An underground theatre group, Belarus Free Theatre, run by political refugees from Belarus Natalia Koliada and Nikolai Khalezi, has united with famous actors including Kim Cattrall, Hugh Grant, Jude Law, Joanna Lumley, Mark Rylance and Stephen Fry to write an open letter to ice hockey players taking part in the World Championships in Minsk, urging them not to “play with dictators.” Playwright Tom Stoppard, who has long been a supporter of the company, has also signed the letter.
The guerrilla theatre ensemble, which has been declared a public enemy on Belarusian national television, campaigns against Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko, who will reach the twentieth anniversary of his regime – often referred to as ‘Europe’s last dictatorship’ – in July. It is calling upon the players in the World Cup Ice Hockey Championships in Minsk to don red and white scarves when they appear on the ice after matches. The colours are a symbol of the white-red-white flag of resistance.
Kaliada tells me that ice hockey is “a passion” of Lukashenko and that the World Cup “clearly is his toy”.
She continues: “The world championship started last Friday in Belarus and it’s not a coincidence that it started on 9 May, which is considered a victory day from World War II, and everything is done in order to present Lukashenko as doing everything for himself, and to try and show that ice hockey supports him on the twenty-year anniversary of his dictatorship.”
She and her fellow campaigners are keen for athletes to unite with artists in condemning the regime, and believe that stars such as Law and Lumley backing them will bring them closer to this aim.
Kaliada says of her celebrity signees: “These are people who have supported us for many years, and they are absolutely unique because every time, when it’s clear that human rights are violated in Belarus and the dictator is using his power, usually these people, British artists, come together with us to make our voices stronger and to deliver these messages all over the world.”
Belarus Free Theatre hasn’t yet received a response from the players to its letter, but Kaliada says, “we know it has been delivered to the ice hockey players. We definitely know from foreign journalists who are now in Minsk and with whom we are in conversation.”
Soviet-style authoritarianism remains in Belarus, with hundreds of political opponents in prison, the KGB continuing under the same name, and the death penalty being inflicted as a shot in the back of the head, for convicts informed that their plea for clemency has been turned down by the president.
Kaliada would like the ice hockey players to “stand up for the rights of people who are today in prison in Belarus, because there are on-going arrests in Belarus, and Lukashenko was saying that this championship would be for the people of Belarus, for them to enjoy it.
“I’m just wondering how they are enjoying all of this when they are getting arrested in their apartments during the night time or early morning as it was. [The regime wants] the whole country to be clean from so-called unstable elements, and this is exactly what’s happening now…
“I believe this is the moment for us to recall that we are just very simple creatives as human beings, and we need to stand up for each other when somebody’s rights are violated. And it’s not possible for the dictators to use us the way they want us to be used and to be their toys.”
Some of Kaliada’s friends and fellow actors are still in jail in Belarus, and her company works to publicise and condemn the regime’s actions across the world. They will be staging a new play, Red Forest, at the Young Vic in June, exploring ecological disaster in undemocratic states – the inspiration is how Chernobyl fallout affected Belarus.
Here’s the open letter with its star signees:
Open Letter to all Ice Hockey Players who are taking part in the World Cup of Ice Hockey in Belarus.
We are artists writing to athletes, asking you to take a moment to consider the political situation of the country where the Ice Hockey World Championships is taking place.
Alexander Lukashenko is known as “Europe’s Last Dictator”. Belarusians have lived for 20 years under Lukashenko’s regime, and have faced torture, kidnapping and murder, intimidation and harassment for speaking out against his inhumane laws and regulations.
Lukashenko has created a publicity campaign with the slogan: “Big ice hockey supports Alexander Lukashenko”. We do not believe that. We believe ice hockey players support freedom and human rights. Please do not let yourselves be used by a despot. Join us by showing you do not support the Last Dictator of Europe and that you stand with the people of Belarus by wearing a red and white scarf after the match. These are colors of our national flag that is recognized in Belarus as symbol of resistance.
On 21st of December, of 2010 after a bloody crackdown of a peaceful rally when citizens of Belarus went to protest against falsification of elections, seven of us started the campaign with a slogan “Don’t Play with Dictators”. Those people included a unique person the late Vaclav Havel, a playwright and dissident born under a communist dictatorship who went on to be President of a free Czechoslovakia.
We ask you to show the Belarusian people that the courage and strength you show in your sport is not blind, and to join them by demonstrating your opposition a regime that violates human rights. This simple act of support would give millions strength in a time of political turmoil, just as the brave actions of athletes at Mexico in 1968 and Sochi in 2014, touched countless of people around the world.
We are not in a position of executive power, but we believe by uniting as artists and athletes we can make a difference simply by showing the Belarusian people that we value human rights and freedom and that we stand with them. We have a moral authority and it should not be misused by dictators for their own aims.
Belarus has been frozen in time. Its people have no opportunity under its Soviet style dictatorship. The recent invasions of the Ukraine by Russia means that the entire region is in danger of returning to the austere times of the Soviet Union.
Artists and athletes have a responsibility to make voices heard on behalf of those who are silenced, not as athletes or as artists, but as fellow human beings.
You are people of strong will and action. Usually it’s the fans who show their support for you, now it’s your turn to support them.
Put a white-red-white scarf on when you get on the ice. The red represents courage and white represents compassion. The scarf will demonstrate to the fans that you recognize the dictator for who he really is, and show that you stand behind the fans. Wearing the scarf will give them courage and let them know that their voices are heard.
Sport should be kept out of politics but when it’s not, athletes must demonstrate that they know what is going on, that they care, and they stand behind their fans in their quest for human rights and freedom.
Don’t play with Dictators, support your fans!
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