The country is awaiting revolution and cultural revival.
Siarzhuk Douhushau is not just a musician, but one of the main Belarusian folklore communicators. Not many people know that he was among the creators of the Volny Chor (“Free Choir”), which became one of the driving forces of the 2020 protests.
How did the Belarusian revolution begin? Should Baskov, Babkina and Russian pop music be banned in Belarus? How do Belarusians differ from other Slavs? What will the Belarusian Renaissance be like?
Siarzhuk Douhushau spoke about all this and not only in an interview with the Studio X-97 show by Charter97.org. Host: Yevhen Klimakin.
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– Let's talk about the Volny Chor, this has not been mentioned anywhere, in any media. How did it all start for you?
– It all started with the song revolution in 2020. People were singing everywhere in the streets and courtyards. Our songs were heard on the steps of the Philharmonic and so on. There were people for whom it was one goal – it was a real song movement. This is how the Volny Chor was born, and I am one of the organizers and founders. We had a real family, everyone had specific tasks but it was a common cause.
Sometimes no one knew the names of those who were joining us, those who were singing. Indeed, everything was as secret as possible, everyone played a specific role, everyone did something in favour of the Belarusian revival, the Belarusian song, and I remember those moments sometimes with pain and sometimes I’m proud of it. With the feeling that this was a song revival in Belarus when a Belarusian song was heard in every corner.
I was also the initiator of the wide spreading of the Pahonia ("Chase") anthem. Together with Pavel Belaus, who is in prison now, we actively popularized our anthem. Videos were released in which we taught how to sing our ancestral anthem. The video with the orchestra (can’t be found now) has received more than a million views – that’s what the Pahonia anthem is.
When the anthem sounded in the shopping mall, people greeted the Volny Chor with loud applause! The task was to spread our song heritage as much as possible. I have a desire to bring even more of our songs to people. When it was the “election” day, I made our first songbook. It was called the Decent Songs. The White-Red-white. Just the songs that Belarusians loved and sang most in 2020, and in general, these are the songs so close to everyone.
– Give us, please, some inside details. What was going on? You or someone else came up with the idea that today in a specific place, in a shopping mall, people met and sang the Pahonia.
– We had a whole team of people. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you about everyone and I can’t reveal various details, because it would be unsafe. There was a person responsible for the actions, and sometimes it was designed spontaneously, but there was a certain theme, a certain place for participants to come, and everything was prepared so that everything was safe. I can say that the Volny Chor members have never faced arrests throughout all the time. They came later and arrested me at work, but they never arrested me during the actions.
It was like a miracle – people were coming out of nowhere and starting to sing songs. The situation became hot in 2021. It was scary to gather even in a group of three people anywhere. It was scary that they’d come for us. They have been arresting people at concerts, even at online concerts. The band “Razbіtae Serca Pacana” (“Boy’s Broken Heart”) was holding a semi-closed concert, but they raided and arrested all there: artists and people there. There was always fear.
– I saw you and Marharyta Leuchuk singing the song “Oj Sіvy Kon Biazhyc” (“Oh, Grey Horse Is Running”) I was convinced that this was our Ukrainian song “Oj, Chij To Kіn Stoit“ (“Oh, someone's horse is standing”).
– This is a folk song that existed in both Ukraine and Belarus. It was spread. I heard my grandfather from the Stolin region singing it. The text is a little different, and the tempo is completely different. [singing].
– What is the name of this musical instrument?
– This is the “kolavaia lira” (“hurdy-gurdy”) “kolіsna lіra” in Ukrainian and “lira korbowa” in Polish. An ancient instrument.
– Is this a Belarusian folk instrument?
– I would say that it’s both Ukrainian and Belarusian. In general, this is an East Slavic instrument. Its roots go back to the Middle Ages. This instrument has such a nature, and it has a special tradition among Ukrainians and Belarusians, when elders walked around the villages, we called them “dziady”. They sang spiritual songs and story ballads.
– Please, tell us about these instruments. What’s this?
– This is the ocarina – ocarina-fish. That’s the wooden wind-instrument made by a Belarusian master. I have about 50 wooden wind-instruments and different pipes. That's the zhaleika. Here are paired pipes – our tradition has double pipes.
– You are originally an opera singer, aren't you?
– No, I studied at the Belarusian Academy of Music and had a professional higher education. I was trained as an opera singer until my third year, then I was really disillusioned with it. I ended up just being a singer. My diploma reads: “Singer, Music Teacher and Choir Soloist.” Something like that.
– If I’m not mistaken, you have been going on expeditions to villages and villages since 2012.
– I believe it took me even closer to myself, to our history, to the feeling and self-identification of myself as a Belarusian native, as a representative of the nation. Through songs and stories. I really miss these places. I don’t really want to come back to Minsk and walk along the streets of Lenin, Dziarzhynski and so on, to look at the monuments, at the crowds of riot police and cops. But to come to a village without all these... It was the same 20 years ago, and 50 years ago, and still. Our wooden houses.
– Is there any Mrs. Olha or Tatsiana whom I would like to visit?
– There are a lot of them. Dozens of grandmothers and grandfathers with whom I am friends, and with whom I talk all the time by phone. They even called me yesterday and sang songs to me. “Oh, Sairozha, we remembered a new song, let’s sing together.” Of course, I am very worried that their health is no longer so good. Sometimes I’m afraid to call them and find out that someone has already left. Old people have one year as we have ten. They leave very quickly.
– You had been working at the Philharmonic in Minsk till 2018. I know that there were stories when you were invited to work by ideologists and KGB officers. Can we talk about this? What was the reason?
– My tour. I very often traveled to the Czech Republic and Poland for concerts. And the main ideologist, every time they called him, called me: “Serhei Vasilyevich, come to the office. Tell us where you have been. We got a call, you were caught on camera with the people...”
– What people were they talking about?
– They never say. “Do you feel good at the Philharmonic? Do you want to continue working? Think it over.” Then they called again. One day I come, and there’s a guy sitting there, even younger than me. “They came to see you, Serhei Vasilyevich.” This is the first time I have had such a story. He came to me and said: “My name is Serhei.” From that moment on, some Serhei appeared, who called me all the time. He just came to observe. We met with him three times. The first time we met he asked everyone: “Who is this person? What can you say about him?” It was very unpleasant. I’m starting to remember that Belarusians had something similar before, under Soviet rule. He was scaring me during our second meeting: “So, Serhei Vasilyevich. I know that you were in prison in 2010. You don't want to end up there again, do you? You may have problems." Threats are threats, and the third meeting was recruitment. We were walking with him and talking. I just came back from the Czech Republic. “How did you like the Czech Republic? Did you have a good time there?" He knew everything about me. Where did you go, what did you do? "Where are you going? To the Kupala Theater? Maybe you want to work there? We can appoint you, you will have this job. If you like expeditions, we can assign you to the Institute of Culture, you will have a good paycheck and work there. Do it!"
At that moment I was just all tense. They could call you at any second, you feel like someone is watching you all the time. And then one good person advised me: “You’d better start telling everyone about it. And the next time you see him, just ask him to take a photo of his ID.” I never met him again, this man simply disappeared. One day I came to my apartment and my door was broken. I didn't know if there were links, but most likely they were. The door lock was completely crushed and nothing was taken out of the apartment. If thieves did it, then they stole something at least.
– What are the current sentiments among the people in the Philharmonic and in the Opera House? You know the people who work there obviously.
– Those who have been working for a long time are staying there until retirement. Those who showed up were either fired or left. Someone began to serve, the paychecks were good. And there are those who are saying: “What are we doing? We are performing. What should we do? They even perform at state concerts. There are those who believe that they are doing the right thing.
– The world started talking about Akrestsina prison and the horrors that happened there in 2020. You personally saw what was happening there in 2010.
– That’s truly a horrible and terrible story for me. I’ve got 2010 developments when I accidentally fell behind those walls. Then there was a minority of those people who came out to the squares, who spoke, who were against it. Because most people lived and went to work. Some had more or less normal income. Well, we were living like that.
– What were the official reasons for your arrest?
– It happened accidentally. I was at the square, then I protected one girl.
– 15 days. What happened to you there?
– This is a light version of what is happening there after 2020. Beatings, terrible detention conditions, lights on. 15 days sounds different now. Every second Belarusian has visited it. At the time it seemed terrible. And there was no war in Ukraine then. And it seemed what a horror it was when they beat a girl against the table in front of you, when they broke your fingers, when they undressed you and threw you out into the corridor, when they simply didn’t give you parcels, when you were all blue and there was no medical care, but they gave us aspirin so that we wouldn’t die. But if someone died, so, nothing special. These guards, these executioners, who showed themselves even more in 2020, they already existed, all these were happening then.
– They became more brutal, and you are talking about it. Why? What do you think?
– The system supports this. The system gives them apartments, awards, orders and says that it’s normal to mock people for nothing. It is normal to give a prison sentence to a person who loves native land and does everything for it, call this person a traitor or an extremist and sentence this person to 10-15 years in prison.
I understand that they are opportunists who receive good bonuses, apartments and money. But they are unhappy people. More than once I saw that those who work for the system, return from work in the evening, get drunk and take it out on their children and families. When you do evil, it will devour you in any case.
– Almost 10 years of expeditions and communication with different people. What did you understand about your compatriots?
– I had a lot of thoughts. I switched to the Belarusian language. Because I saw these people, when they tried to speak Russian with urban people. Still, they even have a funny Russian accent.
They are singing their songs. They are living like that. They look more real and natural. I was learning from them. Secondly, they take care of this way. They often say that many are no longer interested in these songs, but it is still their treasure. It seems to me that many Belarusians are thinking about this. You don’t have to listen to folk songs on headphones, but you can appreciate them and stand behind them – these are our songs. The most important thing is that this is the succession of generations – to sing songs that their grandmothers and great-grandmothers passed on to them, and they pass them on to us. That’s respectful, to take care and follow our originality and peculiarity.
– How do Belarusians differ from other Slavs?
– With our history, culture, set of mind and songs. This is precisely the originality and peculiarity – our traditional culture, you cannot confuse it with anyone else. If we understand this more, we will be able to identify ourselves more easily among other nations. Why did the Hungarians, for example, begin to create their own dance houses and their own songs at the beginning of the 20th century? Because in the song, in the culture lies our historical code and our self-identification.
– Siarzhuk, they did a lot to ensure that non-Russian culture was at the level of villages during Soviet times. And “serious”, “great”, “real” culture was only one by default. And as one of the results – in different countries that were covered with Soviet-Russian one, there is a feeling that our culture is such a “yokel”, in Ukraine they said “sharovarschina”. What can we do to get out of these issues and accept that there is no only one great culture, and ours is also cool?
– It seems to me that some kind of experiment was really carried out in Belarus. What must be done to dislike your native things so much, to know almost nothing, and even to name the streets after those executioners who killed thousands of Belarusians? This is just such a mockery. And if you understand this, you can simply be horrified.
It seems to me that there is one way out – to show the truth, to show an alternative to all this. When I performed in schools, children loved these concerts. When they came out to sing Dunaevsky or talk about the greatness of Pushkin – children were not interested. No one of them knows Lenin anymore. When I was playing my instruments, children who had never seen them before and listened to modern music, heard it somewhere inside of them. These were the most memorable concerts for them. I’m sure they remembered it.
I see it at concerts. Belarusians are coming deeper inside of their souls, to know themselves, and their goals in the country. And here, of course, you can give them a lot of virtual food through the Internet, literature, and find truthful information.
The authorities in Belarus are now doing everything to destroy this, so that people have only the Great Patriotic War and the “great” Soviet heritage, then our job is to make sure that people know the alternative, the truthful, the real one. I am sure that the same eleventh grade students who are now studying at a Belarusian school somewhere in Minsk or Baranavichy still have doubts about what they hear. "Do it. It was like that for us. We had the great and wise Lenin.” However, they are online. They understand that there can’t only be black, there is white and red, and green, and whatever you want.
– Please, in your opinion, rate the Belarusians’ knowledge of their culture. From 1 to 10.
– I can’t talk about all Belarusians. I can say that after 2020 there is great interest, such that people began to discover new names, and areas of activity, and became more interested in folklore. But it’s still hard.
– More than five or less?
– I'm an optimist. More than five, of course. Also, whom are we talking about? For example, those who are living in Europe are more interested. I observed such a situation when I was touring the USA. There was a very great interest. I don’t remember that before so many people gathered for Kupala and Kaliady. There was a community, but the emigrants were not so interested. And now a new wave is coming, they are interested in the local community and holidays. It is very pleasing that interest in emigration is more than seven points.
But in Belarus, it may be different. This is how the situation developed. If we consider the province, people have no time for culture there, people want to survive somehow in all this, people want to earn money for their bread, for milk, so that there will be nothing – no politics, no war, so that everyone leaves them alone. They have no time for culture – they need to survive somehow in the conditions in this situation.
– There is an idea that Lukashenka hates everything Belarusian, therefore he destroys the state and his own language, does not allow it to develop, the flag is not Belarusian, and so on, and so far. Why do you think this happens? Do you see any reason for Lukashenka to hate everything Belarusian?
– It seems to me that we’ve gotten a whole generation of people who destroy and continue to torture everything Belarusian and all the Belarusian people. They betrayed it a long time ago. It seems to me that this is just an experiment on the country, on the Belarusians, which began back in the 30s.
When I read the works of our ethnographers, our authors and poets, when they were tried for doing something for the benefit of Belarus, their works were recognized as “extremist” and simply destroyed, we see that this is happening today. We don’t have “independent media” now, it’s all “extremism”.
I looked at the poster for my events, there was a festival that I organized, a concert, and the logos of media partners on the poster were all “extremist.” What is this? This is occupation, the destruction of everything. They are removing the Belarusian language in the underground, as well as Latin inscriptions. They are replacing it with the Russian inscriptions.
– Thanks to what, thanks to whom, did you manage not to lose your love to Belarusian culture? It’s really hard when everything around you is cleared and replaced with Russian.
– It seems to me that people’s education, understanding of who you are, and love for their native people play an important role. What helps me is that I stick to my people, my circle. It is very noticeable who belongs and who does not when in emigration. People of culture, people who are living outside the country, care even more to preserve this. We need to think about this, because it is more difficult to preserve culture abroad when there is so much new stuff around, so many other directions, and just stick to your own, just stick to your people and create together.
– Ukraine has come a long way from restricting, even banning, closing the “drain tank,” as I call it, with all sorts of Babkins, Baskovs and others. In your opinion, is Belarus worth going through the path of banned and restricted cultural or so-called cultural products?
– It seems to me that even if there were no interference and there were no prohibitions, I think people would gradually move away from this by themselves. First, we must not prohibit, but let people know what belongs to them. We have our own national anthem, we have our own language. We, of course, had a difficult situation when in the early 90s they decided that there could be more than one state language. I believe that there should be one state language – the Belarusian language. But in our situation, this needs to be done more flexibly, more carefully.
Do not ban all channels at once. No, today we have removed several Russian channels from Belarus, in three years - another one, in five - two more, we may have one left for some time for pensioners who are nostalgic for Soviet songs, and so on. Gradually, not right away. Any ban causes protest.
– There are a lot of talks about mistakes that led to the failure of the 2020 revolution. I want to ask you, in your opinion, what good happened?
– First, Belarusians believed in themselves. Belarusians discovered their culture for themselves and learned about themselves. Some of the people I meet abroad say: “I’m looking forward to the Belarusian language for 2020.” Secondly, people began to unite more, people began to follow a common idea. The most important thing is that they saw that they were the majority. When almost everyone came out of the city when the streets were so filled with people. The people cared about the fate of Belarus. People who rebelled. People who were standing for our country to live better.
– Did Belarusians keep it? Is it still working?
– There is resentment, there is pain, there is closeness and disappointment. But it was preserved inside. It will all appear again as soon as there is some kind of push.
– Some members of the Volny Chor were arrested. Some are still behind bars. Do you know the number of people involved in the Volny Chor?
– It seems to me that several hundred people sang together.
– Are all of them professional musicians?
– No. There were different people. When protests took place, people could simply join in from the street and start singing. People joined, sang and disappeared. Nobody knew who it was or how it happened. There was such a time. The very mood and the very spirit, when people wanted to sing, they wanted to sound.
– What now?
– Now life goes on, everything has been moved abroad. I retired from the Volny Chor. It exists and continues to give concerts. At this time I founded the Warsaw Freedom Orchestra. It’s also working – tours, music and plays. I have other projects and things to do. I am also the director of the Dom Tvorcau (“House of Creators”) – this is a house, such a platform for helping repressed Belarusians. We have many interesting projects, exhibitions and so on.
– Siarzhuk, so spontaneously, but suddenly. Could you please remember any story from this experience of the Volny Chor? A specific performance or conversation.
– The first songbook that came out was the “Decent Songs.” People were asking how to get this songbook. The songbook that you can take with you, put in your pocket. Because the Internet was cut. It was impossible to find these texts. The songbook was convenient: you could put it in your pocket and go to sing. I was invited to the courtyards very often, all the courtyards sang, all the courtyards waited for people to come to them and asked: “Give us this songbook. Give us these texts."
The atmosphere was so friendly. I don’t remember exactly in which yard, in what area it was, but we arrived and it was as if all the people came out into the street and created a huge ring around us. So, we were standing in the center and singing.
Everyone had songbooks, candles were burning, lanterns were on and we were singing songs. We were singing Pahonia and courtyard hits such as “Try Charapahi” (“Three Turtles”) and “Prostyia Slovy” (“Simple Words”). At that moment, when we started singing the song “Hani Bykou – Viarnetsa Wolia” (“Drive Bulls and Will Will Come Back”), we noticed that 10-15 prison vans surrounded us. Such iron colossuses. And what happened: we were taken into the entrance, into some apartment, hidden, and then we were carefully taken out through the service entrance and taken home. Everything was organized perfectly.
There were also meals there. Everyone cooked something and took it out into the yard. And these courtyards were a kind of revival, such a friendly, family circle of people. Neighbours who did not know each other became one, like one family.
– There was a time when you lived, as you said, in three countries. The U.S., Belarus and Poland. What’s next?
– Now I’m mostly in Poland, but I come to the USA from time to time because I have friends, concerts, and tours there. But I like to be in Poland, it’s very close in spirit. I’d like to say that I have repeatedly confused Warsaw with Minsk. There are so many people from different directions who came here, all the service is in Belarusian. I visit a Belarusian cafe, Belarusian car service, dentist too, and so on. It feels like we are still living in our separated Belarus. It was a certain group of people in Minsk. It’s the same here – we live as a community. There is an example of a healthy nation when we see that people are not afraid to publish their thoughts online, they can express their opinions, people who rejoice at concerts are not afraid that someone will burst in, arrest them, put them on the floor. We are starting to recover. Here is an example: we are living in Europe and we see that life here is good. Without violence, as we lived in a manic environment for so many years. We need to heal. Many people need psychotherapy to regain confidence in themselves and their capabilities.
– In an interview, if I’m not mistaken, with Radio Liberty, you said that it is very difficult to earn money and live doing culture in the U.S. Why?
– The most important thing is that we were not born there. It's easier for those people born in the USA. The situation is different there, they have different mindset. It seems to me that it's necessary to enter this society. Many cannot do it, and many cannot learn English at such a level to go to a good job. I see such Poles, Belarusians, and Ukrainians who are still living in their closed community, doing the simplest jobs like driving trucks, engaged in construction or sales. They are stuck. The problem is that you cannot engage in culture. It takes some time to get on your feet and work normally, to rent an apartment, to support your family. And then time passes, you look back, and you’re already 50. Culture becomes a hobby.
There was and there is so much of everything there that it’s not so easy to come and show something new and attract an audience, and also make money from it. Also, the whole culture is tailored to the fact that everything mainly happens from Friday to Saturday, from Saturday to Sunday. You have two days a week for the activities. Other times you go to work. There are such distances: to come to a concert, you need to spend an hour or more. And all the people live outside the city, so it's better to gather people for some event on the weekend. In Poland, you can go to such an event on Monday, and get to three or four events in the evening.
– I ask this question to everyone. How to win?
– The first thing is victory over yourself. Make some effort, and I’m doing it. Every morning I get up and make a list of things that need to be done, most of these things are related to Belarusian culture. Many projects, many events, publishing activities, educational activities. This is my victory. My victory over myself. At times I feel sadness, powerlessness, and the moment when I want to return to my village of Tarchylava, just to take a walk around my native place. I can't do this. I understand that my land is occupied.
I wish we could be wherever we want. To have an opportunity to go to your village. My dream is this: so that we can all come to our land. Because our land was taken away, but it still belongs to us. We carry it with us, we sing our songs, we know our history and so on. This piece of our homeland is always with us. But I want to meet on our land. And it will not only be a choir, it will not only be an orchestra but all Belarusians. All who call themselves Belarusians will stand and sing Pahonia with tears and by memory. I think this is my biggest dream.