Alexander Pushkin/ “Glory of the Soldiers of Independence” performance, 2003.
An introduction to the nation of Belarus might sound like a Rod Serling voiceover: “a country inhabiting a twilight realm somewhere between past and present, East and West, a lost national identity and an imposed colonial one, where freedom is slavery, and dictatorship is the new democracy.” Belarus, one of the nations formed in 1991 from the breakup of the Soviet Union, is indeed a strange and little-known country in a region of growing strategic importance. But our perfect guide to this murky upside-down world turns out to be not a science-fiction master, but a post-modern performance artist with a distinctly Eastern European slant and a single-minded determination to expose the Stalinist scowl hiding behind the leader’s technocratic smile.
It isn’t easy being a rebel in country where the majority of people support a dictatorship precisely because it is a dictatorship, as the new documentary Belarusian Waltz eloquently demonstrates. This is the alternately comic and tragic tale of Alexander Pushkin, who employs wheelbarrows of dung, mock patriotic displays and portraits of condemned Nazi collaborators to challenge the dictator Alexander Lukashenko’s power and, even more, to get Belarusians to talk about what is happening in their country. If there’s one thing Belarusians seem to agree on, it’s that they should keep quiet about history, politics and culture — which makes Pushkin’s avant-garde street theater perhaps less of a challenge to the regime than a continuing irritant to Pushkin’s family, neighbors, old girlfriend (and mother of his child) and a series of nonplussed policemen and passersby.
Kupala Night in the village of Bobr.
A nation of almost 10 million people lying between Russia, Ukraine, Poland and the Baltic states, Belarus has been called Europe’s last dictatorship. The regime of Alexander Lukashenko fields thousands of secret police and informers, as well as a large army, to harass, intimidate and arrest independent journalists, national minorities and opposition politicians. His government is the most pro-Russian of the former Soviet republics and practices a Soviet-style economy. First elected in 1994, Lukashenko has had his rule repeatedly extended through further elections and referendums while styling himself as “the shepherd” in a softened echo of the Stalinist cult of personality. As seen in Belarusian Waltz, Lukashenko presents a mild, smiling visage while happily intermingling with the people.
But no one is fooled. Lukashenko and his regime maintain an old-style, authoritarian grip on society. One lone opponent, who manages to speak out despite repeated arrests and beatings, is the 42-year-old painter, performance artist and nationalist activist Alexander Pushkin, from the village of Bobr. And if there is anything that enrages Pushkin more than Lukashenko’s dictatorship itself, it’s the acquiescence of Belarusians. The elections are rigged, but wouldn’t need to be. The numerous police and army seem almost comically superfluous before a quiescent and self-described (by Pushkin’s father) “humble and patient” people. In fact, Lukashenko and the people seem to agree on one fundamental thing — that a dictatorial regime such Lukashenko’s is exactly what the Belarusian people need.
Sunset over Bobr, Belarus.
Belarusian Waltz is a moving account of Pushkin’s desperate, inspired and sometimes loopy attempts to disrupt this dance between dictator and people with such public displays as “A Wheelbarrow of Dung for President Lukashenko” and “Glory to the Soldier of Independence” and in the making of Belarusian Waltz itself. The Belarus he exposes as both an insider and outsider is not the result of a simple compact between ruler and ruled. Rather, after 200 years of Russian domination and 80 more years of Soviet rule, it is a country where the people hardly have a national identity; where they willingly suppress their native Belarusian language in favor of Russian; and where history seems to begin and end with the Red Army victory over Nazi Germany in 1945.
For Pushkin himself, more intimately, Belarus is a place where neighbors snarl when they see him with the camera crew in tow; where his father and sister (Lukashenko supporters) lament the pain Pushkin brought to his deceased mother with his public “stunts”; and where his ex-girlfriend, an expatriate Russian and the mother of his daughter, accuses him of using politics as an excuse for selfishness. They all ask repeatedly why he wants to “malign” the country. People on the streets watch in confused silence as he is arrested and manhandled at his performances. Belarus is also seen as a place of widespread poverty, where endemic drunkenness makes life tolerable, where horse-drawn carts jostle with automobiles, peasant villages abut modernist constructions and animals cavort freely in muddy roads. And where no one wants to talk about anything of consequence.
Pushkin emerges in Belarusian Waltz as something more complex than a simple crusader for freedom. A large ego does drive him, irrespective of the possible consequences to those around him. Through his peculiarly Eastern European lens, he charges the regime with being “totalitarian neo-Stalinist collective fascism,” and celebrates as his heroes men who turn out to have collaborated with the Nazis during World War II. One of these heroes, though far from striking a heroic pose or even understanding his son’s philosophy, is his own father, who worked as a policeman in the employ of the Nazi occupiers. There is also the unanswered question of why Pushkin has suffered no worse than short-term arrests and beatings, allowing him to regroup for another street demonstration.
At one point in Belarusian Waltz, Lukashenko is seen at a public event staring, it would appear, directly into the filmmaker’s camera, with a knowing and unflappable smile. It’s an unsettling moment that bears out the strange challenge facing Pushkin.
“To make a film within a dictatorship is a dangerous undertaking not only for us, but also for those being filmed,” states producer Torstein Grude. “It is, however, our obligation to do our utmost to give voice to the voiceless and to use art as a means to change the world.
“During filming, Andrzej Fidyk was arrested by the KGB, and at times the prospects for finishing this film were bleak. We thankfully managed to complete it, and it is with great pride we are able to present this film to a world audience. I hope with all my heart it inspires people to learn more about what goes on in Belarus and to take an active role in freeing the Belarusian people from the oppression.”
In March 2008, the us State Department dubbed Lukashenko’s government a “brutal, authoritarian dictatorship” and imposed sanctions on the foreign assets of state oil company, Belneftekhim, to press for democratic reforms. The us ambassador left Belarus that month, and the us Embassy cut its staff from 35 to 17 under pressure from the Belarusian government, which made similar cuts at its embassy in Washington. On March 27, the Belarusian Association of Journalists appealed to the international community to urge the Belarusian authorities to stop persecuting independent journalists, citing massive raids on the homes and offices of journalists suspected of working for foreign and nonstate Belarusian media outlets.
On April 30, 2008, Belarus expelled 10 us diplomats from Minsk, ordering them to leave the country in
72 hours. The following day, the Associated Press reported that the State Department would be closing the us Embassy in Belarus and ordered Minsk to recall its diplomats from Washington and New York. “In a new escalation of a diplomatic dispute, Belarus has been given until May 16 to withdraw its six diplomats at the two missions, and the American embassy in Minsk will cease operations as early as Friday, May 2,” the wire service reported.
Belarusian Waltz is a co-production of Piraya Film AS, ITVS International, MG production, Rafto House Foundation and Telewizja Polska S.A.