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Banned In Belarus

Lithuania--Lavon Volski in concert in Vilnius, June 14, 2016.
Lithuania--Lavon Volski in concert in Vilnius, June 14, 2016.

Blacklisted Belarusian rock star uses music to fight censorship, including with songs written for RFE/RL’s Belarus Service.

Lavon Volski is one of the most famous rock musicians in his country, but his fans don’t hear his songs on the radio, nor can they see him live. He’s from Belarus, where his irreverent lyrics and non-conformist style are not allowed.

A keyboardist, guitarist, and vocalist, Volski founded the band Mroja in 1981, and in the glasnost climate of the late 1980s in the Soviet Union, they became incredibly popular. When President Alyaksandr Lukashenka came to power in Belarus in 1994, Volski’s criticism grew more strident and he founded a band called N.R.M, which is an acronym in Belarusian for “Independent Republic of Dreams.” Volski describes the band as a “state within a state” for all those who don’t want to conform to the rules of President Lukashenka, who is often referred to as Europe’s last dictator. Volski has been banned from performing in Belarus since 2001.

His music is fueled by the rebelliousness of the rock/punk sound, and his lyrics are sharp, honest, often political, and sung in Belarusian, an added irritant to the authorities, who favor Russian as the lingua franca, though both languages have official status. Volski’s music was described by one critic as the “anthem of those who dream of a democratic and free Belarus.”

An N.R.M. song from 2003

In addition to his numerous musical and creative projects, he also writes and performs cabaret-style satirical songs for RFE/RL’s Belarus Service. Several times a month the service publishes a new song on a topical issue in Belarusian society, each featuring two characters created by Volski--a bureaucrat who serves as a government mouthpiece, and an opposition activist who argues with him, but using the same tired clichés Volski says the Belarusian opposition has developed over the last two decades.

"This reflects the situation in our society,” Volski said. “It is divided into those who approve and those who condemn, ‘us’ and ‘them.’”

One recent song was about Yury Chyzh, a wealthy businessman who is believed to have ties to Lukashenka. Another dealt with a proposal to raise the retirement age in Belarus.

“Inspiration is everywhere here. Ideas are literally lying under your feet. You just need to pick them up and frame them properly,” Volski said. “The situation in Belarus has gone too far from the civilized world, but it provides plenty of material for parody.”

In April 2016 Volski was recognized with the Freemuse award for promoting freedom of expression through music, which is awarded annually by the Sweden based organization, whose aim is to advocate and defend freedom of expression for musicians globally.

“Music combined with lyrics has a strong impact on a person,” said Volski. “One song makes you jump around carefree, while another makes you reflect on how we live. You may cry after the third song, and the fourth one will make you laugh. Therefore, music can do a lot, including the promotion of democratic values, if that’s the musician’s goal.”

--Emily Thompson