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Posts Tagged ‘Belarus’

Photo: Yauhen Attsetski via Radio Free Europe.
Sept. 3, 2020. Repainting the mural in the Square of Change. A mural on the side of a Minsk apartment building showing two deejays who were jailed for playing a controversial Soviet rock song has become a flash point in the standoff between Belarus president Alexander Lukashenko and his opponents.

I don’t know if readers recall the Belarusian presidential election of 2020. There were massive protests after Putin puppet Alexander Lukashenko declared a big victory. I’ve been keeping track of resistance in Belarus for a while now and feel sorry that because the president is helping Russia with the Ukraine invasion, ordinary Belarusians get associated with him.

A story — practically a book — about the resistance was reported by Sarah A. Topol at the New York Times in March, detailing how numerous Belarusians risked their lives to unseat the strongman and how the Russian invasion of Ukraine has intensified the heartbreak of their failure. I will present the conclusion of the article here. The names mentioned are people Topol interviewed about the 2020 uprising.

She writes that in February of this year, “no one believed the war was coming. The New Belarus movement was busy preparing to protest a constitutional referendum that would allow Lukashenko to stay in office until 2035 as well as give him lifetime immunity from prosecution once he left. The proposed amendments also included a change removing Belarus’s commitment to be neutral and free of nuclear weapons, which meant the country could host Russia’s nuclear arsenal.

“In the early hours of Feb. 24, Russia’s military attacked Ukraine. When I messaged the group, they were horrified. Their country had become one large Russian military base bordering three NATO countries. …

“Sviatlana and her supporters immediately announced their firm antiwar position. As the sanctions began to resemble those recently imposed on Russia, the exiled movement maintained that the people inside the country were prepared to suffer. What else could they do to stop Lukashenko now when they had failed to overthrow him already? Not everyone was as convinced. Sanctions risked hurting the average citizen; they had a mixed record of effecting political change.

“As the war continued, Belarusian relocants in Kyiv fled farther west, many of them now forced to run for their lives twice in less than a year. In Warsaw, Diana had been working on a plan to open a house for newly arriving Belarusians — a community where people could get advice on residency, refugee status, health care and schools. The group she was working with, Courtyard Activists Abroad, pivoted to providing supplies for Ukrainian refugees. She attended protests at the Belarusian and Russian Embassies. She grappled with a sense of shame. All along they wondered if they could have done more to stop Lukashenko, to free their own people and by extension to stop this war.

“ ‘Our guilt is greater than our attempts at justification, because we didn’t finish what we started — our unfinished revolution,’ she told me. ‘Lukashenko is sitting there and cooperating with Russia. This is our fault. For two years, we tried, but we couldn’t overthrow him. Given we screamed that we are the majority, we should have been able to do it. We could have done it. But to say we could or couldn’t is just a discussion; we didn’t even really try. We could have overturned the buses, even if they had 20 siloviki in them. We had thousands in our marches. But we didn’t try. Instead, we were peaceful. We walked with flowers.’

“Sviatlana released video after video supporting Ukraine, and she praised the Belarusian volunteers going to fight alongside Ukrainians. The Cyber-Partisans paralyzed Belarus’s railways to prevent Russian military movements. Three rounds of negotiations between Russian and Ukrainian officials have taken place on the Ukrainian-Belarusian border. By the end of March, the Pentagon had counted at least 70 missile launches from Belarusian territory, though no Belarusian troops had been confirmed on the ground in Ukraine. In Minsk, people had begun to fear that they would be forced to fight against their will. If Belarus announced that it was officially at war, men of military age would be barred from leaving the country.

“On Feb. 26, the night before the constitutional referendum, the chat members in Minsk decided they would go to the Russian Embassy the next day to protest the war after they went to the polling station to spoil their ballots. There had been no large rallies since the previous winter. It was a huge risk to take to the streets. When they were about to depart for the Russian Embassy, they heard it was surrounded by paddy wagons. Arrests had already been made. The group decided to change course: They would go to the Ukrainian Embassy with flowers. …

“They weren’t the only ones who risked their freedom to take a symbolic stand. Though the regime had spent a year and a half decimating the ranks of the politically active, thousands of Belarusians still took to the streets. Across the country, more than 800 people were arrested. (In Russia, with a population roughly 15 times greater, 2,000 people were arrested that same day.)

“Westerners often looked at Belarus as if it were Europe’s own little North Korea. Lukashenko himself mocked reporters who called him ‘the last dictator of Europe.’ People who have not experienced it tend to believe all autocracies are the same, but in reality, regimes and freedoms vary, and repressions exist in shades. For Belarusians, the shift from gray to black, from autocracy to totalitarianism, was calculable in lives.

“Nearly 10 million people still lived in Belarus, unwitting collaborators in the raging war. According to a Chatham House poll in mid-March, only 3 percent of Belarusians supported entering the war alongside the Russian military. The Square of Change wanted the world to know that Belarusians had recognized this danger earlier, that they had been fighting this regime, which owed its existence to Putin, for a long time. Even in this atmosphere of repression, they had not given up or fled.

“They had tried so fervently to build the independent Belarus they were promised when the Soviet Union fell. Still, 30 years later, they were thwarted by dynamics that formed decades before their birth. It had been foolish to believe that the U.S.S.R. could collapse so peacefully, that its ghosts would not demand placation. Now they were all paying the price.

“There is so much discussed about the act of fleeing, but perhaps even more puzzling is the choice to remain. ‘I have no fear for myself; I have fear for my family,’ Shamberbetch told me. ‘I want to send my relatives abroad. I want to stay here as long as possible, to fight. When I realize there’s nothing I can do here anymore, I’ll leave the country through the woods.’

“What started for two D.J.s as a small act of symbolic defiance at a concert became a mural on a wall. That symbol became another, the Square of Change, which became to Belarusians the symbol of what their new nation could be. Then those who created that symbol became symbols themselves.

“Each revolution creates its own hieroglyphics — bracelets, flags, murals, heroes and demons — but to what end? How long can a revolution survive on symbols? When your country participates in the destruction of another, how much is symbolic protest worth? Is a symbol worth your life? ‘This is what worries us now, that the meaning of fighting with stickers and other symbols simply loses its meaning,’ Sous-Chef wrote to me in March. ‘Our peaceful protests have practically no effect on the current state of affairs.’

“Still, a few nights earlier, on the fence next to the children’s playground, on that white sheet the size of a flag, they painted NO WAR in red with a black peace sign. On the side, they marked their stencil — two small D.J.s with their arms raised.”

More at the Times, here.

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Photo: Kolya Kuprich
Outlawed Belarus Free Theatre has been successfully performing
A School for Fools and other plays despite the pandemic. It took some ingenuity, but they have plenty of that.

What kind of theater could handle a pandemic better than one that is of necessity always underground? If you’re fighting an authoritarian regime, you will continually find ways it doesn’t know about for getting your work out into the world — or you’ll go to prison.

Verity Healey writes at HowlRound,* “If any theatre company is going to feel at home during COVID-19 and the challenges the pandemic has brought to theatres worldwide, it is going to be Belarus Free Theatre (BFT), an outlawed company based in Belarus and the UK (its artistic directors Natalia Kaliada and Nicolai Khalezin, in fear of their lives, had to seek asylum in Britain in 2011).

In Belarus, where dictator President Lukashenko faces national elections in August — and is busy arresting citizens attending opposition rallies — the BFT ensemble is banned from performing and from registering as a theatre company because it produces democracy-promoting plays and global campaigns advancing human rights.

“Working out of a small garage in a secret location in Minsk, the country’s capital city, BFT is ineligible to apply for national funding, and ensemble members, continuing to perform illegally and underground, face the very real and constant threat of being arrested by the KGB. …

“On top of this, Lukashenko is a COVID-19 denier and has advised his citizens to drive tractors, go to the sauna, and drink vodka to prevent infection. Whilst he has not imposed a lockdown, he is using the virus as an excuse to ban protests of any kind (prescient in the run-up to the elections) and arrest anyone who raises a voice in opposition. This means that, in Minsk, BFT, in tandem with their colleagues in the UK, have voluntarily gone into self-isolation to protect themselves and their families whilst creating work from their living quarters — turning their homes, quite literally, into performance spaces.

“ ‘I get to spend twenty-four hours a day with the people I love, otherwise the lockdown is no different for me,’ says Khalezin.

“It will not come as a surprise then that, since late February, the company has premiered two full-length plays, facilitated and broadcast several online fairy tales with renowned artists such as Stephen Fry, Juliet Stevenson, Will Attenborough, and Sam West for their campaign #LoveOverVirus, and made all of their previous shows accessible for free on YouTube. …

“It’s their latest show, though, A School for Fools (ASFF), which is streaming live online, that has recently made the headlines. Adapted from Sasha Sokolov’s 1960s phantasmagoric modernist novel of the same name … the story charts the experiences of a young boy living with a dual personality disorder attending an oppressive school, a kind of place that used to exist in Eastern Europe (and still does in Kazakhstan). …

“Starring twelve of BFT’s ensemble members, all living in Minsk, in twelve locations (the actors’ mostly small Soviet-style [flats]), and with sixteen different camera setups hosted by Zoom, it is a feat of technical wizardry imagined by [director Pavel] Haradnitski’s artistic vision and Sveta Sugako’s broadcasting direction. …

“Haradnitski calls the need to do ASFF ‘a desire to act, because even in two months, actors can lose their skills.’ Previous conversations had with Haradnitski, Sugako, and Nadia Brodskaya, the producer for ASFF, have also revealed to me that for everyone in the ensemble BFT is a way of life, 24/7. …

“ASFF is not just an ideological road map out of the pandemic — i.e., using technology and social media platforms in new ways to bring live drama to people at home via laptops and devices. It is also a way of doing theatre that, as Khalezin says, we may have to return to more and more if the world faces other pandemics. …

“Zoom is not custom-made to handle large-scale live performances—it was invented purely for business meetings and conferences and it lacks the interfaces custom-made platforms might have (there are ones being developed especially for BFT, but they were not ready in time for the pandemic). ..

“One of Sugako’s and Haradnitski’s main difficulties, for example, was working out how to let the actors know what marks to hit, especially when it was required for actors to make it look like they were physically interacting with each other. In the end, Sugako had to use a webcam, pointed at her Zoom host interface, which allowed her to share her screen with the actors so they could see they were in the right place to make it look like they were connecting across frames.

“The other issue is Zoom’s propensity to kick people off the platform if their internet connection drops — which anyone who has ever been to Belarus will know is a common occurrence. And to make things more complicated, Sugako had to line up the sixteen devices — laptops, phones — in a particular order for actors to hit their cues. If they get out of sync, the whole show is scrambled.” Read how they handled that difficulty and others at Howlround,* here.

By the way, John has been to Belarus. Maybe he will confirm that the internet connections often get dropped.

* The staff of HowlRound Theatre Commons at Emerson College wish to respectfully acknowledge that our offices are situated on land stolen from its original holders, the Massachuset and Wampanoag people. We wish to pay our respects to their people past, present, and future.

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Photo: Susie Armitage for Atlas Obscura
The line for Stolovaya 57, a Soviet-style cafeteria in a Moscow mall, shows the power of nostalgia and tight household budgets.

It’s funny how one can sometimes feel nostalgic for times that really were not great. There was privation and cruel lack of freedom in the old USSR, for example, but especially if a person was young then, there are aspects of that time that are missed. In this story, Russians miss the food they once enjoyed — or imagine they enjoyed — in Soviet cafeterias.

Susie Armitage writes at Atlas Obscura, “On a recent afternoon in Moscow, a line of hungry people stretched across the third floor of GUM, a stately 19th-century shopping arcade turned modern luxury mall overlooking Red Square.

“As the crowd waited to get into Stolovaya 57, a self-service cafe modeled on a Soviet workers’ canteen, a young woman snapped photos of the faux propaganda posters in the entryway. Inside, customers loaded their trays with fruity kissel, fuschia ‘fur coat’ salad, and jellied pork. On the hot food line, a woman in a white uniform dished out mashed potatoes, Chicken Kiev, and stuffed cabbage and curtly called out, ‘Next order, please!’ Murky jars of canned vegetables sat on shelves overhead. An abacus, like the kind used by Soviet shopkeepers, stood next to one of the cash registers. …

“As I stood in line with Pavel Syutkin, a culinary historian who co-authored CCCP COOK BOOK: True Stories of Soviet Cuisine with his wife, Olga Syutkin, he told me the long wait was just another period touch.

‘When you go step by step, 20 minutes, half an hour, you really get an effect of being inside the Soviet past,’ he said, recalling the anticipation that made the food taste better when he lived in Cold War-era Russia.

“I asked Syutkin why, in 2019, a mostly Russian crowd would wait this long for a bowl of borscht served with a heavy dollop of Soviet kitsch. He explained that Stolovaya 57 is one of the cheapest places to eat near Red Square …

“Aside from the prime location, Stolovaya 57’s popularity may have something to do with its name. Whether they’re from Moscow or a remote part of Siberia, Russians have a shared understanding of the word stolovaya, which means ‘dining hall’ or ‘cafeteria.’ Due to the Soviet legacy of public canteens, it’s shorthand for an affordable, filling, and predictable meal. …

“According to Anya Von Bremzen, author of Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking, while a handful of these early canteens had genteel touches such as fresh flowers and live music, many were plagued by rats and served awful food. The cafeteria in the Kremlin was so bad that Lenin ordered multiple investigations. As it turned out, in addition to struggling with food shortages, the nascent Soviet state had replaced many professional chefs with ideologically pure but untrained ones. …

“While the dishes in any Soviet cafeteria were supposed to be identical, in practice the quality varied widely. A large stolovaya in Moscow or Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) typically served far better food than the canteens in smaller towns. …

“Lackluster food wasn’t necessarily the fault of individual chefs, who had to make do with whatever ingredients the state provided. The Soviet food supply system routed the best stuff to high-level officials and larger state enterprises. ‘Access to good products was a symbol of your place in the social hierarchy,’ Syutkin said. …

“In 1959, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev signed a resolution to make the system of public food service ‘more massive, comfortable, and favorable.’ … A publication called The Female Worker documented cafeterias with great interest, lauding a particular dining hall in the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic (now Belarus) for its ingenuity in using kitchen scraps to raise its own pigs. …

“However, nostalgia isn’t the only thing motivating people to wait half an hour for plates of pickled herring. My 31-year-old friend Victor [points out] that many of his peers are on tight budgets. Russia’s economy has been sluggish in recent years, and paychecks still don’t go as far as they used to.” More here.

Photo: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images
Women factory workers eating in a Soviet Union lunchroom in 1928.

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Flashback city.

Hershey Felder has been presenting his one-man show on Irving Berlin at the Cutler Majestic. Embodying the great composer-lyricist, Felder takes the audience through an extraordinary life from Berlin’s birth in Belarus to his death in New York at 101.

We get to hear much of the great music, including the backstory of songs we thought we knew. “White Christmas,” for example. We may have known it was written after Pearl Harbor and became beloved of US troops everywhere, but its heartfelt power comes from a loss Berlin and his wife Ellen experienced at Christmas years before.

I liked the way Felder/Berlin first describes the famous characters with whom he interacted and, after a pause, springs their names on us. He describes writing music for one performer whose first audition pegged him as balding and mediocre at acting, singing, dancing. It was Fred Astaire.

Felder does brief and funny imitations of many celebrities: Ethel Merman, George Kaufman, Flo Ziegfeld. There are movie clips featuring people like Al Jolson — and a touching story about the great African American singer Ethel Waters.

But what can catch a person by surprise is an incident or name that hasn’t been thought of in decades. The story about Berlin putting aside “God Bless America” because an adviser thought no one would like it — then pulling it out when a well-known singer wanted something for Armistice Day years later — gave me a jolt. That’s because the well-known singer was Kate Smith, and I had a flashback to a childhood nanny who listened every day to Kate Smith on the old black & white Dumont TV singing “When the moon comes over the mountain” (not a Berlin song).

After a standing ovation, Felder made an announcement that the eldest daughter of Irving Berlin was in the audience, and she came up to the front. And so did a daughter of hers and a son and two grandsons (grandchildren and great-children of the composer.)

Berlin’s daughter spoke a few words of gratitude to Felder for his faithful portrayal, noting in particular her father’s fierce patriotism. It was fun to think that this woman was the baby for whom Berlin wrote “Blue Skies Shining for Me.”

There’s a lot to be said for the out-of-body state induced by watching a good entertainment (or reading an absorbing mystery, or doing tai chi, or playing with a child) that puts your mental tape loop on pause and leaves you refreshed.

More about the production can be found at Arts Emerson.

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This YouTube video would have you believe that all you need in Minsk is love.

The video appears to be one of a couple Belarus entries into the “All You Need is Love” AIDS fund-raising effort that got Starbucks into Guinness World Records for the most nations in an online sing-along.

Personally, I think Starbucks would have done Minsk a bigger favor by setting up shop in town (with wi-fi and air conditioning).

That’s because, according to my son’s employees in that fair city, it is difficult to get office air conditioning. They did look into it as they were sweltering in the recent heat wave. But they soon discovered that another business in their building already had an air conditioner, and the local utility could not support more than one air conditioner at a time in that building.

So until the other business moves out, it would be nice if John’s employees could work in a cool web-connected Starbucks. But there is no Starbucks in Minsk.

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Some years before Suzanne launched Luna & Stella, her brother started his own entrepreneurial business, Optics for Hire. John’s work has entailed regular trips to Ukraine and Belarus to meet with optical engineers.

In 2008, his dad decided to join him on a trip to Lviv, Ukraine (called Lvov when it was part of Poland). Here they are.

John is on the left, then the Good Soldier Švejk (Schweick), then my husband, then a Ukrainian engineer.

Do you know the Good Soldier Švejk? He is a character in a Czech antiwar novel written after WW I. The book reemerged as the thing to read around the time of the Vietnam War. The Wikipedia write-up says in part:

“It explores both the pointlessness and futility of conflict in general and of military discipline, specifically Austrian military discipline, in particular. Many of its characters, especially the Czechs, are participating in a conflict they do not understand on behalf of a country to which they have no loyalty.

“The character of Josef Švejk is a development of this theme. Through possibly feigned idiocy or incompetence he repeatedly manages to frustrate military authority and expose its stupidity in a form of passive resistance: the reader is left unclear, however, as to whether Švejk is genuinely incompetent, or acting quite deliberately with dumb insolence.”

I was delighted to see that Švejk is still appreciated in Lviv.

Meanwhile, whenever John goes to Lviv, I always ask him to hunt down the lost masterpiece of the Jewish writer Bruno Schulz, best known for The Street of Crocodiles. He is said to have given his greatest work to a Catholic friend for safekeeping just before being shot in the street by a Nazi officer. I have read a good bit about him, including the biography Regions of the Great Heresy, and I am really worried about the missing work, The Messiah. He was an amazing writer.

 This write-up on the Internet generally coincides with what I have read about Bruno Schulz, except for the emphasis on his Polishness. Nations fight over his legacy because that part of the world has shifted so often. Israel also thinks he is theirs and about 15 years ago undercover agents upset Ukraine mightily by absconding with a mural Schulz had painted and taking it to a museum in Israel. The web write-up also mentions the great Israeli writer David Grossman’s novel about Schulz,  See Under: LOVE, a difficult read.

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