A Belarussian Toy Story
It was only a matter of time before they found the teddy bear.
They were professionals, after all. As the other passengers on my flight to Warsaw filed past, a team of Belurussian customs officers methodically picked apart my luggage, pulling out cameras, phone, computer, hard drives, memory cards and (goddammit) Season 5 of The Wire. As they put each item aside, they offered it for inspection to a man in plainclothes – KGB.
Their faces lit up with satisfaction as they gingerly removed the teddy bear from my dirty laundry. It was about 15cm tall, wearing a handmade frock, attached to a black parachute and carrying a sign declaring “Teddy Bears Support Human Rights” in English and Belarussian. It was also a prize catch.
In Belarus right now, that small, stuffed toy represents the worst form of contraband and the most dangerous kind of subversion. And it was in my luggage. I’d spent a week in Belarus because of the teddy bears and now I worried about whether I’d be allowed to leave.
My toy story started in a Swedish sauna ten days earlier as I filmed Per Cromwell sweat. The sauna is where Cromwell and Tomas Mazetti, founders of maverick advertising agency Studio Total, brainstorm their crazy ideas. Without a doubt their craziest idea is the one that created headlines around the world three months ago – dropping an army of teddy bear paratroopers over Belarus from a light plane..
The bears all bore messages in support of democracy and free speech.
Minsk is only an hour’s flight from Stockholm but it feels like a world away. Its broad avenues and squares are lined with Stalinist architecture and dotted with statues of revolutionary heroes long since pulled down in other parts of the former Soviet Union.
If Sweden is famously liberal then Belarus is infamously repressive – led since 1994 by President Alexander Lukashenko, often described as Europe’s last dictator. After Presidential elections in 2010, massive street protests were brutally suppressed by police and hundreds were arrested; since then, any sign of dissent has been met with overwhelming force. Last year, crowds protested economic hardship not with chants and posters but simply by clapping – hundreds were jailed for “hooliganism”.
Early this year a group of self-styled “creative hooligans” staged a protest with stuffed toys, placing them in front of government headquarters holding signs with slogans like “Toys Against Lawlessness” and “Cops Tore My Eyes Off”. The plush protesters were “arrested” by police along with the 24 year-old organizer, Pavel Vinogradov, who was jailed for 10 days.
Studio Total, creative hooligans in their own right, had already decided to support the opposition movement in Belarus by staging some kind of action that would grab people’s attention. They knew they wanted to cross the border illegally in a plane – a powerful symbolic action – but what then? Vinogradov’s stuffed toy protest provided inspiration.
They couldn’t find anyone who would rent them an aircraft, let alone fly it to Belarus. According to Mazetti, “They called us crazy. [Belarus] had an air defence they said, like one of Europe’s strongest.” Which is how Studio Total became the proud owner of a light plane and Tomas Mazetti became a qualified pilot.
The day the teddy bears fell to earth was July 4 – and despite video evidence, the government stubbornly denied it had even happened.
But there were serious consequences for anyone associated with this non-event - the real estate agent who rented a flat to Per Cromwell was arrested and a journalism student was jailed after posting photos of the stuffed toys online – both men were charged with assisting with an illegal border crossing. Journalists protested their colleague’s detention by posing for photos with one of the teddy bears; two of them were also arrested and charged with “picketing by means of photography.”
When President Lukashenko was finally forced to admit the teddy bears were real, he sacked two generals for failing to shoot down the plane and cut diplomatic ties with Sweden.
This was the story I’d set out to tell for Dateline – spending time with the journalists who’d been arrested and with the prankster who’d inspired the Swedes (and who was arrested and jailed for the seventh time this year during my visit) and with unprecedented access to the crazy ad men and women who pulled off the daring stunt.
So when my own teddy bear was discovered at the airport, I knew it was no laughing matter – although even the KGB officer couldn’t entirely suppress a smile. Three policemen restrained me while almost $20,000 of my equipment was confiscated. I was told I was free to leave; my plane had long since gone.
But once again the regime’s heavy-handed tactics failed. I’d copied my footage onto a spare hard drive, which was smuggled out of Belarus and eventually made its way back to Sydney. And after the KGB sees tonight’s Dateline I’m not hopeful about getting the teddy back.
Amos Roberts’ report from Belarus will be shown on Dateline tonight, 9.30pm on SBS ONE.
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