Nicolai khalezin and Natalia Kaliada founded Belarus Free Theater.

Belarus theater company flees amid opposition crackdown 

Belarus Free Theater has staged provocative plays highlighting political corruption and the effects of authoritarianism for 16 years. Now, all its members are leaving Belarus, saying it’s no longer safe for them. 

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Nicolai khalezin and Natalia Kaliada founded Belarus Free Theater. 

Courtesy of Belarus Free Theater/Marilyn Kingwill 

Svetlana Sugako, managing director of Belarus Free Theater, fled to London in October. Sugako is one of 16 members of the theater company now in exile in the UK along with nine other family members. 

The actors and staff began leaving Belarus early this year after years of harassment and persecution. For 16 years, the theater has staged plays that highlight social injustice and government corruption in the country. 

Related: 'We cannot close the door or turn the page': Belarusian dissidents in Lithuania fear Lukashenko's crackdown

Cast members of "Dogs of Europe" in rehearsal.

Cast members of "Dogs of Europe" in rehearsal. 

Credit:

Courtesy of Belarus Free Theater/Kolia Kuprich

In 2010, the group was banned by the Belarusian regime, making it the only theater company to be outlawed in Europe on political grounds. 

Several members of the theater troupe have been arrested over the years including Sugako, who was detained with her friend last August on the day of the Belarusian general election. 

“We were sitting on a bench near the polling station and that’s it, that’s everything, that’s all we were doing. Just sitting and waiting.”

Sugako said the police arrested them without any explanation and threw them into the back of a police van. They were taken to a prison on the outskirts of the Belarusian capital Minsk and held in a four-person cell with 34 others. The prison guards refused to give them anything for three days, she said. 

Related: Belarus opposition figure detained after flight diverted

“We were without any food or water or even air because there were so many people in the cell. It was so hard.” 

Sugako was held for five days, which she describes as "five days in hell." Over 35,000 people were arrested over those few days as thousands protested the election result on the streets of the capital. 

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, who has been in power for almost three decades, claimed a landslide victory at the polls. The opposition said the election was rigged

The protests were the largest ever seen in the country’s history. Sugako said it isn’t fear of being rearrested that has led her to flee Belarus but the realization that once in prison — her voice would be silenced.

Nicolai Khalezin and Natalia Kaliada, founders of Belarus Free Theater.

Nicolai Khalezin and Natalia Kaliada, founders of Belarus Free Theater. 

Credit:

Courtesy of Belarus Free Theater 

Natalia Kaliada, who founded the theater group with her husband, Nicolai Khalezin, in 2005, said what their company has experienced recently is nothing new. 

Kaliada has been living in exile in London for 10 years with her husband and their two children. Khalezin has long been a vocal critic of the government and has been detained and jailed on several occasions.  

Kaliada was touring with her husband and the theater group in New York in 2010 when they were declared public enemies on Belarusian national TV

The couple did not return home.  

But Kaliada said even in London she doesn’t feel safe. Last December, a state-owned newspaper in Belarus published an article saying the couple would be hunted down and hanged side by side. Kaliada said she tries to not pay attention to the threats.

“We never feel safe, but we do not think about it because we need to be very rational and logical and we simply don't have time because there are thousands of people going through hell today in Belarus."

Natalia Kaliada, founder, Belarus Free Theater

“We never feel safe, but we do not think about it because we need to be very rational and logical, and we simply don't have time because there are thousands of people going through hell today in Belarus,” she said. 

The theater company has staged productions around the world but in Belarus, all their plays are held in secret locations. Kaliada said she is relieved that so many of the theater members are now together in London, but their future remains uncertain. 

The group has artist visas to perform in the UK but these expire in less than six months. 

This week, some of the members are traveling to Poland, where they have been offered accommodation and humanitarian visas. Kaliada said they will explore if Poland is a good place for the group to base for the longer term. Not being able to perform in Belarus will be difficult, Kaliada said, but the company still plans to highlight the injustices of Lukashenko’s regime to audiences abroad.

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"We will continue to perform. This is a major priority and the most urgent priority is to continuously encourage people in Belarus," she said. 

Meanwhile, Sugako is not certain yet where she will end up living. Her partner has joined her in London, but their families remain back home in Belarus. Sugako said she doesn’t care where they go as long as the theater company is together, and they can perform safely once more.

“We are more than a theater company, we are a family that works together. For 16 years, we've grown up together and now we are free to do what we love to do.”

Nicolai Khalezin directs rehearsals of "Dogs of Europe." 

Nicolai Khalezin directs rehearsals of "Dogs of Europe." 

Credit:

Courtesy of Belarus Free Theater/Kolia Kuprich

Belarus Free Theater will return to London’s Barbican Center in March next year to stage its adaptation of the banned Belarusian book “Dogs Of Europe.” 

The play is a political thriller set in a dystopian super state where individual freedoms are taken away. Kaliada said the show is a warning to audiences about the dangers of looking away when authoritarianism takes root.