On September 16th 1999, Irina Krasovskaya’s businessman husband Anatoly Krasovsky, a fierce critic of Alexander Lukashenko’s dictatorial regime in Belarus, left their family home to visit a sauna with his friend and prominent opposition politician, Viktar Hanchar, and along with Hanchar, never returned.
Sixteen years later, although the perpetrators of Anatoly Krasovsky’s disappearance and murder are known both to the state and to Krasovskaya, the murderers have yet to be brought to justice, and the whereabouts of his body remains unknown. Krasovsky is just one of scores of dissidents, outspoken critics, journalists, artists and intellectuals who have been “disappeared” under Lukashenko’s rule. Krasovskaya’s life, and that of her children’s, has been torn apart and changed forever, and she now works relentlessly for human rights, persuading political leaders to sign the UN Convention to Protect All Persons from Enforced Disappearances. Numerous countries have signed up, however the US and the UK – you may be surprised to learn – along with Russia and China, are not among them.
The fifth play in Belarus Free Theatre’s Staging a Revolution festival, is based on Krasovskaya’s story and is a tribute to Krasovsky and all those who have disappeared.
The theme here is one of healing. That might seem strange given that show explores the kind of horrific emotional landscape many of us will never experience. The play tells the story of Irena, a precocious child whose first, serious love Tolya walks out of the house one day never to return. Healing is not what the narrative seems to be about, yet the staging and the imagery, when it becomes clear that Tolya has been murdered, finds the space for it through the warmth and humour and neighbourly love, through dressing up, folk music and a ferocious energy that builds to such an extent that when tragedy hits, there is nothing left onstage except emptiness and loss. Familiar objects – beds, chairs, colourful quilts and oranges – are dispersed and destroyed. Irena’s emotional life is no longer framed within such domestic tranquilities or reassurances, but enters a netherworld where her state of mind and emotional well-being can only be described using the image of a merry-go-round.
Tolya’s actual death is like the passage in Vassily Grossman’s Life and Fate, where he describes a number of victims walking to the edge of an execution pit still with hope in their eyes. They are unable, as we are in the audience are unable, to believe that someone, that anyone, will actually kill another human being. But when it happens, it creates a dark abyss. It grabs you by the throat and squeezes.
As lives become wrecked, so does the stage. And behind the haunted eyes of the global victims projected on the video screen are the perpetrators, some known, some not, some brought to justice, but mostly not.
And yet, for all this, Discover Love does exactly what its title suggests. Discover. This is, in some ways, where the healing comes in: Irena’s on-stage life becomes, as Irina’s real life has, a monument to a beloved dead husband murdered for his beliefs. We see a hint of it when Irena meets Tolya for nearly the first time – they sit apart, in separate chairs, barely looking at each other yet with heads inclined, the sympathetic energy surging back and forth between them undeniable, as too is the sense of sadness – perhaps a premonition of things to come – palpable on both actors’ faces. It is the saddest and most terrible moment in the play. But it’s also what binds them and they are thrust together, come what may. The exercising of how things might have been also makes this piece so powerful. Neither Irena nor Irina witnessed their husbands’ deaths. The torture for them is having to imagine it in their own minds. Here healing is communal, it comes through the realm of the imagined.
Belarus Free Theatre is committed to real stories, to reliving experiences by sharing and therefore allowing a healing process to begin by having these stories witnessed. This is both theatre and therapy and the process is truly holistic.
This performance was dedicated to Yuri Zakharenko, Victor Gonchar, Anatoliy Krasovskiy, Dmitriy Zavadskiy, Gennady Karpenko and Oleg Bebenin, who were all kidnapped and disappeared by the Belarusian state. Find out more on Civil Initiative We Remember, founded by Irina Krasovskaya and Svetlana Zavadskaya.