Irina Ratushinskaya obituary

Soviet poet and dissident sentenced to seven years in a labour camp who found refuge in the UK in the 1980s

Early on the morning of 10 October 1986, Igor Gerashchenko, the husband of the dissident Soviet poet Irina Ratushinskaya, phoned Keston College, the centre for the study of religion in communist countries then based at Keston, in Kent. “Irina is free,” he told us: relayed to the BBC and thence to the world, this news upstaged the event for which the media had been waiting – the opening of the Reykjavik summit between the US president Ronald Reagan and the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

The timing was no coincidence. There was a hiatus in the news while Reagan and Gorbachev were airborne on their way to Iceland. The latter was anxious to prove to world opinion that he was serious about wanting to improve relations, not only internationally, but on the home front as well, through recognition of the improved human rights situation brought about by his programme of perestroika (reconstruction).

So it was a calculated move on his part. Irina had been reported as nearing death in prison, and he knew that freeing her would capture the world’s imagination. Thirty years on, she has died aged 63, of cancer.

She had been the Soviet Union’s best-known dissident since the release of the Jewish activist Anatoly Shcharansky (now Natan Sharansky), earlier in the year. Very soon the “father of the Soviet hydrogen bomb”, Andrei Sakharov, received a personal call from Gorbachev to return to Moscow from his exile in Gorky. The Soviet Union would never be the same again.

World publicity had already raised Irina’s profile to international status. An Anglican priest, the Rev Dick Rodgers, spent the whole of Lent 1986 in a cage in Birmingham attempting to simulate the jail conditions and diet of this young prisoner. Irina came to believe that the huge publicity he engendered contributed to saving her life.

She was not a natural dissident. Born in Odessa, in Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union, she was the daughter of Boris, an engineer, and Irina, a teacher of Russian literature. She graduated in physics from Odessa University in 1976 and became a primary school teacher, marrying Igor, a physicist, in 1979. A gifted poet and with firm Christian convictions, she tried to inculcate her own standards in her pupils.

The Soviet educational system was dominated by the atheism that she abhorred, but precisely why she was singled out for such inhuman treatment remains a mystery. One might have expected that she would have been given an intimidating rebuke by the KGB and dismissed from her job. Instead she found herself confronting the full force of the Soviet law, but poetry in Russia was always dangerous.

In 1981 she and her husband co-signed an appeal to the Soviet government on behalf of the exiled Sakharov, and they followed this up by taking part in a demonstration, for which her husband lost his job and they both served a 10-day prison sentence. After her second arrest, in 1982, she was held in prison until she faced the court in April 1983, charged with “agitation carried on for the purpose of subverting or weakening the Soviet regime”; for this she received a sentence of seven years in a labour camp in the republic of Mordovia, to the south-east of Moscow, followed by five years of internal exile.

After her release she described conditions in the “small zone” of the camp in a remarkable book, Grey Is the Colour of Hope (1988). This restricted area, a kind of prison within a prison, was set aside for particularly dangerous female political criminals, including many of the prominent female dissidents of the time. She described them with occasional humour and much insight, as they helped and sustained each other in appalling conditions. Among many others, Irina befriended Lagle Parek, who would later become the first minister of the interior in free Estonia.

Even in prison, Irina was able to continue writing. Deprived of paper, she would scratch her poems on bars of soap, commit them to memory, erase them and reconstitute them when eventually paper came to hand. Somehow she smuggled them out to Igor, and he relayed them to the world. They made a huge impact. Settings to music included Sally Beamish’s cycle No, I’m Not Afraid for spoken word and chamber orchestra (1988).

In her prison poetry, Irina was able to capture the atmosphere of the camp in a remarkable way, finding joy in the simplest experience, as in I Will Live and Survive:

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 forests, campfires and birds!
And how many times there was bitter cold weather
And how many windows sparkled after that one –

But never was it repeated
That upheaval of rainbow ice!

Emigration to the UK soon followed her sudden release. Medical checks revealed the extent of her suffering: she was told that she would not be able to bear children. Nonetheless, in 1993 she gave birth to twin sons, Sergei and Oleg.

Irina’s immense popularity in the west led to her being invited to Northwestern University, Illinois, as poet in residence (1987-89), but eventually it faded and invitations to speak became less frequent. She and Igor wanted to bring up their sons as Russians. The Yeltsin regime took some time to restore Irina’s citizenship, but in 1998 Irina and Igor moved to Moscow and settled into a reasonably comfortable way of life, supplemented by the royalties she received.

Irina continued to write, not least scripts for sitcoms, and give occasional poetry readings, but plans for a satirical novel in which dogs, crows and rats took over the world from people were cut short by the diagnosis of her illness.

Irina retained the Christian faith and the standards that inspired her, but Russia and the world came to forget the circumstances that had made them so compelling.

She is survived by Igor and her sons.

• Irina Borisovna Ratushinskaya, poet and human rights activist, born 4 March 1954; died 5 July 2017

Contributor

Michael Bourdeaux

The GuardianTramp

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