Saturday, July 08, 2017

Irina Ratushinskaya's obituary from The Times today. .

ISoviet-era poet, dissident and gulag survivor.
She had been beaten, given virtually no medical treatment for her worsening blood pressure, heart problems and kidney disease, and endured rotten cabbage and bitter cold in a labour camp 300 miles east of Moscow. “Hair starts falling out, your skin gets loose,” recalled Irina Ratushinskaya. “There are days and weeks when you can’t stand up because of hunger. I was quite close to death.”
Yet she and her fellow prisoners still challenged the camp authorities with what she called her “holy disobedience” — sticking to an idea of lawfulness and human decency when the authorities seemed full of lies and spite. With her spirit undaunted, she was put into solitary confinement for several months — a final attempt to intimidate a poet whose work had circulated in samizdat (clandestine literary) circles and who had been sentenced in 1983 to seven years’ hard labour for, among other things, “producing materials that damaged communist ideas”.
Ratushinskaya would not be silenced. “They can’t confiscate your brain,” she once commented. Denied writing materials, she would inscribe a new poem on to a bar of soap using a matchstick. “When I finished,” she said, “I would memorise it, wash my hands and send it down the drain.” Her writing and resilience reflected a profound Christian belief. “My faith . . . taught me how to avoid my psychological life being permanently damaged by hatred and bitterness,” she said.
Her indomitable spirit was sustained too by solidarity with fellow prisoners. “We would sing together, and celebrate, perhaps just with a slice of bread and a cup of warm water” — a celebration, she believed, “of the enormous capacity of the human spirit to be happy in spite of any circumstance”. Or she could draw poetical comfort in a mystical moment seeing light playing on a frost-covered window: “Only a blue radiance on a tiny pane of glass/ A cast pattern — none more beautiful could be dreamt!”
Denied writing materials she inscribed her poems on to soap with a match
Ratushinskaya wrote as many as 300 poems while imprisoned. Where she was able to record them on something more durable than soap they were smuggled out to her family and friends. They spread much farther. Enterprising publishers such as Bloodaxe Books in Britain began to publish her work — a collection appearing in the mid-1980s was entitled No, I’m Not Afraid. An international campaign involving Amnesty International and PEN International made her name widely known. Margaret Thatcher took a personal interest in her plight after being alerted by the expert on Soviet persecution of religion Michael Bourdeaux.
In 1986 the new Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, embarrassed by this publicity and sensing perhaps that this formidable voice could no longer be suppressed if his promises of openness were to mean anything at all, authorised Ratushinskaya’s release just before he met President Reagan at the Reykjavik summit. She subsequently emigrated to the West, living mainly in Britain, where she could bear further witness to her life of faith and to what she and many others endured under Soviet rule.
However, in the 1990s, once that rule was over, she was drawn to return to Russia, to the culture and people that had shaped and nourished her despite all the distortions and restrictions a cruel dictatorship had imposed.
Irina Ratushinskaya had been born in 1954 in Odessa. Her father was an engineer, her mother a teacher, but life in early postwar Soviet society was far from affluent. The family apartment had a shared kitchen and no indoor toilet. An enthusiastic gardener in later life, she remembered how her first childhood horticultural efforts were crushed when, two weeks after she had planted a tree in the communal yard around her parent’s flat, the authorities decided to concrete it over.
Her education appeared to follow conventional lines for a highly intelligent girl in Soviet society, as she graduated from Odessa University in physics, which she went on to teach alongside maths. She had, however, demonstrated a dangerous independence of mind. Reading voraciously from the age of four, she joked that she became a dissident aged five, when her parents told her the authorities would not allow her to travel to Africa to see monkeys and crocodiles she had heard about.
Ratushinskaya meeting President Reagan in 1987, the year after she was released
Ratushinskaya meeting President Reagan in 1987, the year after she was released
Taught atheism at school, she remembered initially “feeling sorry for God . . . He’s going to be left completely alone and friendless when all the believers die”. She decided she was a believer, and began to take a particular interest in the traditions of her Polish Catholic grandparents and the hidden life and faith of those left exiled or denied their identity. And poetry, she began to sense, was where she could explore what mattered most to her. In a world where there was no religious education and Bibles were confiscated, “the poets tried to keep the spiritual links fresh and alive”.
Her confrontation with those who wished to silence her began in her teens. The local Soviet literary authorities had noticed her early poetic efforts. One state scribe instructed her on how to become an “official writer”. “First, you must write three poems,” he told her. “One about the Communist Party, one about Lenin and one about something neutral — about love or spring.” Another official at the communist youth group she was forced to join before attending university attempted to recruit her as a secret police “hostess-informer”, who would seduce and then inform on potential state enemies. Ratushinskaya caustically informed her mother that she had no intention of being decorated for being “pregnant in the line of Komsomol duty”.
Instead she began to immerse herself in the world of samizdat culture, where artists and writers attempted to live free from state control. She shared this with her husband, Igor Gerashchenko, a physicist and dissident whom she had known since childhood and married when they moved to Kiev in 1979.
The couple expressed public support for well-known dissidents such as Andrei Sakharov and sensed the dangers growing as they defied the authorities. Ratushinskaya described samizdat gatherings “of about twenty people in one room, all silently reading the one work, a sheet at a time; you read one page, pass it on, and wait for the next from your neighbour”. Her own poetry was read in such groups. “We both understand fully what that means . . . soon we shall come up against that bloody meat-grinder.”
The KGB began to harass her regularly; she was eventually arrested, put on trial and imprisoned. She later described her terrible prison experiences in a memoir, Grey is the Colour of Hope, which also revealed irrepressible hope and good humour. She teased her captors by writing in a letter to her husband: “I send you as many kisses as will be allowed by the censors.”
After her release in 1986 and the international campaign in support of her, Ratushinskaya and her husband moved to the West to recuperate. The Soviet authorities cancelled their citizenship and after a brief period in the US they settled in England, where, after her health recovered, they could start a family — their twin sons, Oleg and Sergei, were born in 1992.
She continued to write — historical fiction as well as poetry — about life for those persecuted in her homeland, but the end of the Soviet Union in 1991 left her future more uncertain. At the end of the 1990s she decided to move back to Russia and live in Moscow. She had come to love Britain, she said, but had never become “westernised”.
Of all her poems in No, I’m Not Afraid her character was best reflected in this:
I will live and survive and be asked
How they slammed my head against
a trestle
How I had to freeze at nights
How my hair started to turn grey
But I’ll smile. And will crack some joke
And brush away the encroaching
Irina Ratushinskaya, poet, was born on March 4, 1954. She died of cancer on July 5, 2017, aged 63

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