Belarus: Outspoken Musicians Endangered

by Free Muse  and Ingo Petz  /  April 22, 2014  / No comments

In May 2014, the Icehockey World Championships will begin in Belarus, and the government of Alyaksandr Lukashenka will do its best to ensure that fans and tourists experience Belarus as a “normal” European country. Lavon Volski is a musician who wants to “rock” that facade of normality. With his new album he has decided to unleash the powers of freedom once again, because Belarus is also a country where outspoken musicians who are critical of the regime are endangered – and Lavon Volski is one of them.

Volski's newest album, "Hramadaznaustva", which means "Social Studies".

These days a carpet of calm and quietness covers the lands of Belarus in Eastern Europe. President Aljaksandr Lukashenka reigns the post-soviet country, as he has done it over 20 years now. With repressions and a restrict policy of intimidation against his critics in the spheres of politics, civil society, business and arts, the infamous politician with the famous moustache has created a fatal dictatorship which survived even the harshest storms like the economic crisis which hit Belarus in 2011.

Lukashenka likes it when Belarusians keep quiet, go to the countryside, care about their families and seed potatoes. He doesn’t like it when Belarusian are interested in politics. And he created a bunch of subtle means to keep Belarusians away from politics. One of those is the Black List which appeared on the Internet in March 2011, naming “unwanted” musicians, artists and actors.

Lavon Volski is one of the most popular figures of the alternative music scene in Belarus. He created numerous bands like N.R.M. and Krambambulya which became very popular among those who openly or indirectly resist the regime of Lukashenka. Songs like ‘Minsk. Mensk’ or ‘Three turtles’ are nowaday classics of the modern Belarus. In the past 15 years his bands and songs have been blacklisted, and his concerts have been abolished countless times.

“We prohibit state-tv-channels
We give the black list to radiostations
Newspapers, magazines and online resources.
They prevent people from thinking”

These are the lines of the new song ‘Mefista’, (Mephisto), in which Volski mocks the black list by utilizing it against those who made it up.

Volski is one of those who are not willing to adapt to Lukashenka’s rules and mechanisms of power and to contribute to the facade of normality. Since beginning of the 1980s, Volski, born in 1966 in the capital Minsk, uses his music and the Belarusian language to give people hope, some moments of lightness or joy and to fight for a bright future of his country and his culture which is also suppressed by a russian speaking president who still loves the heroic tales of the sunken Soviet Union.

While governmental booking agencies earn money on organising concerts of international superstars in the Minsk Arena for certain Belarusian bands and musicians Belarus is still not a normal country. Of course young bands and artists are given permission to perform concerts and festivals but only if they are not openly critical towards Lukashenka and his regime.

The young generation of musicians learned this rule pretty well. Like the English speaking band The Toobes, or the Belarusian singing band Akute who are doing music just for the reason of entertainment.

Complex system of censorship
More and more of those “unpolitical” bands have appeared in the past years. It is a complex system of censorship which can’t be explained by a simple black-and-white formula. In 2013 Volskis band Krambambulya (which was blacklisted but which is not political at all) was given permission to play a concert in Belarus. It was a concert held on private property.

As a solo artist, Volski could perform several concerts in smaller venues. But so far it is unthinkable that Volski or other outspoken critics could hold gigs in stadions or great concert halls. Nor it is imaginable that Volski, the singer song-writer Zmicer Vaycjushkevich or Lyapis Trubeckoy, another famous band from Belarus, would appear on state-television.

So young musicians try to stay out of the political sphere – which is defined by the regime itself – in order not to get in trouble with the regime and to be able to make a living out of their passion: music.

In doing so they also contribute to the facade of normality and quietness which the regime is aiming for. This Belarusian mode of survival has been formed by a history under other rulers, monarchs and empires like the Polish-Lithuanian, the Moscovites or the Soviet Union.

Lukashenka knows about this characteristic feature of his countrymen and and as a cunning politcian being focused on the preservation of power he knows exactly how to use and misabuse the mentality of Belarusians to create a facade of normality. On 5 May 2014 in Minsk the Icehockey World Championship will begin. And Lukashenka will make sure that this normality will also been seen by fans and tourists who will travel to “the last dictatorship of Europe.”
Volski has decided that he is not willing to uphold this facade.

In Search of New Inspiration
A lot of Lavon Volski’s fans has been criticizing him that he stopped writing sharp hitting songs after the last album of N.R.M in 2006 and instead began experimenting with different styles, more entertainment and softer words.

But on the other side he stood beside the singer Sergey Michalok from Lyapis Trubeckoy – one of the bravest, most outspoken critics of the regime Lukashenka in the sphere of Belarusian culture.

It took Volski a couple of years to observe what the rules of the regime do to Belarusians and to himself. He needed fresh inspiration, rethinking and a massive reboot to create a new music and sound of expressing his critical and personal thoughts in a more modern style.

And most interesting: Volski found this new inspiration with Snorre Bergerud, a Norwegian who resides in Vilnius. At the studio Ymir Audio the musicians created a powerful sound which shakes your bones. Probably Volski needed someone from outside, someone who doesn’t live in the swamps of Belarus, to discover a new original view on the life of Belarusians.

New Album: ‘Social Studies’
Volski’s new solo album is called ‘Hramadaznaustva’ and has been published on the Internet platform 34mag.net on the 25 March 2014. This date is a day with symbolic power for the opposition and free-minded people in Belarus. At the “Day of the Will” or the “Day of Freedom” (Dzen Voli) people remember the Belarusian People’s Republic (BNR) which existed for a very short term in 1918. Til 1991 when Belarus gained independence it was the only Belarusian state which ever existed in history. But the young and weak democracy had no chance to survive in the political turmoils of those times.

Volski believes in this heritage and he believes in the powers of freedom. But he is no naive romantic. He knows his countrymen and their complex psyche, too. The Belarusian psyche is the main topic of the solo album indicated by the title ‘Hramadaznaustva’ which means ‘Social Studies.’

The songs are angry, furious, sometimes hard, sometimes soft and always empathetic. “Smash the system,” he sings in one song. Here Volski doesn’t attack the politcal regime but he calls up to smash the regime and system which people create for themselves in the everyday-pattern.

Volski attacks the stars of Belarusian pop music who earn a lot of money by not opposing the regime. And he sings about the fact that Belarusians feel strange in their country because it is ruled by a neo-soviet tyrant.

Volski’s new album is a statement for freedom and independence. It urges the listener to question himself and – potentially – change his view of what’s going in Belarus. Therefore it is the most explosive material which has been created by a musician in Belarus for a long time. It has the power to rock the facade of normality and to stand as an example for other musicians who still have to overcome their fear. But it won’t make Volski’s life in Belarus easier.

“I think the time of compromises is over,” explains Volski. “The time of false trades and playing by wrong rules, by maneuvering or imposing an inner censor on yourself. The time of false meanings and reading between the lines. I wanted to make something clear – simple and easy.”

You can download the album ‘Hramadaznaustva’ here: 34mag.net

Ingo Petz’s Freemuse interview with Lavon Volski, guitarist and vocalist of the group Krambambulya: www.freemuse.org/archives/1951

This article was originally published by freemuse.org on April 9, 2014.

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