- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 13, 2006

MINSK, Belarus — The theater lovers, bundled into winter jackets, are crammed into a grim, unheated barroom on the outskirts of the capital. Shouts ring out from the back rows: “Louder, please.”

As authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko seeks to cement control over this ex-Soviet republic, extending his power from politics into the arts, Belarus’ Free Theater has made bars and private apartments its stage.

In recent years, popular rock bands have been driven underground, writers have been pressured to toe the government line, and caricaturists depicting Mr. Lukashenko have been imprisoned. The Free Theater is operating on the sly.

“For [our] actors, playing here is a civil act, a heroic deed,” says the troupe’s head, Nikolai Khalezin.

The theater was born last year out of a Belarus-based international playwriting competition organized by Mr. Khalezin and his wife, Natalya Kolyada. It has won endorsements from playwrights Tom Stoppard and Vaclav Havel and has been gaining popularity with contemporary plays that Mr. Khalezin says are meant to “blow up government taboos.”

Some critics say the theater’s popularity has more to do with politics than artistic merit, but hundreds of Minsk residents are eager to attend its performances. They find out about dates and ever-changing performance spaces through a secretive word-of-mouth scheme or Internet postings.

A recent performance included “Techniques of Breathing in a Closed Space,” a modern Russian tale of a girl dying from cancer and yearning for life and freedom, and a play based on the testimony of the wives of vanished or imprisoned Belarusian opposition figures.

Anna Solomyanskaya, a 33-year-old actress, struggled to hold back tears as she read the monologue of a wife whose husband had disappeared after speaking out against Mr. Lukashenko. She expressed hope that the Free Theater would help transform her homeland into a democratic country.

“I am optimistic that someday it will change for the better,” Miss Solomyanskaya said.

Rock star Lyavon Volski has the same hopes, but for now, the cult rock singer is banned from performing in music halls or even outdoor concerts. He plays gigs in basements and small bars run by his fans.

His lyrics include, “The sun will never rise in this country, this country will never see any light” and, “We live under a concrete pavement, for them we are nothing but rats and mice.”

“All we want is to be able work for ourselves, for our people,” the 40-year-old rocker says.

Belarus, a Slavic, mostly Orthodox Christian nation of 10 million, is sandwiched between Russia and Ukraine and European Union member states Poland, Latvia and Lithuania.

Having been part of Lithuania and then its subsequent union state with Poland in the 16th and 17th centuries, it became part of the Russian empire at the end of the 18th century. Following the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, Belarus became part of the Soviet Union and gained independence after the 1991 Soviet collapse.

Since coming to power in 1994, Mr. Lukashenko has quashed all dissent, taken control of independent media and turned Belarus into a Soviet-style throwback with a state-controlled economy.

Unable to tame opposition-minded cultural figures, he has attempted to crowd them out with pro-government artists. Mr. Lukashenko has set up a prestigious presidential award in the arts and showered praise on loyal pop singers, calling one singer who glorifies him during her concerts “Belarus’ golden voice” and “the Silver Swan.”

The pressure on artists has only increased in the run-up to this month’s presidential elections, in which Mr. Lukashenko is seeking a third term.

Miss Solomyanskaya, who also works in a state-run theater, says her bosses have threatened repeatedly that if she doesn’t quit the underground troupe, she will be fired from her main job. Mr. Khalezin says his phone conversations are being tapped all the time. At a recent Free Theater performance, two police officers stood outside the bar, monitoring who the audience members were.

Mr. Lukashenko has set up his own association of writers to counter a long-standing union of the country’s leading authors who have criticized him. The pro-government group is attempting to strip their counterparts of their premises.

“On the eve of elections, authorities are in need of soldiers of the ideological front and not of writers,” says Ales Pashkevich, chairman of the Free Theater.

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