Last August, conductor Vitali Alekseenok flew from his home in Germany (where he divides his time between Weimar and Munich) to his native Belarus. There, he took part in both the national elections and the subsequent protests against the government of Alexander G. Lukashenko.
Despite the brutal police violence he witnessed, Alekseenok wrote in an essay for VAN: “It’s possible that the change we are protesting for—a government that is worthy of its people—won’t come immediately. But it won’t take long, either.” He recently published a full memoir of the events, Die weißen Tage von Minsk (The White Days of Minsk, S. Fischer Publishers).
Yet ten months later, Lukashenko’s regime and power have been sustained through the violent suppression of protests and the arrests and persecution of opposition activists. Many of the protests’ leaders are now either in prison or living abroad. In the international media, news of Belarus faded into the background against the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
That changed last month when a Ryanair flight from Athens to Lithuania was intercepted by a fighter plane and forced to land in Minsk. Two passengers, Belarusian journalist and opposition activist Roman Protasevich (who had been living in exile in Lithuania) and his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, were arrested. This refocused global attention on Belarus and resulted in tougher sanctions from the EU and United States. It also strengthened the opposition: Anti-Lukashenko rallies took place across Europe on May 29, the anniversary of the arrest of Sergei Tikhanovsky, blogger and husband of opposition leader, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. Protests have begun again in Belarus, as well.
I caught up with Alekseenok to discuss what’s changed since last August, his own feelings of fear and powerlessness, and why it’s easier right now to listen to Mahler than Shostakovich.
VAN: When and how did you learn about the interception of the Ryanair flight?
Vitali Alekseenok: I was in Italy for the Toscanini Competition and learned about the flight from the Belarusian news. I was shocked, but initially I had to mentally set it aside and tell myself I would deal with it later, because I barely had time to focus on anything but the finals that day. But then more and more people heard about it on the Italian news, and would come up to me to ask what was going on.
What was your first reaction?
On the one hand, it all felt surreal—as if you’re encountering something abstract or illogical for the first time and can’t make any sense of it. I couldn’t believe that the Belarusian government would stoop to something like that. On the other hand, there was fear: just the fact that they could figure out that Roman Protasevich was on that flight. There were reports that Russian citizens, probably from the FSB, got off the plane with him in Minsk. It must have been a long-term operation. It’s scary that they’re now targeting individuals in such a singular and focused way. Who’s next? You realize it’s possible to feel less safe than you had before.
But I also believe that the regime didn’t anticipate the media response or international reaction. [National Airline] Belavia is no longer allowed to fly to Europe and has suffered major financial and reputational losses. Certain economic partnerships, like the one with Belarus’s potassium fertilizer industry, have been cut off. If the government were to take such an action again, I think they would consider it more carefully.
But isn’t the desire to maintain power greater than the threat of economic sanctions?
Sure, maintaining power is crucial for the regime. If they lose that power, they’ll go to jail. They know that, too. That’s why they’re making this a life-and-death battle, no matter what—even if it ruins the country. Now, they have declared war on the media. Telegram is Enemy No. 1. Protasevich was “just” a simple journalist and blogger, yet they launched a fighter plane to arrest him. They want to destroy the system by any means necessary. What they don’t understand is that bloggers, journalists, and Telegram users will then just find other ways of communicating. Almost everyone from the web portal Tut.by [an independent news outlet and formerly the fifth most popular website in Belarus. — Ed.] is now in jail and the domain has been blocked… But even if you put them all in jail, their work continues. So then you get them abroad.
In your book about the protests in Belarus, you wrote that, when you returned to Germany last September, you needed a few weeks to get over your fear of passing cars: “I stared into each van, examining every one in detail: What was the make and model? What color was it? Does it have license plates? Are the windows tinted? Are there masked people sitting inside…” Has that fear gone away?
It didn’t go away completely, it’s still there in my subconscious; but it’s not as strong anymore. It annoys me a little that I keep thinking about it. But I don’t want to sell it as a major anxiety. I was just there for two months; I had a way of getting out of the country; I wasn’t arrested; I wasn’t tortured. The people who have experienced a lot more, who are still in Belarus, have to live with these fears every day. They’re existential.
In your report from Minsk last August for VAN, you predicted: “It’s possible that the change we are protesting for—a government that is worthy of its people—won’t come immediately. But it won’t take long, either.” That change hasn’t come yet. In February, you went back to Belarus for the first time in four months. What was the mood like?
The mood was terrible. It was a dead city. Everything I’d seen in August and September was gone. Either the people were in prison or abroad. The cafes and all of the cultural institutions were closed. There were hardly any people on the streets—they only went out to go shopping. It was a suppressed energy. Now, I think things have improved a bit. Winter is over, there are some small protests. People haven’t given up, but many have left, many are in jail. It’s far too dangerous to take to the streets. I’m sure some have lost hope as well. But the problem remains: We want change. That will still be true even if all of the journalists are silenced.
Could you say that, from Lukashenko’s perspective, the brutal suppression of the protests was a success?
In the short term, yes, of course it was very successful. They destroyed all of their opponents. There’s a Russian expression: “Nobody? No problem.” They’ve bought themselves time for the moment. But every day they violate basic human rights, and they know that at some point they’ll be held accountable for it. That’s why they’re now trying to change the constitution and pass new laws that legitimize the violence. But I’m convinced that these people will, at some point, stand trial.
In the last year, you’ve been not only politically active, but have continued to pursue your career as a conductor. You just conducted Italian operas at the Toscanini Competition. How do you get those two sides to fit together?
It’s a little bit schizophrenic. I feel like I’m in two worlds at the same time, neither of which resembles the other, and with hardly any overlap. I have to consciously close the door to one when I open the other. It’s very strange. Of course, I talk with a lot of musicians about Belarus. But then we’ll see each other in rehearsal and talk about something completely different.
On the other hand, the whole situation has changed me: how I make music, how I perceive music, my priorities in life in general. How precious life, love, and solidarity are—I can feel that again in the music. Somehow, by combining that experience with my work, I can bring something different to the music. But that doesn’t help Belarusians, that just makes my performances stronger. I have a very guilty conscience, because I know that I can’t help directly. I know we can’t help people in prison over there by making beautiful music over here. Many Belarusians living abroad have the same problem; it tears us apart.
In your book, you also wrote that it was difficult to return to Germany where everyone was only talking about COVID-19. Many musicians spoke out about how the government handled the arts during the pandemic, but otherwise they often avoid politics. Why?
For a year now I’ve been very much aware of how apolitical many classical musicians are, and how foreign politics is to them. They hardly want anything to do with it, and when they do, they don’t always find the most effective ways of influencing things. Of course, it’s also about the business: The music industry is very international; you encounter different cultures, societies, and political systems that often don’t fit together. If you’re a Russian conductor and say something against Putin, you’re no longer going to be invited to Russia. I think it’s perfectly legitimate for people to live in their own world and function on a different, higher level with others. But more often I see that musicians just want to be apolitical because it’s easier.
But in Belarus the cultural scene has become very politicized, right?
Yes, in Belarus you can no longer afford to live on those higher levels. I’ve had very interesting conversations with some of the composers of the older generation who often say, “We make music, why do we have to talk about politics at all? That’s not important. We have much more important things to do on these higher planes of existence.” In Belarus, this is nonsense. Your friends and relatives are in jail, and you want to try using a metaphysical concept of art to legitimize the fact that you don’t want to accept it? The Belarusian art scene is completely divided on this: Either you’re on the side of civil society and the opposition, or you’re afraid and just want to pretend that you don’t see it.
Is there music that you can or can’t listen to at the moment?
Mahler was actually the only thing I could listen to last summer. I wouldn’t, for instance, be able to conduct Shostakovich right now. It’s way too close. The nice thing about art is that we often experience something onstage that’s connected to our lives, but it still has a certain distance. Shostakovich’s music is very often too close to reality. It’s just life all over again, and intense, so I can’t play that right now. Mahler isn’t interested in an objective reality, but rather an inner one. That resonates with me.
There’s a lot of discussion within the EU right now about sanctions. Can those actually impact anything?
If the EU and the whole world hadn’t reacted so strongly now, I believe this harrowing feeling that we’re being persecuted in and outside of Belarus would be even greater. But what happens in Belarus itself will hardly be influenced by the West; it has to happen within the country and it has to happen within the elite. What could, I think, overthrow the regime right now would be a conflict with Russia, but that’s very unrealistic. It would be more realistic for the regime to implode and split by more people like [former Minister of Culture] Pavel Latushko renouncing it. Lukashenko has to be forced out, he will never do it on his own. My greatest concern is that we’d lose our statehood, that the Lukashenko regime will sell so much of Belarus that it becomes part of Russia. Everything else is a matter of time. I’m not losing hope. We may have to wait a long time for it, but I know that one day we’ll win.
How did the Ryanair interception change how you view your own safety?
I’ve long known that if I travel to Belarus I could be arrested. All that’s changed is that now people are being kidnapped in the air and not just on the ground. Basically, it’s nothing new; everyone is intimidated. When I read in the news that almost every day people are being arrested and standing trial, when I think of Maria [Kalesnikava, the flutist, conductor, and activist now facing up to five years in jail] and the many hundreds of others like her in prison, I always ask myself: How would I behave? For many of us, that threat of going to court is real.
Your family still lives north of Minsk in your hometown of Vilejka. After an interview with you appeared in a local newspaper, your mother called you, worrying: “You won’t be coming back to Belarus now.” How did you respond?
I try to calm the fear in my parents, because they’ve lived in fear their whole lives. They don’t really understand how you can live in Belarus without this fear. Our generation is less afraid, but it also suffers the consequences, which is why it ends up in prison. I try to explain it to my parents like this: Even going to jail for a certain amount of time isn’t as bad as a tainted conscience. ¶