Disarming but troubling, Alison Croggon says Belarus Free Theatre’s Generation Jeans plays on a binary that feels outdated
Nikolai Khalezin is a disarming presence. He saunters on stage to a blast of sampled music and text, a middle-aged man in a bomber jacket, jeans and sunglasses, and begins his monologue casually, as if he’s telling us a story in a bar. Generation Jeans is his history, an account of growing up in Belarus as it transitioned from a satellite state of the Soviet Union into a dictatorship.
Like Khalezin himself, it’s a disarming story that carries with it the weight of verisimilitude – this is not a fiction! Although, of course, it is a consciously crafted work, fictional in the sense that memory too is a kind of fiction: we select, polish and sometimes manufacture our memories, consciously or not, shaping them into the narratives that we know as ourselves.
Khalezin tells us about his various rebellions against the constrictions and brutalities of living in a totalitarian state. He knows whereof he speaks: with his wife Natalia Koliada, Khalezin is a founder of the underground Belarus Free Theatre, now based in London after it was banned in its home country. Generation Jeans is one of its earliest works. It first premiered in 2006, a year after the company was founded with a production of Sarah Kane’s 4:48 Psychosis.
Khalezin’s story is a reminder of how fast things have changed in the past few decades. He began black marketeering at school, selling secondhand plastic bags, and graduated to trafficking smuggled jeans and Western rock music as a young man. In the former Soviet Union, a genuine British or US pressed vinyl could cost more than a month’s wages. Likewise, genuine Levis were much coveted because, aside from their illegality, they faded in a much cooler fashion than the locally made variety.
But it wasn’t just that they were better quality. As Khalezin makes clear, the attraction was also what these objects symbolised: freedom from the dreary oppressiveness of the Soviet Union. For Nikolai Khalezin, jeans were and are the symbol of revolution, of the rebellion of the individual against the crushing totalitarian state.
The first third of the show is an intimate and comic glimpse into a mid-‘80s Soviet Union: the plastic bags that were washed and reused and folded as carefully as a bride’s trousseau until their logos faded; the teen black marketers dressed in multiple coats in midsummer, constantly chewing pickles, lips swollen with vinegar; Khalezin’s run-in with the local KGB as he picks up his contraband jeans at a hotel.
From this, he leaps forward to the protests against Alexander Lukashenko, who became President of Belarus in 1994. He perpetuates his rule to this day according to the dictator’s handbook: changing legislation, rigging elections, ruthless suppression of dissent. By this time, Khalezin had three journals shut down by the government. He’s no longer doing black market trading, but the romantic allure of denim remains.
Khalezin keeps his story personal, because that’s where its power is: there’s not a lot of background in the narrative. I’m not sure he even names Lukashenko, and his accounts of wider repressions are limited to the people he knows: the husband of a friend who died in unknown circumstances, imprisonments, accounts of exile. Lukashenko, often called “Europe’s last dictator”, is a kind of last hurrah for the Soviet Union. He resisted the West’s shock reforms (the same reforms that permitted the rise of Russia’s corrupt oligarchy) and remains a global peculiarity, at odds with both Europe and Russia.
Khalezin’s story is part of a romantic history in which rock music was one of the driving forces that animated the end of Soviet Russia, when Bruce Springsteen played in East Germany, his fans clutching tiny US flags and singing “Born in the USA”. It’s a history that Tom Stoppard (a supporter of Belarus Free Theatre) referenced in his play Rock’n’Roll. It’s not hard to see how attractive this culture must have seemed from the littorals of Eastern Europe: it promised youth, eros, revolution, a dream of freedom suspended in the glittering mirage of the West.
But in 2018, the binary at work in Generation Jeans – the freedom of the West, the totalitarianism of the East – feels, like DJ Laurel’s live mixes, a little jejune. Then again, it’s unashamedly nostalgic, even sentimental. Even in 2006, its premises was already outdated: the Cold War had shapeshifted and, like all evil phantoms, was returning under another guise. Belarus Free Theatre’s later works – Burning Doors for example, seen here in 2016, or Minsk 2011: A Reply to Kathy Acker, which toured in 2013 – had a focus and energy that spoke to how resistance against authoritarianism in Eastern Europe is evolving now. In contrast, this work feels…naive.
A lot of my unease is to do with its uninterrogated idea of freedom. When this play premiered, it was five years after George Bush’s Operation Enduring Freedom launched the War on Terror, three years after the House of Representative cafes renamed French Fries “Freedom Fries” because the French voted against going to war in Iraq. Much extreme right wing activism marches under the banner of “free speech”. Right now the idea of freedom, especially a freedom tied to an idealised notion of the West, is under intense pressure.
Jeans, says Khalezin, are the symbol of freedom. You are either a “suit”, the emblem of status quo power, or “jeans”, the flag of revolution. (In Belarus’s case, this became literal in 2005 when a student tied his denim shirt to a pole and the protests were dubbed the “Jeans Revolution”). As with rock music, the costuming is male: Khalezin admiringly touches on the activism of women, but it’s only mentioned in their capacity as wives.
Khalezin says every revolutionary is “jeans”, which disconcertingly stamps a logo on every movement of dissent. The most powerful moment of the show is when he invokes his adolescent hero Jan Palach, who set himself on fire to protest the Soviet invasion of Prague. Palach, he intones solemnly, is “jeans”. Vaclav Havel, a leader of the Velvet Revolution which ultimately overthrew Soviet rule in former Czechoslovakia, is also “jeans”. The revolution is branded Levi.
Maybe Khalezin’s right: we live in an age where almost every action of dissent against the prevailing order is almost immediately commodified and put on a t-shirt. The fact remains that the action that symbolised a rebellion in Minsk in 2005 reads very differently in a West facing the corporate takeover of the state and the rapid appropriation of almost everything into the cult of consumerism. Perhaps even Khalezin knows better: after all, Havel himself warned about the totalitarian tendencies of capitalism, rightly sceptical of a freedom mediated by the CIA and the World Bank.
I looked around at my keenly applauding fellow audience members and wondered how many of them were barracking as enthusiastically for Occupy Melbourne, who staked out their own claims to freedom in the City Square in 2011 before they were evicted by riot police. It was a violent confrontation that injured 43 people and resulted in 95 arrests. We’re not Belarus, but the authoritarianism that Havel identified has long revealed the steel under its velvet gloves.
Generations Jeans by Nicolai Khalezin, with the participation of Natalia Kaliada. Directed and performed by Nicolai Khalezin, music by DJ Laurel (Lavr Berzhanin). Belarus Free Theatre at Malthouse Theatre until August 18. Bookings
Performed in Belarusian with English surtitles.
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