Russian poet Irina Ratushinskaya died last week, a Soviet dissident who at age 29 was sentenced to seven years in a frozen Communist labor camp until freed early by Mikhail Gorbachev in 1986 while he was heading to meet President Reagan at Reykjavik. Her release, quietly negotiated between the USA and Soviets during summit preparations, followed a global campaign on her behalf, championed by Margaret Thatcher, whom she met after escaping the Soviet Union.
When Reagan met Ratushinskaya he noted in his diary that she had a “remarkable story & is the author of the miniature letter smuggled out of the camp to me a few years ago. It is written on a slip of paper about 5/ 8 of an inch by about 3 ½ inches. Ten of the inmates signed it. Too tiny to be read by the naked eye.”
In between beatings by Soviet thugs in that desolate camp, Ratushinskaya starved and froze while covertly writing poems on soap and smuggled cigarette paper which, according to her Washington Post obituary, “bore witness to an undiminished optimism,” leading to her post-release 1988 memoir Grey Is the Colour of Hope. But she was sustained not so much by optimism, which had little basis in her grim context, having spent one Christmas Eve in minus 30 degrees in a cage feeling like “frozen vegetables,” as by her firm Christian faith. She explained:
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. One of them has become a Catholic nun. My faith also taught me how to avoid my psychological life being permanently damaged by hatred and bitterness.
Without formal religious instruction as a girl in an atheist society, Ratushinskaya initially felt “sorry for God . . . He’s going to be left completely alone and friendless when all the believers die.” She came to God when defiantly convinced by her teachers’ unpersuasive insistence that He did not exist, and believing only by faith would her soul “remain my own: nobody will be able to manipulate me.” Later she became a Christian, translating a Bible from Old Church Slavonic,” and then realizing “all the revelations I had either read or guessed about elsewhere, fell into place…I realised that yes, I am a Christian and my loving God confirms that it is so.”
Poetry was for Ratushinskaya a spiritual calling, as she explained:
In the totalitarian, atheistic society of the former Soviet Union, so many people were afraid to go to church. There was no religious education. Bibles were confiscated. The poets tried to keep the spiritual links fresh and alive. As Mandelstam said, poetry is like playing ball with the Father.
Ratushinskaya never stopped loving Russia, to which she returned in the post-Soviet 1990s after her exile in the West. Her subversive poem “My Hateful Motherland” had exclaimed: “How good you were at spawning loyal subjects/ How zealously you destroyed/ All those who could not be bought or sold/ But who were condemned to love you!”
Here’s another one of Ratushinskaya’s poems about her faith in God during imprisonment:
My Lord, what can I say that’s not been said? I stand beneath your wind in a burlap hood. Between your breath and pitch-dark plague-dark cloud – Oh Lord, my God! At my interrogation what will I say If forced to speak, to face the country’s way – Deaf, mute, in the body’s rags, bruised nearly dead – Oh Lord, my God! How will you dare to judge? Which law is true? What will you say when I come, at last burst through – Stand, my shoulder propped against the glass wall – And look at you, And ask nothing at all.
The day after her release Ratushinskaya wrote this poem:
Believe me, it was often thus:
In solitary cells, on winter nights
A sudden sense of joy and warmth
And a resounding note of love.
And then, unsleeping, I would know
A-huddle by an icy wall:
Someone is thinking of me now,
Petitioning the Lord for me.
My dear ones, thank you all
Who did not falter, who believed in us!
In the most fearful prison hour
We probably would not have passed
Through everything – from end to end,
Our heads held high, unbowed –
Without your valiant hearts
to light our path.
May the United States and democratic allies like Britain “not falter,” forever sustaining “valiant hearts” to light the path for courageous prisoners of conscience like Irina Ratushinskaya.