The tensions between Ukraine and Russia make the news daily, but in Belarus, a regime has been in place for 20 years, imprisoning opposition, or eliminating it altogether. Andrei Sannikov, now in exile in Warsaw, Poland, attempted to run against President Alexander Lukashenko. After participating in a protest, he was imprisoned and tortured. On June 24, in Warsaw's Museum of the History of the Polish Jews, I had the opportunity to talk to Andrei Sannikov about his exile in Poland and the documentary film about the suppression of free speech in his home country, Dangerous Acts Starring the Unstable Elements of Belarus, directed by Madeleine Sackler, to air on HBO.
What are you doing here in Warsaw?
I am in exile now, at first I was in the UK, but now I am here to stay closer to Belarus. My friends are here. My team is here. Some key people had to flee the country. Some people were lucky to escape before they were arrested. One of the journalists, an editor in chief of one of the most popular websites, Charter 97, was under house arrest but she escaped. I never thought I would ever think about leaving my country. We are not in control of our lives anymore.
The government knows you are here. Do they demand your return?
Formally, I am not under any legal obligations. Formally, I was released. I did not escape from prison. Of course they follow what I am doing. They might think at some moment they could demand some proceedings against me. So far no. Belarus is my subject, since I am a trained diplomat I am used to using my contacts to explain my situation. I am writing, working on a book now. It will be published in Belarus. In prison I wrote fairy tales for my son, and I did not think that even fairy tales would be published in Belarus.
What made you agree to participate in Madeleine Sackler's film?
I did not agree. I was not asked. She came to my sister in London, near where I was living, for an interview. I have to promote the case for free speech, for freedom in general in Belarus. You should ask me, what made me do a Skype interview at 2:30 in the morning, for the D.C. premier. But I negotiated because they wanted me to speak after the movie, at 4 AM. We agreed on an intro.
So, what did you say to introduce the film?
There is no freedom in Belarus, but there are freedom fighters, and you see them in the movie, people in the streets of Minsk demanding freedom. There is no doubt that the origins of the Kremlin regime are the same. Now we see the situation in the Ukraine where there is suffering because of the war the Kremlin unleashed there. And the world needs to help them defend their freedom. There will be no freedom until such regimes are put down, even for the Ukraine. The goal is obvious. We have to do everything to free Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, and it is doable, because even though in Belarus there is a ruthless dictator, it is possible. At the end I said that I hope if we will be serious in our efforts, and if we succeed, then Madeleine will make another movie called "Coming Home," meaning Belarus coming to Europe. This is the issue because Russia wants to take us to Eurasia.
A provocation: Isn't political theater propaganda, antithetical to art?
I know what propaganda theater is. The regime took authors approved by the Communists like Mayakovsky or others who are not dissidents and show their fight for creativity and freedom. I don't have this division. Theater is theater, if talent is shown, even if it promotes things I cannot agree with. The Belarus Free Theater did not start with political theater, and even then, they could not do it officially. Dictators do not trust independent artists, so every independent artist is a potential threat. All artists have to be approved by the regime: therefore, there is a union of writers, a union of artists, a union of musicians, composers, and only those members are permitted to function. So from the beginning they did not allow Belarus Free Theater to do anything legally, so they started underground theater.
The question is strange. Would you consider Havel a propaganda playwright? He was writing about politics, life under a totalitarian system. Propaganda has a negative connotation but it actually promotes some values. I am all for it. I went to the Belarus Free Theater performances in Minsk, in a small space, maybe 30-40 people. But I saw the reactions of the people, the emotions. That was very important to me, especially in our situation which is quite gloomy. When people come to see something that is very alive and can make you think and get you to react emotionally it is very important.
In Belarus in the mid-1990's, with the breakup of the Soviet Union, there was so much promise for freedom. What happened?
I too was encouraged in the mid 90's: the general trend was quite incredible, and then we overlooked the dangers of a dictatorship. We have a man in power for 20 years. He was not taken seriously, but he started to build his dictatorship very early. He started to kill his opponents. The regime killed all the opponents who were more popular than Lukashenko.
What do you hope the film, Dangerous Acts Starring the Unstable Elements of Belarus will accomplish?
To let the world know. This is the 21st century, the time of the Internet. To realize there is a dictatorship that does not allow you to live in your country! I was born in Minsk. At my age, I don't like to be in a foreign country no matter how nice it is. I love Poland, the UK, America but I want to live in Minsk.
I know that everything is possible. I was in the foreign ministry in the mid '90's, doing a lot in the state. We had friends. Now we have enemies. Unfortunately, we have to continue to do what Solidarity in Poland did, what the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia did. But I now realize, without help from the democratic world, it will not be possible to achieve the same results. Will we have maidans in Belarus?, I am often asked. That is the square in Ukraine where demonstrations took place. We had huge protests for several years, ignored by the world. Unlike Ukraine, the world did not get involved.
You said you are traveling tomorrow. Where to?
I am going to the 3rd biggest theater festival, in the Czech Republic. They will perform the play based on the fairy tale I wrote in prison for my son, called "Flying Through the Rainbow," about a little mouse who dreams of flying through the rainbow and all his friends help to realize this dream. My son was 3 ½ when I started writing. Seven now, he is going to see it for the first time, but he knows the contents.
A version of this post also appears on Gossip Central.