TAP Tribute: Irina Ratushinskaya, 1954–2017
Monday, September 25, 2017 at 05:56PM

Irina Ratushinskaya says that the KGB could not touch her poetry.

(Photo: Mikhail Evstafiev)

BY Sue Careless 

The KGB took everything, even her toothbrush.

In 1983, on her 29th birthday the Soviet poet, Irina Ratushinskaya, was sentenced to seven years of hard labour and five years in internal exile for expressing “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda” in her verse.

“Thank God I was not a sculptor, painter or musician. The KGB would have destroyed my art or instruments. I could still write poetry in my mind. Memorized, it couldn’t be touched.

Despite an atheist upbringing, Ratushinskaya had become a member of the Russian Orthodox Church. But Christ’s teaching to “leave everything and follow me” took on new meaning for her as a zek, a prisoner. 


Feeling of security

“After my arrest, instead of panic or shock, I had a deep feeling of security. God was with me and looking after me. Even if I die tomorrow, I will be in heaven. This feeling of a hand on the shoulder was with all of us [political prisoners] through all those years,” she recalled.

“In the KGB prison, if a person allows herself to hate, it means this person would be destroyed in several weeks. There are plenty of reasons to hate, to feel bitterness because they do torture and humiliate people. If one allows oneself to hate, you burn from the inside. It starts with a lack of sleep and in several days people become insane. Everyone who came out of the camps mentally in one piece did learn how to give up hatred.

“The best way to retain one’s humanity in the camps is to care more about another’s pain than your own,” she wrote in her 1988 memoir, Grey is the Colour of Hope. “We were not seeking to perform heroic acts: if anything, these were acts of self-preservation. Having lost the ability to set another’s concerns before your own, you lost everything.”  

The female political zeks would go on work or hunger strikes to protest the injustices done to the others in their “Small Zone.” But strikes would result in days of confinement in the cold, hunger and filth of SHIZO, the punishment cell, where their health was so damaged that many women feared they would never bear children.


Prayed for persecutors

“What does it mean to pray for my [potential] executioners, to take care of my enemies? They were punished repeatedly because we didn’t answer their questions. We ruined their careers. But during these boring interrogations, not opening our mouths, what could we do except pray for those blinded people who didn’t know what they were doing.”

Ratushinskaya’s Small Zone housed a dozen women of four denominations (Russian Orthodox, Catholic, Baptist and Pentecostal) and six nationalities. There were also non-believers. “To avoid religious wars our unwritten rule was no arguments. There was something higher than our understanding about God. Let’s be directed by this real God’s existence.”

Because the Orthodox follow the Julian calendar, the Small Zone would celebrate Christmas and Easter twice . They would also celebrate each other’s birthdays and name days.  

“We had more holidays than any other family. Even if we only celebrated with bread and water, there was still joy and warmth and laughter. Even those who were non-believers then, years later became converted. One became a Catholic nun. We all survived, which was a miracle itself.”

Ratushinskaya was often taunted by the KGB: After seven long years would her husband still be waiting for her? Some criminal prisoners slept with their guards in the hope of an early release. Ratushinskaya remained faithful to her husband and was able to smuggle new poems out to him. He then sent them to the West. Public pressure increased and she was released early, after four years.   TAP


Poetry under the KGB

Under the communist regime many dissident writers published in samizdat, well-read clandestine journals. Once Boris Pasternak, author of Dr. Zhivago, was publicly reciting some of his poetry when he forgot a line. Three thousand people whispered it back to him.

In the 1970s, poetry became a defence. In the psychiatric hospitals the KGB used experimental drugs to force political prisoners to talk a verbal flood. “You couldn’t stop for two hours so the best thing was to recite poetry. Then the KGB didn’t give you another injection,” said Ratushinskaya.       

She mockingly explained how to become an official Soviet poet: “Publish three poems--one praising Lenin, one praising the Communist party and one about something nice like springtime.

“In the Soviet Union, you couldn’t always write what you wanted, but when you did write, everybody listened.  Stalin took poetry seriously. He imprisoned writers for it.” In North America you can write what you want, but nobody listens. Who reads poets here? Mostly other poets.” 

She believed that poetry and music, by their ethereal nature, can evoke the spiritual. She also appreciated light verse. “Humour has a protective quality. You can’t combine laughter and fear.”

In the Gulag, Ratushinskaya may have been stripped bare, half-frozen and starved, but she never lost her artistry, her humanity or her faith.   TAP                              –Sue Careless

This article and sidebar first appeared in ChristianWeek in June, 1998. For an update on Ratushinskaya’s life, see the article below.  


More on the Remarkable Irina

(Staff) Christian poet and human rights activist Irina Ratushinskaya was born in 1954 in Odessa, in Ukraine  (then part of the Soviet Union). Her father was an engineer and her mother a teacher of Russian literature. In 1976 Ratushinskaya graduated from Odessa University with a master’s degree in physics and married a fellow physicist and human rights activist, Igor Gerashchenko.  

On Sept. 17, 1982, Ratushinskaya was arrested for taking part in a demonstration on behalf of exiled physicist and dissident Andrei Sakharov. She was convicted in April 1983 of anti-Soviet agitation and was sentenced to seven years in a labour camp in Mordovia, southeast of Moscow, to be followed by five years of internal exile. 

The “small zone” of the camp was a kind of prison within a prison, set aside for prominent female dissidents of the time. Deprived of paper, she would scratch her poems on bars of soap, commit them to memory, erase them and reconstitute them when eventually paper came to hand and smuggle them out to her husband.

An Anglican priest, the Rev. Dick Rodgers, spent the whole of Lent 1986 in a cage in Birmingham, England, attempting to simulate the poet’s jail conditions, eating only prison rations and sleeping under a single blanket with his head shaved as hers was. Ratushinskaya  believed the publicity he generated helped free her.

She was released on Oct. 9, 1986, on the eve of the summit in Reykjavík, Iceland between President Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. Irina had been reported as nearing death in prison, and the Soviet president knew that freeing her could be an attractive part of his programme of perestroika (reconstruction). She had been the Soviet Union’s best-known dissident since the release of the Jewish activist Natan Sharansky earlier in the year.

In 1987 Ratushinskaya moved with her husband to the United States, where she received the Religious Freedom Award from the Institute on Religion and Democracy. In the same year she was deprived of Soviet citizenship by the Politburo. She also was the Poet in Residence at Northwestern University from 1987–89. Then she and Igor moved to London, England and it was there that their twin sons were born. In December 1998, after her Russian citizenship was restored, the family returned to Russia so that the boys could be educated in Russian schools.

Ratushinskaya died in Moscow on July 5, 2017, from cancer. She was 63. She is survived by her husband and two sons and leaves the world eleven books of poetry, fiction and memoir.   TAP



Article originally appeared on The Anglican Planet (http://anglicanplanet.net/).
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