Sasha Ilyukevich: dictatorship blues

Rocking against repression in Belarus.

In the former Soviet Republic of Belarus, where Alexander Lukashenko has been in power since 1994, change is needed but the voices of dissent against Europe’s last dictator are few. Rob Dumas’s debut documentary, The Nonsense Express, portrays Sasha Ilyukevich as Belarus’s answer to Bob Dylan, although the 32-year-old “folk’n’roll” songwriter now lives in London and rejects the label of protest singer. After writing a string of politically charged songs, however, he found his music banned from radio play in his home country.

“One song [“Son of the Motherland”] was a fable where I compare myself with a street dog, just barking with nobody understanding me,” he explains. “At the end, I say, ‘Well, maybe it’s good to be a milk cow so I can get looked after and milked and be part of that society, where you obey everything they say.’ I then start barking and mooing and it’s a contradiction – I’m questioning myself. Some KGB agents heard the song and forced it off the air. After that, they banned the rest of my songs.”

As a response, he wrote “Kolya”, his most overtly political song to date, performed with his band, the Highly Skilled Migrants. It’s about President Lukashenko’s son, Nikolai, nicknamed Kolya, who, at the age of nine, is already considered the nation’s leader-in-waiting.

“This boy goes everywhere with his father, to all the important meetings and military parades,” says Ilyukevich. “He’s visited the Pope, he’s met Hugo Chávez and once the former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev gave him a gun made of gold, because he collects guns.”

In 2011, a journalist was detained by the Belarusian KGB for being in possession of a banner that read: ‘Where is Kolya’s mum?’ The identity and whereabouts of the boy’s mother is unclear, though she is believed to be the president’s former doctor. “It’s really strange and quite disturbing,” Ilyukevich adds.

Last dance

There’s a disturbing quality, too, to his song and accompanying video. Over a chugging electric rhythm guitar, Kolya’s name is angrily repeated, while animated images show faceless citizens, storm clouds, animals and soldiers. By moving from subtle criticism to outright expressions of dissent, Ilyukevich and his band have received what most emerging acts crave – media attention. Not all of it, however, has been welcome.

“I had an interview on the BBC about [the song],” he says. “It was a Monday and I remember we had about 680 views on Youtube. The next day, we got over 20,000 hits and it was all over the news in Ukraine and in Belarus. The same day, someone tried to hack into my Facebook, Twitter and Youtube accounts and I got quite a few insulting emails and comments. As a musician, you want to be heard but when this kind of song is heard and it’s all over the news, I don’t know if I should go to Belarus for the next few months.”

It's not the first time Ilyukevich has got on the wrong side of the state-controlled Belarusian media. The Nonsense Express follows the band on their tour of Russia and Belarus in 2010. The hard luck tale of poorly attended gigs and broken instruments reaches its climax with the group travelling to Minsk and finally securing a big audience reaction – only it comes in the form of patients of the city’s mental health hospital.

“A friend of mine worked there and invited us to play,” he explains. “They have very basic conditions; they don’t even have mattresses to sleep on – just wooden beds. But when we came, the people were so happy and welcoming, dancing and interacting with us. It was an amazing experience.”

Unfortunately, not everyone saw it that way. A journalist who witnessed the concert wrote a stinging appraisal, which criticised the group's decision to interact with the patients. Soon afterwards, Ilyukevich's friend was sacked from her job and the studio where the gig had taken place was forced to close down. “These people are left out and the studio was where they would do painting, make dolls and try out different crafts,” laments Ilyukevich. “But they just closed it down. Our gig was the last event there.”

Homeward bound: Sasha Ilyukevich (far left) with his band in Belarus in 2010.
Getty
Show Hide image

Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

0800 7318496