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Threatened Belarus cultural scene finds support in Berlin

Dissident Belarusian artists have found support in Berlin and at festivals in western Europe, but at home they are often forced underground to avoid government censorship. Many have already chosen to leave Belarus.

Concert by Lavon Volski

Even artists face persecution by the Lukashenko regime

Gryshka's time in a KGB prison took its toll on the Belarusian dissident. Still, since his release, he's used his freedom to encourage his compatriots - many of whom who are disillusioned by President Alexander Lukashenko's violent crackdowns the opposition's freedom of expression.

"I smiled though they told me to be afraid," Gryshka sings of the Belarusian government. "Friends, believe me, they don't have much time left."

Gryshka's message has earned him a place at Berlin's Volksbühne theater this Tuesday, where he and other Belarusian dissidents expect a warmer welcome than they might get back home.

Volksbühne, Berlin

Once under the East German regime, the Volksbühne is known for its provocative productions

In reality, Gryshka was not one of the hundreds of opposition protesters arrested in Minsk after December's presidential elections, widely regarded as rigged. Rather, Gryshka is a character thought up by the Belarusian singer and songwriter Lavon Volski, whose "Songs of Truth" have become hymns of the Belarus' oppositional culture movement.

Songs of Truth

In the album, Volski uses humorous refrains to reflect on the tumultuous events that grip his country. Two fictional characters embody Belarus' division in Volski's "Songs of Truth": Gryshka, an opponent of Lukashenko, who speaks Belarusian and longs for his country to grow closer to the European Union, and Sauka, Gryshka's pro-Russian pendant, who supports Lukashenko's regime and still longs for the good old days of Belarus' Soviet past.

What Gryshka and Sauka have in common is their shrewdness and their love of Belarus, a country often ignored by the rest of Europe - except for when it happens to be the stage of major political unrest.

Forced underground

Volski's songs are one example of how Belarusian artists are confronting the country's current events. Meanwhile the regime's disregard for freedom of expression has forced others underground.

The Free Theater of Minsk, an unregistered troupe which has addressed topics taboo in Belarus since forming in 2005, performs in secret locations such as private homes, cafes, condemned buildings and woods.

Lavon Volski performing

Lavon Volski's "Songs of Truth" have become hymns of the Belarusian opposition

Non-conformist literature, meanwhile, is printed by small private presses, which are threatened daily with the prospect of being shut down by the government.

"Belarus: The Power of the Word" is the name of Tuesday's event in Berlin, aimed at spotlighting the importance of culture to inspire change: Despite censorship, the cultural scene in Belarus has provided the major impulse for change in the face of Lukashenko's 16-year authoritarian regime.

Others appearing in Berlin alongsideVolski include Belarusian investigative journalist and author Svetlana Alexievich, known for her writings on Chernobyl, and artist-author Artur Kinau, known for his subtle play with Soviet myths.

Support in Germany

While limited in their freedoms at home, these artists can count on the support of Berlin's prominent cultural figures, including author Ingo Schulze, who is set to appear with them at the Volksbühne. Schulze, who grew up in communist East Germany and has often travelled through eastern Europe, believes that "writers and musicians, and the arts in general, can best give a face to this neighbor."

"These are the people who can influence perception beyond the political camps and create a resistance," Schulze added.

Austrian author Martin Pollack has also thrown his support behind Belarus' persecuted artists.

Belarus, he said, "is a 'terra incognita,' a white spot on the maps in our minds. That is unforgivable."

"We don't know enough about Belarus or Belarusian literature," Pollack said, adding, "This ignorance is frightening and disgraceful, and it is high time that we change it."

Post-election protests in Minsk

Hundreds of opposition protesters - and their leaders - were arrested in the post-election fallout in December

Between depression and resistance

Andrej Dynko, dissident journalist and chief editor of the Belarusian weekly paper Nasa Niva, has said it appears as if government plans to "systematically destroy the opposition and civil society altogether."

Alexievich said the current situation reminds her of the persecution of the Great Purge that took place under Stalin in the 1930s.

As Lukashenko continues to clamp down on the opposition, it is hard to tell what exactly will become of Belarus' cultural scene. Already many artists have left Belarus for Vilnius, Moscow or Warsaw.

Photographer Andrei Liankevich, who also planned to be in Berlin on Tuesday, said he too was considering leaving Belarus "to take a breath and consider how things can continue."

"Not knowing if tomorrow you can still live with your art in your home country and survive on it makes you very weary and sad," said Liankevich, who before December 19 had never considered leaving Belarus.

"I have to take emigration into consideration, too," he said, "Unfortunately."

Author: Ingo Petz / dl

Editor: Rob Turner

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