Can Protest Art Exist in Russia?
One artist believes it can, quietly.
How can it all fit in one head?
I am a playwright, poet, novelist, author of 22 books on NLP and the psychology of human relationships. I am 43. Wife, mother of two children. Belarusian. Born in Russia. Lived in Minsk, Moscow, Riga, New York, Kiev…
I talked to a friend of mine from Krasnoyarsk who moved to Moscow a few years ago. She tells me: “I'm very worried about your family, and another family of friends who are in Ukraine... I feel like a broken cup. I don't know how to pull myself together and find the right words of support. I love you very much, I embrace you in my thoughts, I dream that we will meet again, hug each other, keep our friendship, carry it through all the difficulties... I can't read all this news, watch it — it destroys me. I can't worry about the whole Ukraine, I just don't have the strength for it. If Putin started a war, and the people support him — then it's the right thing to do. People are not fools! Maybe our people are poor, not very educated, a little thievish, like to drink and fight when drunk, not really like to work, but for sure they are not mean at heart and not fools. They cannot all be fools! And they can't be scoundrels either. My mother supports Putin. But she is not a fool and not a mean person. So this war in Ukraine is necessary. If you cut down the forest, the splinters will fly. You are just splinters, Diana. Just splinters. You just made a mistake when you chose a country to live in. You should have sat quietly in Belarus and kept quiet. You can't change anything anyway. And you have children! You should have thought about your kids and... moved to Russia. But not to that Nazi hell — the Ukraine! Why did you go there in the first place? I turned gray with that thought last year.”
Now many Russians I know are saying: “Actually, we are against war. Any war. In any territory. But we support the decisions of our commander-in-chief.” “We feel sorry for Ukraine. But Putin is doing everything right! The whole world will see how many weapons we have and what a strong army we have!” “My heart sinks for our dead soldiers, but we were immediately supportive of the special operation.” “Yes, we are not perfect, bombing Ukraine, but there have been wars at all times. And we are good! We accept refugees, we are ready to adopt Ukrainian children, we will raise them as our own, it is quiet here, no bombing, Ukrainians will live here better than in the EU, because there is no language barrier, it's easier to find a job by profession.”
It makes the hair on my head move... How can it all fit in one head?
Some Russians tell me: "How am I going to go out in the square if there's only a couple of people? How will I protest when I have children? I have a small business, I'll be shut down and two of my employees will be unemployed!" In 2020, every time the Belarusians went to peaceful protest marches, they went because they thought no one would come out. No one! Come out! Today! This is why I will come out! And hundreds of thousands went out. Hundreds of thousands of people with children, jobs, projects, employees, old and sick parents came out. There was a sea of one-person pickets. My neighbours were taken when 7 people came out to protest in their yard!!! They were taken by 25 riot policemen!!! They were beaten with truncheons in the yard. They served their 15 days in jail. And then they went out to protest again. Do you think the Belarusians lost? No, we were saving not only our country, but our immortal souls. Not fat asses, but thin souls. Think about that in your spare time…
I've been living practically without sleep since August 2020. I snooze for a couple of hours, see in nightmares and wake up in a cold sweat. I wonder why those who don't sleep well themselves, eaten up by disease, old age, hatred, bile, anger, envy, have made millions of people, practically half the world, sleep badly? They, like the Pharaohs of Egypt, want to drag entire families, cities, and countries with them into the realm of the dead... I am terrified, in excruciating pain... My daughter is only eight years old. And she asks me: “Mom, why did you give birth to me, if you have to run away from someone to somewhere all the time?”
Our children were not born to keep a lookout, pack parcels for prisons, write letters to political prisoners, sleep in damp basements, drive in a car for five days without a shower or a normal bed. But they were born... Children's poem about what is good and what is bad is no longer relevant or useful, because the best people are in prison for wanting to make our lives better. And the bad people are bombing cities with civilians who just wanted to live happily on their land... Children need some other poems and new meanings about the cruel, unfair, and unjust adult world they find themselves in. They need some firm foundations on which they will lean in order to preserve themselves, not to go mad, to learn to survive and fight, even if their parents die…
I used to think that I could rely on the blue sky, because it was huge, clear, and beautiful for everyone — for the poor and rich, sick and healthy, happy and sad... You can lean on the apple tree in your yard, which is sure to blossom every spring and give apples every fall. And then it turns out that the sky is not kind to everyone, that rockets and bombs are falling from up high directly on your house, on your apple orchard... And supports in general are very shaky and unstable. You have to rely on yourself, your heart, your spine, your eyes and ears, your inner core. But this is also very shaky. Leaning on your heart, your eyes and ears, you can simply go insane... I don't know what conclusion can be drawn from this text. Nothing life-affirming comes to my mind. The only life-affirming things left are the photographs. But these are only brief moments of happiness... Maybe that's what I should build on.
During the last year, I lost my home twice. One in Minsk, the other in Kiev. In 2021 my family had to flee to Ukraine from Belarus because of political repression of Lukashenko's regime. In 2022 we fled Ukraine from the war. I came to Prague on March 10. The National Theater in Prague and the international organisation Artist at Risk helped me. The theatre offered me an artistic residency until June 30. It was a lifesaver. But the paperwork was very complicated. The Czech Republic is not very friendly to the citizens with the Belarusian passports. We could claim temporary protection in other EU countries, like the Ukrainian refugees from the war, but the Czech Republic did not give us such an opportunity.
We want to spend the next year in Prague because the National Theater has received our family very warmly and hospitably and offered me an artistic job. But further plans are still very vague. I want to go back home to my family, both dead and alive, because I haven't seen my parents (my father has cancer) for a year, and my husband could not come to his father's funeral last summer because of the political persecution of the Lukashenko's regime. I want to come to my beloved Kiev, which became our second home. I want to continue to live in comfortable and safe Europe. But these are wishes, not plans.
Belarusians are not equal to Lukashenko. Russians are not equal to Putin. Often those who fight the dictatorship want to leave it. And those who support it, stay. Each case must be considered individually, but there must be legislative mechanisms to obtain residence permits or long-term visas that do not infringe on people's rights. For example, with my current visa I cannot leave the Czech Republic for a year, and I won't even be able to go to my European theatre premieres, which are planned in different countries. My daughter won't be able to go to international acrobatics competitions, etc.
I am a literary soldier. A soldier of literature. My job is to record time, to make sense of it, to collect stories of pain. My plays need a stage realisation, because that's the only way I can speak to my reader. I am looking for theatres in Europe which I can offer my plays to. About the war in Ukraine, too.
...No one could ever imagine that literally tomorrow you would have to turn your life around 180 degrees and leave for a foreign country.
Katya and Dima (names changed) are engaged. They met during a course of anatomy at the medical school, where they are still studying. Kat...
One artist believes it can, quietly.
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