Alyona Kojevnikov writes:
ON 5 July, the poet Irina Ratushinskaya, aged 63, left this life and stepped into eternity with her usual indomitable courage, sustained to the end by an unwavering faith in God and the loving support of her husband, Igor Gerashchenko, and their twin sons, Sergei and Oleg.
She was a vital, joyous person, and it seems impossible to accept that she is no longer with us. Her friends and numerous admirers, found inspiration in her poetry and books, especially her remarkable memoir Grey is the Colour of Hope, a scrupulous account of life in the “Small Zone”, the prison within a prison camp, as one of a group of women deemed dangerous dissidents by the Soviet authorities. They sent forth their ideological tanks to break a butterfly, yet the butterfly emerged triumphant. She was even able to continue writing in prison, and smuggle her poems out to the world.
She had not been a natural dissident. Born in Odessa to an engineer and a literature teacher, and herself a physics graduate, she married Igor, a physicist, in 1979. She brought her firm Christianity to her work as a primary-school teacher. In 1981, when she and Igor signed an appeal to the government on behalf of the exiled physicist Andrei Sakharov, and supported the appeal by joining a demonstration, both were jailed for ten days.
In 1982, at the age of 28, Irina was arrested again, and the next April, she was sentenced to seven years’ strict regime camps, followed by five years’ internal exile — a record term for a woman. The charge was “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda in poetic form”.
Her release was secured by a global campaign by human-rights groups and concerned individuals. One of the foremost of these was the Revd Dick Rogers, who spent Lent 1986 in a cage outside his church, to highlight her ordeal. When the campaign became intensive enough to worry the Soviet authorities, Irina was approached with offers to write a clemency plea in order to be released. She treated all such attempts at moral blackmail with the contempt they deserved.
The upshot was that, when he arrived in Reykjavik for a summit with President Reagan in 1986, the first words to the assembled press, from Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet leader, as reported by witnesses, were: “No questions about Ratushinskaya. She has been released.”
We are left with the enduring legacy of her work, especially her poetry. Joseph Brodsky, one of the most distinguished Russian poets of the 20th century, who ranked her alongside such acknowledged luminaries as Anna Akhmatova and Marina Tsvetaeva, wrote that “a crown of thorns on the head of a bard has a way of turning into a laurel. Ratushinskaya is a remarkably genuine poet, a poet with faultless pitch, who hears historical and absolute time with equal precision. She is a fully-fledged poet, natural, with a voice of her own, piercing but devoid of hysteria.”
Even in the poems written in the dire conditions of the prison camp, there is never a hint of self-pity. In a later interview she said: “I knew what I was facing, but I could not stay silent.”
There is a popular view that Russian poets are deemed to be “the voice of conscience” of the nation: Irina never subscribed to this. When this viewpoint was put to her, she laughed and said: “If Ivan Ivanov is proclaimed to be the conscience of the nation, then so much the worse for both Ivan Ivanov and the nation.”
She did not consider that what had landed her in the camps was anything outstanding, just something that anyone with a sense of justice would do.
Her poems covered an enormous range, from the happy to the sad, the downright chilling and heart-breaking, such as the long poem, unfortunately not yet translated, “Dedicated to the children of warder Akimkina”, a particularly sadistic turnkey, who delighted in taunting the women thrown into the freezing conditions of the “punishment cell” that they would never be able to have children, even if they survived their term in the camp.
She could also be delightfully whimsical, as in her poem reciting the lament of an old dragon, who is shedding his scales, and mourning his former strength and glory. The poems always contain an element of hope, even in the depths of despair, a reflection of Irina’s own nature.
Stripped of Soviet citizenship, she and her husband continued their human-rights campaigning, even in their enforced exile in the West, until they were able, in the wake of perestroika, to return to Russia, and battle for the reinstatement of their citizenship, this time Russian, not Soviet. They settled in Moscow in 1998.
Irina survived in the face of all odds. She was reunited with her husband, and, despite the turnkey’s malicious prophecies, bore him sons. Two dreams deservedly fulfilled. Our hearts go out to Igor, Sergei, and Oleg in this time.
Rest in peace, Irina. May your bright soul dwell with the righteous.