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Keeping Free Culture Alive In Belarus

Lavon Volski, a musician whose work appears weekly on RFE/RL's Radio Svaboda, plays for a crowd of devotees at a 2010 concert in Minsk.
Lavon Volski, a musician whose work appears weekly on RFE/RL's Radio Svaboda, plays for a crowd of devotees at a 2010 concert in Minsk.
Alexei Znatkevich is a journalist, but he understands that music can affect people on deeper levels than straightforward journalism. Originally from Belarus, the country led by Europe’s last dictator, Alexander Lukashenka, Znatkevich is the Prague-based host of a nightly talk show, “Night Liberty,” on Radio Free Europe’s Belarusian service, Radio Svaboda. His show, started in 2006, brings in live guests -- musicians included -- to discuss political, cultural and social topics, and Znatkevich has seen firsthand how providing a platform for humor, sarcasm, and irony can help to leaven the pressures of life in an autocratic society.

Belarus’ restrictions on culture haven’t dulled popular desire for free expression, and music remains a big part of daily life there, Znatkevich says. State authorities advise musicians to stay away from politics. But according to Znatkevich, many artists insist on holding true to their views, and some of them aren’t afraid to support the political opposition. He also notes that today’s technology enables underground musicians to record their own music more easily than they could in the past: many Belarusian punk bands, for instance, produce their music at home and spread it through unofficial channels online. By going underground, members of the younger generation in Belarus are able to more freely produce music across all genres, and to give voice to their opinions in the form of art.


Those musicians who do not conform to state-approved standards are blacklisted and banned from playing on official music channels or organizing concerts. Radio stations that go against the grain lose their license to broadcast. In fact, stations are under obligation to meet state music quotas: 75 per cent of the music they play has to be produced by government-approved Belarusian artists.

For those Belarusian artists who lack government approval, Radio Svaboda presents a powerful alternative. Radio Svaboda has helped supply the country with free information via shortwave radio since 1954, and now offers its programming through online podcasting, an increasingly popular medium. Through Svaboda’s musical broadcasts, artists relate their intimate testimonies about Belarus’s boisterous past and describe their hopes for the future.

One such artist is a well-known rock musician in Belarus, Lavon Volski, who prepares one song a week for the radio. Every song comes in the form of a conversation between two old friends -- one a minor government official, and the other an experienced opposition leader. The format allows Volski to present a balance of Belarusian viewpoints, each of which comes in for equal mockery, and to provide for dialogue between political factions. It isn’t only politics: his characters openly discuss sports, culture, and social attitudes from opposing perspectives, creating a public realm otherwise lacking in most Belarusian media. Volski and Radio Svaboda packaged together the first 50 songs that aired last year into a multimedia DVD collection and celebrated the DVD’s release at a concert in Minsk. The event was closely monitored by the Belarusian State Security Agency (KGB), which unsuccessfully attempted to shut it down. The attention that the Belarusian KGB pays to Volski’s burlesque songs only serves to prove what power political commentary can have when it’s combined with art.

For Znatkevich, art and journalism are complementary worlds. He recognizes that artists operate with different tools to convey much of the same information, using emotions to express their messages. By enriching matter-of-fact journalism with the personal and emotional elements of art, Radio Svaboda is able to give a more complete perspective of life on the ground for people in Belarus. Although journalists are stuck with truthfully describing the world as it is, the artist’s sphere of competence is much broader, free to develop whole fantasy worlds that provide imaginative windows onto avenues for change.

-- Kristyna Dzmuranova