The set of The Master Had a Talking Sparrow. Photo by Roland Elliott Brown
Artillery Row On Theatre

Dinner in the Bloodlands

Belarus Free Theatre brings moral complexity to the table

Franz Kafka wrote that a book ought to be “the axe for the frozen sea inside us”. If we apply his dictum to other media, we soon notice which of them fall short. The London theatre is a prime candidate. Shakespeare’s adopted city may attract famous actors and stage polished, well-lit productions, but there is something tepid and risk-averse about the whole scene. One often leaves a contemporary play with the sense that it was conceived by people who think all the big moral problems have been solved, and that audiences need simply to be told, just in case they missed a memo.

Belarus was the worst place to live during the Second World War

Belarus Free Theatre, by contrast, comes wielding axes. Formed in Minsk in 2005 to probe the silences of “the last dictatorship in Europe” (as then-US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had called the country), it won support from Tom Stoppard and Vaclav Havel and began touring globally. Facing arrests, beatings, surveillance, and threats to family members back home, its directors, Natalia Kaliada and Nicolai Khalezin, set up in London in 2011. Other members have since been forced out, with President Alexander Lukashenko’s post-election sadism in 2020 proving the final straw.

Their latest production, The Master Had a Talking Sparrow, uses Belarusian cuisine — root vegetable salads, pickles, radishes and cucumbers (with cups of salt to dip them in), tasty herb potatoes, fried eggs with dill, meatballs, cured pork and blood sausage, fish, kompot, vodka, and a bit of cake — to lure their guests into their nightmare. The horror is the historical table talk of the unhappy region between the Baltic and Black seas which historian Timothy Synder memorably nicknamed the “Bloodlands”. It is not hard to see why the name is apt: the Soviets and the Nazis deliberately murdered 14 million people in the region between 1932 and 1945.

While promoting his book Bloodlands a decade ago, Snyder told an interviewer that Belarus was the worst place to live during the Second World War, “and no one knows that”. (Though Stalin’s enforced famine made Ukraine a contender if one includes the early 1930s.)

When you turn up at the play’s venue The Stone Nest, a gutted Presbyterian chapel on Charing Cross Road, the fraternity of the two suffering nations is on display in the form of a photo tribute to the troupe’s Ukrainian friends, who are now living through Russia’s invasion, and in some cases returned to Ukraine to do humanitarian work.

There is no standing on ceremony with BFT. The actors greet you, ask you your name, ask you if you understand Belarusian. If not, you get a UN-style headset for live translation, reminiscent of so many international crises and war crimes tribunals. There’s a long table for about 35 people, done up in mock-Soviet style, with two portraits — one of Marx and Engels, another of Lenin — hanging on the wall, as if to position the action symbolically between Germany and Russia. About ten of the seats are for actors, and the rest are for the audience. As you eat, a scripted conversation kicks up between the characters about the nation’s vexed memories of life between the tyrannies.

The dark anecdotes are laden with irony, and it’s not always easy to keep up (the live translation could be sharper), but the characters’ commentary triggers pungent associations along with a feeling of moral dissonance.

Allusions to hunger stand in contrast to the feast. As the meal gets going, we hear from Christina, who tells of a child who ate his father’s last piece of bread during the war and couldn’t sleep from shame. Such experiences were doubtless typical of a wartime childhood in Europe; Orwell has Winston Smith tell a similar story about a piece of chocolate in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Vilich, the character across the table from me (his name is a revolutionary homage to Lenin) opines that the Second World War was an American project because, after all, the US benefited. Cui bono? is a classic subgenre of conspiracy, and it resonates with an idea now floated by Oliver Stone among others, that Putin has “fallen into a trap set by the US” in Ukraine.

The price of “stability” can be an infernal compromise

In Soviet history, the partisans are supposed to be the heroes of “the Great Patriotic War against fascism”. There is even a Moscow metro station called Partizanskaya, with statues of armed irregulars in the entrance hall. But Regina tells the story of partisans who burned houses and left human remains all over the place so that they had to be gathered up and buried in a church basement. It’s hard to miss the stench of Bucha there. 

Alena also tells of “normal partisans” who, once brutalised by the war, turned into bandits and stole everything in sight. 

There were, the play makes clear, few rewards for integrity in the Bloodlands. Yan tells of an agronomist who stood up to the Nazis and got sent to the camps. After being “liberated” by the Soviets, he disappeared into the gulag.

Being an informer could turn out well or badly. In one instance, villagers snitched on the partisans, and the Germans protected them and help them to escape; in another, a landowner tells of a parrot — the “sparrow” of the title — that informed on his servants.

The merits of silence are posited. Nadzeja tells of village “polizei” who lived on after the war with their atrocities unreported. But “if a war started now” she says, “they would have killed everyone because people knew the whole truth about them”. The price of “stability” can be an infernal compromise.

The frozen sea of Kafka’s idiom that gets smashed up at this dinner table is the heroic view of the Second World War — which was never available, in any case, to the people at its centre. What of the people who wanted to overthrow the Soviet regime during the war, one character asks; were they good or bad?

Nationhood itself was tainted. Vilich recalls the Nazi Wilhelm Kube, who wanted to create a “sovereign” Belarusian state under the Reich. He says the Germans even proclaimed the Belarusians “Aryans” (but, he adds, “uncultured ones”).

Soviet propaganda, it is worth remembering, never allowed too great a distinction between its sometime western allies (or later NATO), and Nazi Germany. The USSR was pure, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was best forgotten, the Holocaust effaced (the dead Jews euphemised as “Soviet citizens”), while the West was to be most safely conceived of as an aggressor since, after all, Russia had been invaded from Europe before.

The structure westerners called the Berlin Wall was known on its eastern side as an “anti-fascist protection barrier”. Soviet magazines like Krokodil were full of cartoons that reduced America to a KKK-crypto-fascist police state. The fall of the USSR, brought on as it was by Ukrainian and Belarusian bids for independence, inflamed frightening psychological complexes within those who believed the heroic version of Soviet history — the collective farm boss Lukashenko among them. How could they bear to tolerate hip young artists wielding axes for their icy seas? Hadn’t these people got the memo?

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