RESILIENCE Soviet poet and dissident Irina Ratushinskaya, who spent years at a labor camp near Moscow.
Fr Kevin Hegarty
The resilience of the citizens of Ukraine in the face of Russian terror is awe inspiring. If she had lived to see it, the poet Irina Ratushinskaya would be proud of her people. Her own story illustrates the truth of Terence MacSwiney’s dictum that ‘it is not those who inflict the most but those who can endure the most who will conquer’.
Irina was born in Odessa in 1954 when Ukraine was under the cosh of Soviet Communist tyranny. Her father was an engineer and her mother a teacher of literature. Both their occupations shaped her life.
After graduating in physics from Odessa University she taught at a primary school. She also began to write poetry. In her early poems she avoided politics and concentrated on themes of love, Christian theology and the wonder of artistic creation. Events drew her into the political world. She refused a KGB request to spy on foreigners. It marked her out as disloyal to the Soviet regime. Her opposition to discrimination against Jewish students drew an unfavourable response from the school authorities.
In 1979 she married Igor Gerashchenko, an engineer. They got involved in human rights advocacy a year later when they attended demonstrations and wrote a letter protesting against the forced exile of the dissident scientist, Andrei Sakharov.
For their pains they were both imprisoned for ten days. Arrested again in 1982, she was charged and convicted of ‘agitation carried on for the purpose of subverting or weakening the Soviet regime’. She was sentenced to seven years hard labour in a camp southeast of Moscow.
She and the other female prisoners endured inhumane treatment. They were beaten, force fed when on hunger strike and often placed in solitary confinement in freezing conditions. Irina developed heart, liver and kidney problems.
Her memoir of her time in prison is entitled ‘Grey is the Colour of Hope’. Infused with pathos and subversive humour, it is a remarkable book.
In the face of acute adversity she continued to write poetry. She inscribed her words on bars of soap with burnt match sticks. She memorised the lines before washing off the evidence. Later, she wrote the poems on cigarette papers and somehow smuggled them out to her husband who had them published. The poems telescope the privations she endured:
From me they have taken
my friends and my folk,
torn my cross from its chains
and removed my clothes
and then with their boots have kicked me senseless
beating out with prejudice
the moments of hope.
Her instinct for survival remained strong.
We live stubbornly,
like a small beast who’s gnawed off his paw
to get out of a trap on three.
We’ve mastered that science. And with brave smile –
that way the wounds are bandaged tighter…
There were moments of light in the darkness.
And I will tell of the first beauty
I saw in captivity.
A frost-covered window! No spy-holes, nor walls,
Nor cell-bars, nor the long endured pain -
Only a blue radiance on a tiny pane of glass,
A cast pattern-none more beautiful could be dreamt!
The more clearly you looked the more powerfully blossomed,
Those brigand forest, campfires and birds!
And how many times there was bitter cold weather,
And how many windows sparkled after the one —
But never was it repeated,
That upheaval of rainbow ice!
Her Christian faith also sustained her;
“When you are in trouble, under pressure, God always seems closer! He was like a hand on our shoulder in the camp. All the women who were in the camp are christian now, even if they weren’t at the beginning. My faith also taught me how to avoid my psychological life being permanently damaged by hatred and bitterness.”
When Mikhail Gorbachev became leader of Russia he began reform of the Soviet Communist system. As a gesture of goodwill he had Irina released in 1986.
She continued to write, publish and perform. She read at the Cúirt arts festival in Galway in 1998.
After a struggle with cancer she died in 2017 at the relatively young age of 63. At least she was spared the gruesome resuscitation of Russia’s imperial ambitions.