FYI.

This story is over 5 years old.

News

Meeting the Advertising Company Taking On Europe's Last Dictatorship

Armed with only an aeroplane and hundreds of parachuting teddy bears.
13.8.12

Studio Total is a Swedish advertising company. An advertising company whose staff recently flew a plane illegally over Belarus and dropped hundreds of teddy bears bearing free speech messages across Europe's last dictatorship.

Belarus, you see, is a bit of a shit show. The country is controlled by Alexander Lukashenko, an effective dictator who has spent nearly two decades imprisoning opposition and crushing protest and dissent. Last year it seemed as though a popular uprising was finally beginning, as the usually meek Belarusians began a series of weekly protests – taking inspiration from the riots that followed Lukashenko's 2010 re-election. But quickly, the heavy hand of Luka crushed the weekly protests – as we found out last year, when a contact of ours spent a week in the slammer.

Annons

Clearly, Studio Total's stunt freaked Lukashenko out a bit. He sacked two generals, imprisoned anyone caught taking pictures of the bears, and even shut down the Swedish embassy. Which is pretty mental. This severity is comparable to Russia's cruel treatment of Pussy Riot and perhaps these two examples of paranoia show a real fear of the growing Eastern European avant-garde. In Russia, of course, groups like Voina had already been chased into hiding in their own country before Pussy Riot played a 30-second show in that Moscow church. Meanwhile, in Belarus, the Belarusian Free Theatre were intimidated out of the country.

I called Thomas from Studio Total because I'm interested in Belarus and the concept of amateur aviation over an unpredictable dictatorship scares the shit out of me.

VICE: Hi man, how're you?
Tomas Mazetti: Well man, I'm a bit confused, but that's my modus operandi most of the time.

I see. Well, first things first, what inspired you guys to get involved in the political debate surrounding Belarus?
Well, first of all, we have been involved in political debates of all kinds – that’s what we do. So, we basically met people from Belarus who were telling us about the situation and that was it. Plus, in a plane it’s like one and a half hours from Sweden, so it's convenient.

So how did you decide that dropping teddy bears from an aeroplane was the best way to approach it?
There's a youth organisation and protest movement called "Tell the Truth" and they have been arrested countless times for demonstrating in Belarus. Then in the end they decided that they should use all the children's toys, so they took all these bears and began picketing in October Square [the main square in Minsk, the Belarusian capital]. That's how the teddy bear became a really popular symbol amongst the young underground opposition.

Annons

Tell The Truth's October Square protest

One night when we were out, we were drunk, and we heard about it, and we said that we should really do something close to that. The original plan was actually to do the drop over Lukashenko’s palace, but we never got that far.

So, how did you get the plane? I mean you were flying illegally over Belarus airspace. How did you get someone to agree to fly that?
We bought it.

You bought it?
Yeah, and then we learn to fly ourselves.

Really?
Yeah.

So you piloted it?
Yeah.

Fuckin’ hell, I'd want some dogfight expert for that. OK, so, what was it like the day you got in the plane?
Hahah. Well… I don’t know, it was really early first of all; you know, like five o’clock in the morning and you’ve slept three hours? You’re sort of confused, and we went to do that. And then when you’re in the plane, you’re sort of… you’re in autopilot.

So who was in the plane?
Me and Hannah [Frey, a fellow member of Studio Total].

OK, and how long was the flight?
Erm, [asks Hannah, who, I think, is in the car with him] how long was the flight? Maybe two hours? We were inside Belarus for maybe an hour and 20 minutes? But I don’t know, there was a huge thunderstorm.

Oh, perfect. Once you started going over Belarusian airspace, were you worried that Lukashenko might try to shoot you down from the air? Is that a stupid question? It sounds like the kind of thing people do.
Errrmm, yeaahhh; but that would have been the easy way out. I think we were more afraid of running out of gas and having to land there and, I don’t know, make our way through the woods and be in prison for years.

Annons

Yeah, that would suck. How do you think it’s been greeted by the Belarusians?
Belarusians love it, as far as I know. But, you know, people in the army don't love it as much.

No, I read about people who have been arrested for taking photographs of the bears.
Yeah, exactly. There are three people at least who have been punished for writing about it. But, I mean, there are journalists arrested every day in Belarus. That’s what it’s all about.

Do you feel responsible at all for these people that have been put under Lukashenko’s lock and key?
No, I don’t. But I feel sad for them; it’s fucking horrible. They are the heroes for reporting it. The first person wrote about us and goes to jail, and then two people write about the journalist who went to jail and they go to jail, and now people are writing about that… It’s just a weird circle. It's all so random now.

Plenty of Belarusians still back Lukashenko.
Yeah, you know that he was, in his own, weird way, a sort of calming, steady figure. People have often thought that he’s, well, he’s wrong in many ways, but at least the country was stable.

It’s better than having Hitler or Stalin march across you.
Yeah! Exactly and or, like, the Russian mafia or something else. But right now it’s so random – people don’t know how he’s going to react. The guy who only published a picture of a teddy bear going to jail? Even Lukashenko's supporters think that's too weird.

Annons

What did you think of when they shut the Swedish Embassy?
I think he overreacted. He’s so emotional right now. I don’t know if he’s been emotional in that sense before, but that was not a logical thing to do; you know.

It's good for your cause because, basically, he’s freaked out, kicked the Swedes out of the country and for the first time in years in Britain, there have been some news stories about Belarus in the mainstream press. Do you think you’ll still able to be involved in the conversation of Belarusian politics?
I don’t want to, actually. We did our thing for the people of Belarus, the opposition of Belarus, and we did it in this thing we know. We do campaigns to stir things up, but there are so many really brilliant people that can take it from here. People can ask us, but we don’t even do many interviews now, we say no to almost everything.

Well, thanks very much for saying yes to me.
Yeah, well you're VICE.

How flattering. You're Studio Total. Cheers!

Since we spoke, the KGB have summoned Tomas and Hannah for questioning. If they don't show up, the Belarusian authorities are threatening the pair with jail time. Presumably Thomas and Hannah are about as likely to show up as you are to swallow a cat.