Belarus: Lavon Volski is a free man in an unfree country

28 April 2016

Since the beginning of the 1980s, the Belarusian rock musician Lavon Volski has been one of the most influential cultural personalities in his country fighting for freedom of artistic expression. In May 2016, he is being honoured with the Freemuse Award 2016.

By Ingo Petz
For more than 30 years now, Lavon Volski has been creating rock and punk music. In his homeland Belarus he is one of those last ‘dinosaurs’ who for a long time have been anticipated to go extinct – in particular by the country’s autocratic systems fighting and oppressing rock music as a preacher of freedom, self-realisation and a destroyer of the rules set by the elite in power.

Lavon wrote dozens of songs which have become anthems for those who dream of a democratic and free Belarus. He founded several succesful solo-projects and bands such as Mroya, N.R.M., Zet and Krambambulya which all made a huge impact on the development of a Belarusian-speaking rock music scene and of a Belarusian culture in general. He is in many regards to be seen as one of the most important Belarusian personalities of his time.

Lavon is the son of the famous Belarusian playwright and author of children’s books, Artur Volski. Born in 1965 in Minsk, Lavon started playing his own music in the beginning of the 1980s as a student of the Arts Academy in Minsk.

“I grew up with the Beatles and all the rock‘n’roll music from the 1950s and 1960s, and I wanted to do the same in my own language.”

Writing Belarusian rock music was something completely new in those days. Russian was the lingua franca in the whole Soviet Union. The Belarusian language was regarded as a Russian dialect, as the language of peasants and folk ensembles. Creating rock music in Belarusian at that time, therefore, unwillingly had a touch of dissidence and opposition.

“Of course we were against the Soviet Union. Like a lot of young people of those days playing rock music,” says Lavon. “I was interested in rebellion and in freedom and in the real culture of Belarus. Not in the soviet myths and legends we were being told in school. I am grateful to my parents that they did not educate me in the spirit of soviet communism but inspired me to read books and listen to music so that I could find my own way.”

Rock music became Lavon’s valve for his longing for freedom. He founded the Hardrock band Mroya (Dream). In 1989 the group was the first Belarusian rock band which released an album on the soviet state-run label Melodya which – due to the more liberal politics of Perestroika and Glasnost beginning with Michail Gorbachov in the mid-1980s – started releasing music of former dissident rock bands.

No work, no money – but new hope
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Belarus became an independent state for the first time in its history. A short period of wild democratic experiments and economic and political failures began.

“It was a difficult time because people had no work and no money,” Lavon tells. “But the young ones like us had a lot of hope that we finally could build our own country. There was much more freedom for us – and more opportunities. Therefore the end of the Soviet Union for us was a real victory.”

Inspired by the new freedom a lot of new musicians and bands appeared on the stage playing Belarusian music in countless styles. Festivals were born, clubs opened in Minsk, the famous radio programme FM101.2 began to air Belarusian music, and the first humble steps towards a vivid colourful subcultural life as the foundation for a wave of Belarusian music started washing through Belarus during the mid-1990s.

However, in 1994 Belarus experienced a political backlash. With the election of Alyaksandr Lukashenka as the first president of the Republic of Belarus, the new freedom was challenged by a rising autocratic, neo-soviet system suppressing media freedom, democratic freedoms and human rights.

“I knew that something bad was about to happen in my country,” Lavon tells. “Our new freedom was in danger. Back to the Soviet Union was the motto of this new system. And of course we were not interested in that.”

Lavon changed the style of his music. It became more grungy, punky and fiercer. He founded a new band balled N.R.M. – the Independent Republic of Dreams – as a cultural-political comment on the political development as a symbolic “state within the state” for those who were not willing to adapt to the new rules of Lukashenka.

N.R.M. became the most influential band of contemporary Belarus, and Lavon, with his poetic, critical lyrics in which young people could feel the spirit of resistance in its best manner, became the hero of a new generation of young ones.

In his song ‘My Generation’ from N.R.M.’s album ‘House of Culture’ from 2002, Lavon sings about the apathy among those people who started to rise in the beginning of the 2000s, as Lukashenka’s regime successfully began to repress bands, blacklist artists and ban concerts:

My generation hides in the dark,

Lit by dreams, by yesterday’s world.

My generation parties and drinks,

It debases itself and hates itself for it.

Let’s flog the roubles and get hold of dollars,

Then let’s get away, far away, from this land.

“Brother, it’s time; we’re as free as the birds”.

Though tired, we can fly to Cockaigne, or at least out of here.

Generation N.R.M
Those who grew up with Lavon’s music have nowadays even been called Generation N.R.M. The well known writer Alhierd Bacharevich is one of them. He explains Lavon’s impact on cultural life in Belarus:

“Lavon Volski, for whatever he undertook, it is always the taste, the style, the independence, the talent and the intellect. He is the man who changed the Belarusian world and who made it more free, brighter and more cheerful. His music has born several generations of Belarusians. Every project he created is demanding and challenging, Belarusians just can’t listen to him with blunt indifference, because he told us painful and important things about ourselves. He is the first musician in this country who proved that the Belarusian language can be modern, beautiful and European.”

And Bacharevich adds: “Lavon Volski is the person who is always experimenting and who never stops. Lavon is also very important for my personal history, a fine musician who doesn’t get older, a very interesting writer and an original artist. He really is a free man in an unfree country.”

Due to the ban of concerts starting in 2001 which massively affected Lavon’s band N.R.M., he and his wife Hanna decided to create the project Krambambulya, named after an old drink in the Grand duchy of Lithuania. They wanted to popularise the Belarusian language and to earn money outside of the ‘political’ opposition scene.

The group played a sweaty mixture of punk and rock with folkloristic elements. The lyrics were funny and ironic. They told stories about drinking and dancing. The band even founded an imaginary country called Krambambuland which promoted freedom of expression, absurdity and fun.

The manifest of Krambambuland reads:

“There’s a country, a country no one knows, somewhere between Warsaw and Moscow, a country where the rivers – so they say – flow with milk and honey,
where the sun shines, every day, all year, and the sun gently strokes the rich broad meadows and golden fields of wheat with its warm rays, and brings a sparkle to the waters of the lakes.
A country where the capital city is the radiant Sun City of dreams.
A country where the tractors and combines are as big as spaceships,
where the vodka is as clear as the purest spring water…”


The blacklist
Nevertheless, this band appeared on the reputed blacklist in 2011 which washed through the Internet. It could not be proven who among the authorities had created this blacklist but it was clear that the regime started targeting the independent music and arts scene – at a time when the regime had started again to attack the opposition with hard repressions, arresting politicians, activists and journalists.

Lavon decided not to give in and became one of the rare personalities in the cultural sphere of Belarus who continued to speak up and criticise Lukashenka’s regime.

“I think the time of compromises was over,” explains Lavon: “The time of false trades and playing by wrong rules, by maneuvring or imposing an inner censor on yourself. The time of false meanings and reading between the lines. It is important to talk about the dirt and mud we are living with in this country.”

Over the next years, Krambambulya started organising a series of exile-concerts in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. With the support of the Lithuanian embassy in Minsk, the band organised a unique and therefore historic action. Those who obtained concert-tickets in Belarus were able to apply for a short-term-visa free of charge for the EU.

In spring 2014, Lavon finally released his first solo album called ‘Social Studies’ (Hramadaznaustva) which was praised by critics and fans. Again he made it clear that he is not willing to adapt to Lukashenka’s rules and mechanisms of power. He did not wish to contribute to the facade of normality in Belarus – like many young artists and musicians do. They try to stay out of the political sphere – which is defined by the regime itself – in order to avoid getting in trouble with the regime and in order to be able to make a living out of their passion: music.

However, in doing so these musicians also contribute to the facade of normality and quietness which the regime is aiming for, Lavon points out.

On the new album, Lavon’s lyrics have become angrier and more furious. “Smash the system,” he sings in one song. Here Volski doesn’t attack the political regime but he calls up to smash the system which people create for themselves in their everyday-pattern. In the song ‘Mefista’, (Mephisto), Lavon mocks the blacklist by utilising it against those who made it up:

We prohibit state tv channels
We give the blacklist to radio stations
Newspapers, magazines and online resources
They prevent people from thinking

In March 2016, once again a planned concert in Minsk was denied permission by the local authorities. Moreover, Lavon suffered a severe personal loss. His beloved wife Hanna died of cancer. She was not only his life companion but also his creative inspiration and producer.

“Without her I would have never written the songs I have written in the past 20 years,” Lavon says.

Even so, his second solo album is about to be finished now. It will be a witty, raw beast of modern punk music, once again proving that the main spirit of Lavon’s work is freedom in its purest form.

“Of course I won’t give up making music,” he says. “You can’t give up what you really love.”

Ingo Petz is a Germany-based freelance journalist who has been covering the Belarusian music scene since 1998.

Photos above are from a youtube-video of Lavon Volski’s performance

lavon-volski-awardwinner590Lavon Volski is the 2016 Freemuse Award winner

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