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Amnesia: a key feature of Belarusian memory

There isn’t much space in Belarus for public discussion about the country’s traumatic past (or authoritarian present). This theatre in Brest is doing what it can to involve people in public debate. RU

Play "Chernobyl". Photo courtesy of the theatre "Kryly Khalopa".Before World War Two, nearly half the population of Brest in north-western Belarus was Jewish. Today, Brest’s pre-war past is almost forgotten, and the heroism of the defenders of the Brest Fortress often pushes out other stories. But the independent Kryly Khalopa theatre is trying to resurrect Brest’s Jewish history — and make a space for public conversation. The theatre, which was set up in 2001 and has become a focus for art and activism in Brest, recently released “Brest Stories Guide”, an audioplay dedicated to the Jewish history of Brest. The play, created in the form of an Android application (currently available only in Russian), offers a guided tour of Jewish Brest starting from 1937.

For oDR’s series on memory activism in the post-Soviet space, I spoke to the theatre’s manager, director and actress Oksana Haiko about the play, Belarusian anti-semitism and Brest’s heroic memory.

From the start, Kryly Khalopa stated its mission was to “present critical perspectives on the social and political situation in Belarus through performative practices”. Then, in 2013, you launched a series of documentary plays called “Histories of Belarus”. Why did you decide to engage in the past? And why do you focus on histories in the plural?

What we know about Belarusian history is largely comprised of artificially created narratives, which are often tied up in politics and ideologies. School textbooks describe our collective past in a rather generalised, superficial and sometimes not entirely truthful way. Important voices are often omitted, cut off. Having realised this, we decided to embark upon our own investigation of Belarus’ past, to tell stories that deserve to be told. Take, for instance, those who were relocated from the Chernobyl zone after 1986 and who now live in Brest: have you heard their voices? These people’s stories allow to look at the past through a completely different lens.

The “Histories of Belarus” series mostly deals with the stories of individuals who lived through historical events. While we have also worked with monographs and archival documents, our main source has been interviews. That’s why we talk about histories in the plural.

The first play in the series was called “Chernobyl”. It was based on two expeditions into the Belarusian part of the evacuation zone, interviews with people who were evacuated after the explosion, fragments of Svetlana Alexievich’s “Chernobyl Prayer” and, interestingly, excerpts from contemporary internet forums on the construction of a new nuclear power plant near the Belarusian town of Astravyets. Is “Chernobyl” more an attempt to “draw a lesson from history” by drawing attention to the environmental threats that the Astravyets power plant poses, or, rather, an actualisation of memories about the Chernobyl disaster and its victims?

Mostly the former. The discussion — more correctly, the absence of a discussion — around the Astravyets nuclear power plant was the main driver behind “Chernobyl”. We took stories from the past and attempted to connect them with the present. This play poses the question of why a nuclear power plant is being built in the country where one fourth of the territory has been polluted by Chernobyl and the population is still dealing with the trauma. Why is nobody asking what we think about this project?

The authorities have simply made the decision and got down to business. In this light, our main task was to place the construction of the Astravyets nuclear power plant in a broader context, including through the actualisation of memories about the Chernobyl disaster. There was also an informational dimension, of course: while working on the play, we collected multiple facts (for instance, statistics of cancerous diseases and news about the construction of the Astravyets plant) and wanted to share them with the audience.

Kryly Khalopa's Chernobyl performance. Source: Youtube.

At the same time, we didn’t want the play to turn into a lecture, so we decided to let members of the audience speak their mind during the performances. One of my brightest childhood memories is a sunhat that my mother made me wear in the course of the summer of 1986. You see, the hat was supposed to protect me from the radiation. I didn’t understand anything then and, of course, hated the hat and took it off as soon as I was out of my mother’s sight. But I remember it vividly as the main symbol of that summer.

So, I used this memory in the play: I tell my story about the hat and then suggest that somebody in the audience put it on and share their memories or thoughts about Chernobyl. Amazingly, wherever we performed the play — in Russia, Poland, Denmark, France — people would get up and tell their stories. One international theatre festival was attended by guests from the United States and Latin America — they also volunteered to put the hat on and talk. This demonstrates that the Chernobyl catastrophe affected the whole world, and neither borders nor the quality of life can really protect you from radiation. People’s stories thus became an inherent part of the performance.

How was the play received in Brest?

Much to my regret, the play has scarcely been performed in Belarus. Kryly Khalopa acquired its own space only three years ago. Before that, we were based in one of Brest’s cultural centres belonging to the city’s committee for ideology and culture. That allowed the authorities to censor us. Having shown “Chernobyl” for the first time at a festival in Poznan, we planned to stage a premier in Brest — to show the play to the people for whom it had actually been created.

“Have you, dear Oksana, forgotten that the play needs to be first shown to the ideological committee?”

When everything was ready (the show is technically very complex: it took us eight hours to do the installation), we were told that an urgent renovation was to start in the cultural centre. We were bewildered. And then I got a call from the ideological committee and was directly asked: “Have you, dear Oksana, forgotten that the play needs to be first shown to the ideological committee?”

I realised that it wasn’t even worth trying. Using in the play excerpts from online forums where people discuss the Astravyets nuclear power plant and often criticise the authorities, we did our best to include various opinions, of course. But despite this, the performance turned out to be too critical of the Belarusian president’s pet project and would never receive the approval of the “artistic” committee. Earlier, the authorities had banned our performance based on Pavel Priazhko’s play “The Pants”. The show was not political at all: the ban came simply because of Priazhko’s usage of explicit language. “Chernobyl” stood no chance.

Play "Chernobyl". Photo courtesy of the theatre "Kryly Khalopa".So, we couldn’t show the play in the cultural centre. And other spaces in the city would never allow us to do it: people are afraid… In the end, we showed “Chernobyl” only a few times. It was the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster last year, and environmentalists organised for us a tour that allowed to show “Chernobyl” in Moscow, St Petersburg, Kaliningrad and Minsk. In Brest, we were able to show the play only after we had acquired our own space.

But it is your take on the Astravyets nuclear power plant that displeased the authorities, isn’t it? Does it mean that memories about Chernobyl are not a taboo in Belarus?

Yes and no. There is, I think, a certain taboo on cancer statistics. As we discovered while working on the play, it is semi-restricted. But memories about Chernobyl are not a taboo, it seems. A reclamation of the polluted lands is now at full throttle in Belarus…

After “Chernobyl”, Kryly Khalopa produced “Histories of the Big Village”, a play based on local stories. Where is this village and why did it become the protagonist of a play?

In a village called Zalesye, in the Belavezha Forest, a group of environmentalists-ornithologists from the non-governmental organisation APB — Birdlife Belarus bought a few houses and are now working there to study and protects rare species of birds. We are friends with them and decided to hold a festival there which we called “PRYZBA-Fest”. Our theatre still did not have its own space at that time, so the festival, themed “Theatre. Ecology. Social Art”, was an opportunity to show our plays, including “Chernobyl”. While preparing the festival, we decided to do a little project with children from the neighbouring village, where there was a school.

The children collected the stories of local elderly people that we turned into a beautiful shadow puppet show. It was something like a polyphonic history of one village.

The two plays we have talked about were followed by “Brest Stories Guide”. It is a result of a hybridisation of various formats: a guidebook, an audioplay, “promenade theatre” (a genre popularised by the group Rimini Protokoll), and, as you said in a interview, “a textbook of stories”. What exactly makes “Brest Stories Guide” a theatre play?

Theatre has changed beyond all recognition in the last decades. It has started to abandon the classical audience-stage dichotomy and to claim new spaces. We proposed viewing the whole city as a theatre setting. In this setting, we have placed actors who voiced the memoirs of witnesses to historical events: Belarusians, German soldiers and, of course, Brest Jews who suffered from pre-war local anti-semitism and survived the Holocaust. That’s why I call “Brest Stories Guide” a theatre play. At the same time, every person who has downloaded our application can create their own play: a participant is offered a map and an itinerary, but she can choose whether to cover it fully or partly, when to have a break and so on.

In a wonderful review of “Brest Stories Guide”, the Belarusian theatre critic Tatyana Artimovich noted: “What is so horrifying is not even the fact that nothing of that [past] remains, but the realisation that right before one’s very eyes, this emptiness is becoming even emptier, as if our memory’s goal consists in self-destruction.” Let’s talk about this emptiness as a key component of the audioplay — the emptiness of Brest as an urban space where no trace of Jewish life is left, and the emptiness in the memory of Brest’s citizens, and Belarusian citizens in general for that matter, that has no space for Jewish past. Why do you think that is? And how does the play work with this emptiness?

I have to admit that before reading Tatyana’s text, we have not viewed this emptiness as a character in the play. Afterwards, however, I have thought a lot about it. Citizens of Brest are indeed immersed in this sticky Soviet reality. All these Soviet streets surrounding us: Karl Marx Street, Dzerzhinsky Street, Kuibyshev Street, Budyonny Street… No other past is present. The stories told by “Brest Stories Guide” partly fill this emptiness up in citizens’ memories, but at the same time they uncover, emphasise the absence of memory in the urban space.

Our city remembers close to nothing about its Jewish inhabitants that amounted to almost 50% of the population. There is only the Brest Fortress and heroism, that is all

Not long ago, I was in Warsaw and visited the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews. It is located on the territory of the former Warsaw ghetto. That is a completely different example of integrating memory into the urban space. Brest is a far cry from this: our city remembers close to nothing about its Jewish inhabitants that amounted to almost 50% of the population. There is only the Brest Fortress and heroism, that is all.

How does “Brest Stories Guide”, which has the tragic memory of the Holocaust at its core, relate to this heroic memory of the Brest Fortress? Did the play lead to any problems with the authorities?

No, we haven’t had any problems: Jewish history is not forbidden, it is simply not at all integrated into the city’s heroic memory. Brest is a very peculiar place: if you come here, you will certainly visit the fortress, inevitably learn about our heroic past and stand in front of the memorials to fallen Soviet soldiers. And all this despite the fact that the month-and-a-half-long defence of the fortress is a myth: the city was taken the next day after the beginning of the siege.

Photo courtesy of the theatre "Kryly Khalopa".Other stories are practically invisible in Brest. Nobody remembers about the 24,000 murdered Jews. People have no idea that buildings in the city centre literally stand on human bones. Amnesia is just about the key component of the collective memory of Brest, and Belarus in general actually. (That’s why one of the first names of “Brest Stories Guide” was “Anti-Amnesia-Navigator”). This has to do, I think, with the fact that Belarusians have lost belief in being able to change anything, influence the surrounding reality somehow. This is one of the reasons for their lack of reflection about the past. That said, however, the situation seems to be changing: citizens of Brest are becoming more interested in discussing history and memory.

When I studied in a Belarusian school, in Ashmyany, a town neighbouring Astravyets, the Holocaust and anti-semitism were hardly ever discussed at history lessons. And certainly not in relation to Belarusians. The latter’s main distinguishing feature, as textbooks tirelessly claimed, was tolerance. Your play, on the other hand, starts with 1937, the year of pogroms in Brest. Why is it important to question the myth of “Belarusian tolerance”?

Because Belarusians don’t possess any special kind of tolerance. If only you could hear what people — and not only elderly people, but younger generations as well — say about the LGBT community. It is not just intolerance, it is bigotry, open hostility. Popular anti-semitism rooted in the Soviet and earlier pasts is also abound. And refugees? In recent years, quite a lot of Chechen refugees have come to Brest. People are fleeing Ramzan Kadyrov’s regime in Chechnya and trying to get into Europe, but most cannot cross the Polish border for months and settle in Brest. Here, they are helped by the human rights organisation Human Constanta. We cooperate with them, help them to the best of our ability. You cannot imagine how people speak of the refugees. Chechens, they say, are spreading epidemics…

This is the Belarusian tolerance of 2017. It isn’t very different from pre-war anti-semitism in Belarus

We once held an exhibition about refugees at our space (KX Space). The theatre is located in the very centre of Brest, in a nine-story residential house occupied by well-off people. When the exhibition opened, tenants started to ask the house manager if Chechens were entering the premises. This is the Belarusian tolerance of 2017. It isn’t very different from pre-war anti-semitism in Belarus. In “Brest Stories Guide”, we wanted to shift the emphasis a little by showing that blaming the “damned fascists” for everything while convincing oneself in one’s tolerance is easy, but our hands are not really clean either. Today, when the radical right is rising all over the world, it is especially important to remember this.

The preparation of the play involved working with a lot of sources. Could you tell more about them?

Initially, we had planned to conduct a series of interviews, but it turned out that there was hardly anyone to interview. Luckily, this work had been done before us — by the historian Evgeny Rosenblatt, among others. He decided not to cooperate with us, unfortunately, but we still used his studies in our work. The local historian Efim Basin helped a lot with pre-war Jewish history of Brest. We made active use of Ilya Ehrenburg and Vasily Grossman’s Black Book. And of course, we spent many a day in archives.

Participants of the play "Brest Stories Guide". Photo courtesy of the theatre "Kryly Khalopa".The play presents stories of local people, but also German soldiers and officers who participated in destroying the Brest ghetto in 1942. The latter material was shared with us by the German historian Christian Ganzer who specialises in the history of the 1941 battles of the Brest Fortress. By the way, some of these documents had never been published in Russian before — we had them translated from German for the first time.

Working with all these materials was far from easy. It was hard to decide what to include and exclude: how do you choose from the existing testimonies the ones that are most significant if everything seems significant? But the hardest thing was to create a logical itinerary based on these stories, place the play on a map. We would walk Brest day and night trying to stay within an allotted time. We ended up with a three-hour tour, which is still too long, especially for people visiting the city. In time, I would like either to shorten the play or create another, shorter track.

What do you know about the audience? How many people have downloaded the application, what responses have you received?

We have updated the app several times already. After the last update in August [and as of mid December 2017], it has been downloaded 320 times. For Brest in the cold season, it is not bad. We have received many positive responses and thanks, from journalists, tourists and Brest’s inhabitants alike.

Any plans to do an iPhone app?

Yes, yes! This project is constantly evolving. We launched last June and are still changing things. Not long ago, for instance, we launched a website where we uploaded all the play’s materials. An English version of the app is also in the plans: the Goethe Institute is very interested in helping us with that.

Actually, we had intended to create a number of tracks within the play, not only Jewish stories. The 1990s are of great interest to us, for example. We would also love to create a women’s track. I mean, Brest is an absolutely male city: all these soldiers-defenders are men, it’s like women have never existed here. A guidebook of Brest women’s stories is very much needed. Ideas are many: the key thing is not to lose interest in the project.


About the author

Andrei Zavadski is a journalist, researcher at Free University of Berlin and co-founder of Public History Laboratory (Moscow).

Read On

This article continues oDR’s series “Practically about memory”. Find out more here.

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