Soviet Poet and Human Rights Activist Irina Ratushinskaya Passes Away – Poetry News 11th July

Born 4th March 1954, Ukrainian-born Ratushinskaya – Ukraine was then part of the Soviet Union – graduated from Odessa University in 1976 as a physicist. She was a school teacher, marrying a fellow physicist, and had a strong Christian faith.

On the face of it, her upbringing and love of poetry did not make her the natural dissident. But Ratushinskaya was imprisoned for seven years in a labour camp, finding refuge in the UK after her release in the 1980s.

But it was her love of poetry and her strong Christian ideals that were to be the two issues that led to her arrests. The Soviet education system at the time was atheist, and Ratushinskaya’s faith was abhorred.

Poetry was also on shaky ground in the Soviet Union. With her husband, she joined protest marches, subsequently arrested and was imprisoned for 10 days. Her husband, Igor, lost his job as a result.

Her second arrest for shortly after, charged with
Ratushinskaya faced the full might of the Soviet legal system and was subsequently incarcerated in a labour camp for seven years in the Republic of Mordovia, to the south-east of Moscow. This seven-year stint would be followed by five years internal exile.

1986 Release

Change swept through the Soviet Union from the mid-80s onwards with the warming relationship between Regan and Gorbachev started the landslide of the release of so-called dissidents. Ratushinskaya was to be one of them.

Her incarceration, as would be expected, was not easy. She was often reported to be ill and just before her release, she was close to death. Gorbachev was wanting to capture the worlds’ attention by showing he was serious about making the reforms that he was pushing through. He knew by releasing Ratushinskaya, he would be making the global statement.

Grey is The Colour of Hope

On her release, Ratushinskaya described the conditions of the ‘small zone’ of the camp in the 1988 publication, Grey is the Colour of Hope.

The small zone was a prison within a prison, set aside for the female political criminals who were considered the most dangerous. The female prisoners helped to sustain each other through this difficult time and with some humour to be able to deal with the appalling conditions in which they were kept.

Ratushinskaya carried on writing in prison, despite the lack of paper. She etched poems on bars of soap and committed them to memory. She re-wrote them when paper came to hand. Somehow, she managed to smuggle them out to Igor, who made sure the world was aware of his wife’s words.

Dying at the age of 63 from cancer, there are many moving works that Ratushinskaya wrote but none more so than contrasting the beauty of ice on a pane of glass compared to the dull, greyness of the conditions in which she lived.
Irina Ratushinskaya retained her Christian faith and continued writing, including poetry and sitcoms, until illness forced retirement.

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