When the legendary Belarus Free Theatre finds itself in the international media, it’s usually its founders-in-exile, Natalia Kaliada and Nikholai Khalezin, who steal the spotlight. Two Women in Their Time, instead, tells the story of a different duo — Nadya Brodskaya and Svetlana Sugako — who run the theatre’s day-to-day operations on the ground in Minsk.
Combining a long-form narrative report by The New Yorker staff writer Masha Gessen, and a photo essay by the Moldovan-born, New York-based Misha Friedman, the book focuses on the managers who make the Belarus Free Theatre’s remarkable productions happen, amidst a churning mix of challenges both political and mundane.
“We wanted to make a report on Belarus Free Theatre in 2016, but no major publication was willing to commission us. So that’s why we turned the project into a book,” Friedman tells The Calvert Journal. Appearing as part of New Press’ Diverse Humanity series, which highlights gender identity and sexuality, Two Women in Their Time follows the lives of Sugako and Brodskaya both at work in the Belarusian capital, and at the home they have built for themselves in the countryside.
The pair met back in 2010, when Sugako had just started volunteering for the theatre. A year later, when Khalezin, Kaliada, and their stage manager, Yaro (Irina Yaroshevich), decided to stay abroad following their tour to New York, in order to avoid arrest by the Belarusian authorities, Sugako took over production duties as a full-time job. Meanwhile Brodskaya, a recent economics graduate, was falling in love with both Sugako and the theatre, where she had begun helping out with the accounting.
Sugako, who has come out to her mother and sister but not the rest of the family, says that the book helped her see herself and her relationship with Brodskaya in a new light. “Misha [Friedman] noticed that we lead quite a closed life at home,” she recalls. “It’s not a secret life, but on the street, we’re not holding hands or hugging. It’s inner censorship. We don’t do [those things] because we understand what society we’re living in. But the country is changing now.”
That change is being driven by a new wave of pro-democracy protests, which reached a tipping point following the county’s presidential elections in August 2020. Longtime President Alexander Lukashenko won the vote to seize his sixth term, despite widespread evidence of vote-rigging. The result sparked the largest protests that Belarus had seen in decades — as well as an unprecedented level of police brutality. Sugako and Brodskaya both went to the protests, and were quickly arrested. “When they got out a week later, they were different people. They were broken,” Friedman recalls.
But Sugako insists that the pair was “lucky”. “There is now a saying in Belarus: if you don’t get beaten up by the police, you’re lucky,” she tells The Calvert Journal. The pair were placed with 34 others in a cell designed for only four. They were also not given water or food for three days. “We constantly heard the screaming of people being beaten. We felt like we went through hell, literally. They broke me. I was scared, and I was ready to just follow commands,” Sugako recalls. After three days, the duo were moved to a different facility. “When we went out, there were volunteers outside the prison — I’ve never seen that in Belarus before — with food, water, psychological help, piles of shoelaces as a symbol of freedom (because in prison, they take your shoelaces away so you don’t commit suicide). There was this feeling that we’d already won. The next day we had a big march, and there were no police in the city. There was this feeling: that this was a wave in an ocean, and we were part of it.”
Before the protests, the Belarus Free Theatre had been one of the few dissenting voices in the country. Sugako believes that through its 16 years of activity, the theatre played an essential role in keeping Belarus’ critical spirit alive, in turn contributing to the most recent wave of protests. “Our audiences would ask themselves questions that came into conflict with what state television said, where [reporters] portrayed this image of a continuously developing country. We would bring up the suicide rates in Belarus, for instance, [that no one was talking about]. There are all of these problems we have, and no one except us will solve them.”
Sugako says it’s precisely this sense of ownership that has suddenly dominated the country since last summer. “The country is changing: people are now taking responsibility for their own homes, for their own streets, for their own towns,” she says. “They are learning, they’re speaking out. Until now, our society was a remainder of the USSR, when people considered themselves too small to change anything, and waited for [President] Lukashenko to solve all problems.”
With performances worldwide, the theatre has also played a key part in raising awareness about Belarus internationally. “The Belarus Free Theatre reminded the world that there is a dictatorship in the middle of Europe, and now that the media has forgotten about Belarus’ continuing protests and state repression, they are reminding the world about that too. Their role has stayed the same,” Friedman argues. But Sugako slightly disagrees: “Our mission was to speak about us, Belarusians. And this mission has stayed with us, and will stay with us even after the dictatorship falls.”
For now, however, the battle for democracy in Belarus is set to continue. “When we made the book, I was more optimistic,” Sugako admits. “We still have faith in change, but we are exhausted. We understand that this is a marathon, but we don’t know when the finish line is. But with every step, we are closer to the end, and we can’t stop.”
Below, read the opening of Masha Gessen’s narrative report, accompanying Friedman’s photos in the tome.
“What you see is nothing.
If you are a visitor to Minsk, the capital of Belarus, you see wide clean avenues and a moderate quantity of signs of life: a little traffic, a minimum of street activity, a smattering of restaurants. It’s like it hasn’t been over a quarter century since the Soviet Union collapsed — more like it ducked out for a smoke and is coming right back. But while no one is looking, a few things are happening — because no one is looking. Survival can depend on avoiding the wrong pair of eyes.
The theatre, then, is located on a street that’s not a street, in a building that’s not a building. The street is an old stretch of countryside wedged between high-rise apartment blocks like a long-forgotten secret. The building is a garage adjacent to a private house, but it’s not a garage. It has a second-floor addition with light imitation-wood flooring and skylights. The swinging garage doors, which face the street, are permanently shut. Two human-sized doors face the courtyard, which is shielded by a small fence. Both doors have sheets of typing paper tacked to them, with hand-printed signs: “We have started. Please don’t knock.” But the doors are open: the show hasn’t started yet. Inside, it smells of potatoes cooking. This evening is the second-ever performance of a play that takes place at a dinner table.
Sveta comes back from her mother’s house, the rare errand she runs without Nadya. Sveta’s mom made mushroom-filled blintzes for the show tonight. She made them last time too, but there were too few — or they were too delicious — for even all the members of the cast to get a taste. This time she’s made a bigger batch. Sveta gets cooking on a single-burner electric stove rigged up in what serves as the backstage in the garage. She is going to make most of a feast for about thirty people. There is zucchini — three pale skinny ones from the store and two giant ones from Sveta and Nadya’s garden; Sveta proudly notes that the home-grown ones will need to be cut in half. Sveta cuts up pork chops, skin on, and uses one of the fattier pieces to grease the pan before filling it. Claire, a staff member of the theater, visiting from London, starts washing cucumbers and tomatoes. She has just finished reading a translation of tonight’s play, which is based on oral histories of the Second World War collected in the Belarusian countryside. The reading, she says, left her unsatisfied: she understood the words but not why they were strung together.
The play is in Belarusian, a language wedged, linguistically and politically, between Russia and Poland. Thirty years ago it seemed on the verge of extinction; the dream of post-Soviet independence hinged on revitalizing the language, but Aleksandr Lukashenka, the retro-Soviet dictator who came to power in 1994, pushed the language back to the margins. The entire troupe belongs to a generation that grew up rarely hearing Belarusian, but all of them have made a point of learning to speak it — and at least one person tries to speak Belarusian all the time. To some extent, Russian and Belarusian are mutually intelligible, but, as with any pair of related languages, this sometimes produces a comical effect—usually at the expense of Belarusian.
A few minutes after six, Sveta, who usually speaks Russian, starts hollering in Belarusian that someone has swiped the porkfat. A suspect is identified, then exonerated when the porkfat is found. The kitchen switches back to Russian, but every few minutes a louder and higher-pitched spat erupts in Belarusian. This is play, in the childhood sense of the word—or it seems like it. By now the actresses have changed into colourful frocks of the sort that might constitute evening wear in the countryside, and applied garish makeup. The male actors are still wearing shorts and t-shirts, but by 20 minutes after six one of them is getting reprimanded for calling an actress by her real name. By half past six the men have changed too, into shirts and trousers that fit a little too well to be Belarusian-countryside but look a little too bland to be Gosha Kupchinsky creations.
Shortly before seven, Nadya and a couple of actors saunter over to the nearest supermarket to meet up with the audience. To see a Belarus Free Theatre production, one has to show up in front of the supermarket. To know to come to this meeting spot, one has to call a cell-phone number to make a reservation and get directions; most of the time, it is Nadya who answers. To know to call the number, of course, one has to be in the word-of-mouth universe of the theatre. The audience is a slowly expanding closed circle, and its insularity is its insurance policy against the wrong pair of eyes.”