belarusian stage actors and directors who have been blacklisted from working in state-approved theaters due to their involvement in a major protest that shook the capital city of Minsk in 2011. The protests were in response to allegations of fraud surrounding the reelection of Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus as a dictator since 1994. Riot police arrested hundreds of demonstrators, and the core members of the Belarus Free Theater fled the country. The film traces their journey from underground performances and political agitation in Minsk to exile in New York and London, where they have drawn praise for their chilling, minimalist reenactments of the protests. In one, a man stands on an empty stage and starts to clap, and suddenly he is assaulted and carted away by police. State-employed street-sweepers dutifully remove any trace of his presence.
At a screening last week of the film at the New America Foundation in New York, director Madeleine Sackler explained that she was drawn to the project by Belarus’s low profile in the West. Even though celebrities ranging from Tom Stoppard to Mick Jagger to Kevin Spacey have rallied in support of the Belarus Free Theater, neither the performers nor any other victims of Lukashenko’s dictatorship have received a fraction of the attention given to the Russian punk collective Pussy Riot or the political upheaval in Ukraine. Sackler became interested in the question of how to capture a lack of free speech on camera, and how to make international audiences care.
Dangerous Acts does not make the case for Belarus’s significance in geopolitical terms, but it presents a harrowing portrait of a country where a ten-year-old boy hangs himself and his father, the actor Oleg Sidorchik, descends into alcoholism as he struggles to find a legal outlet to express his grief. Many of the members of the Belarus Free Theater have been arrested multiple times by the KGB (which has kept both its name and status in Belarus) and subjected to rape and torture in prison. Their relatives endure home searches and harassing phone calls from the authorities. Criticizing Lukashenko’s regime is impossible. Even a silent march by protesters bearing no signs is enough to trigger a violent crackdown, and proper journalistic credentials are not enough to protect photographers from being thrown in vans and hauled away by plainclothes police.
In a panel following the screening, Arch Puddington of Freedom House described how Belarus has led the way among its fellow former Soviet republics in reversing the tentative liberal reforms of the early 1990s. Unlike Russia and Ukraine, it never experienced the tumultuous privatization that created potential alternate centers of power beyond the state. Lukashenko pursued a foreign policy of halting, negotiated reintegration with Russia, thus ensuring access to Russian economic subsidies to compensate for a lack of private investment. By consolidating absolute power at home, Lukashenko has avoided the chaos of Ukraine’s fragile and regionally polarized democracy, establishing an alternate post-Soviet model more amenable to Russia’s leadership. While Putin and Lukashenko have never gotten along personally, the stability of Belarus’s repressive regime is its only hedge against Russian intervention.
Another panelist, the journalist Masha Gessen, took credit for coining Belarus’s unavoidable epithet, “Europe’s last dictatorship,” before adding that she wished she could uncoin it. When I asked her why, she said Russia has now overtaken Belarus in rolling back individual liberties, and that Putin is likely to extend this rollback to Crimea and any other regions of Ukraine he manages to annex. Gessen, the author of a damning biography of Putin, said she related to the exiles in Dangerous Acts. Last year, she left Russia with her partner and her children in response to the infamous law against homosexual propaganda, which directly threatened her family. She is in contact with gay residents of Crimea, who are now subject to that law. LGBT Belarusians, including some members of the Belarus Free Theater, also face mounting pressure from the state.
Dangerous Acts offers a valuable portrayal of what Puddington calls “21st century authoritarianism”, a system that updates 20th century models of dictatorship to survive in the face of new media technologies, global economic pressures, and a younger generation of activists who are more engaged with civil society than with traditional opposition parties. A core feature of Lukashenko’s model is uncertainty. If the performers choose to attend a protest, some of them may be arrested and some may not. Those who are arrested may be freed within a week to demonstrate the regime’s leniency to Western governments, or may be held for over a year to demonstrate its harshness to domestic critics. Opposition websites may be blocked at critical moments and unblocked at other times. Scenes of protesters brutally clubbed by riot police are somehow less disturbing than scenes of the exiled performers speaking with their elderly parents and young children on Skype, not knowing when they’ll be able to reconnect in person.
“There is no such thing as totalitarianism,” says Gessen. The leaders of Belarus and Russia wield their power selectively and unpredictably, which is why the most common plea from the exiled performers is for a normal life. In an early scene, we see young children in a courtyard pretending to be cops and KGB interrogators under the watchful gaze of actual cops. In their play “Being Harold Pinter,” four Belarusian actors craft a life-size child out of newspaper and have it perform ordinary schoolroom tasks. Later, an exiled actor notices KGB Bar, a popular literary hangout in Manhattan’s East Village, and wishes for the day when only bars and laundromats in Minsk will bear the initials.