Irina Ratushinskaya, an indomitable Soviet dissident poet and novelist who, after barely surviving nearly four years in a brutal prison camp, delivered a singular woman’s perspective on the forbidding gulag, died July 5 in Moscow. She was 63.
Her death was reported by the Russian news media, which said the cause was cancer.
Sentenced in 1983, on her 29th birthday, to the seven-year maximum term for “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda,” Ms. Ratushinskaya composed some 250 poems in prison, many drafted with burned matchsticks on bars of soap. She memorized them and smuggled them on cigarette paper through her husband to the West, where they were published, and where human-rights groups indefatigably lobbied for her release.
She was finally freed in October, 1986, in a gesture of glasnost, the more permissive policy pursued by the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. She was released on the eve of the summit meeting between Mr. Gorbachev and U.S. President Ronald Reagan in Reykjavik.
“The Soviet Union, as Russia was before it, is a land where poet is the proudest and the most dangerous of all professions,” Maria Carlson, a professor of Russian, wrote in 1987 in The New York Times Book Review about Ms. Ratushinskaya’s Beyond the Limit, an anthology of her prison poetry.
“Her poems,” Prof. Carlson wrote, “dig deep into the Russian tradition and raise the powerful themes that have always tortured Russian poets: memory, history, fate, love, poetry, faith and freedom.”
Ms. Ratushinskaya wrote without rancour. “If you allow hatred to take root, it will flourish and spread,” she said, “and ultimately corrode and warp your soul.”
Instead, she conjured images of nature’s majesty and her Christian religious passion as poetic proof to her captors that, as she once said, “they can’t confiscate your brain.”
In one poem, she grasped at an icy antidote to the grim daily regimen of sewing gloves for Soviet labourers and mounting periodic hunger strikes to protest the treatment of her fellow female inmates in a prison camp about 500 kilometres southeast of Moscow:
“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.”
Relegated to composing each poem on an ephemeral cake of soap made her more laconic (“When I finished, I would memorize it, wash my hands and send it down the drain,” she once said, and her response to protracted imprisonment arguably improved her poetry.
“If you dream about things like freedom or travelling, it makes you weaker,” she said in 1988. In an interview 11 years later, she observed: “In a way, it’s lucky to have a turbulent life. When everything is too easy, sometimes people lose their love of life, they lose enthusiasm.”
Joseph Brodsky, the exiled Russian who became poet laureate of the United States, once described Ms. Ratushinskaya as “a remarkably genuine poet with faultless pitch, who hears historical and absolute time with equal precision.”
“Political court trials are criminal by definition,” Mr. Brodsky wrote in an article about her. “The trial of a poet is an offence – one that is not merely criminal, but above all anthropological. It is a crime against language, against that which raises human beings above the animal world.”
Irina Borisovna Ratushinskaya was born on March 4, 1954, in Odessa. Her father, Boris, was an engineer. Her mother, Irina, was a teacher of Russian literature whose family came from Poland.
She inherited a rebellious streak; her maternal great-grandfather had been deported to Siberia in the 19th century after protesting forced conscription into the Russian army, and her father fought against the Bolsheviks during the Revolution.
She was also precocious.
“I started to make rhymes when I was 5, but I did not show them to anybody because they did not make much sense,” she told The New York Review of Books in 1987. “Besides, it seemed so much easier to compose verses in my head than to commit them to paper, and I wondered why poets wrote at all. I simply memorized everything.”
Some poems that she committed to paper impressed a Soviet official, who counselled her that to become a writer sanctioned by the state she should compose three poems: one about the Communist Party, one about Lenin and the last about a benign subject, such as nature or romance. She declined.
At 14 she joined the Komsomol – the Communist youth organization – because, she said, “it is almost impossible to go to university without being a member.”
Facing an uncertain future as a humanities major, she focused on physics at Odessa I.I. Mechnikov National University, where she graduated with bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
After rejecting an overture from the KGB to spy on dissidents and foreigners, she turned to teaching physics and math. But she was fired after challenging the school administration’s anti-Semitic policies.
Ms. Ratushinskaya leaves her husband, Igor Gerashchenko, an engineer who was a childhood friend, and their twin sons, Oleg and Sergei.
In 1981, the couple were arrested, charged with “hooliganism” and sentenced to 10 days in jail for joining a demonstration protesting the exile of Andrei Sakharov, the nuclear physicist and advocate for disarmament and human rights.
Ms. Ratushinskaya continued to publish her poems in underground magazines and was arrested in September, 1982. She was sentenced to seven years in a labour camp followed by five years of internal exile, which was described at the time as the harshest term imposed on a dissident woman in the three decades since Stalin died.
Confined to a prison in the Republic of Mordovia, she was fed gruel, lost 40 pounds and endured temperatures that plunged to 40 below zero.
She wrote that, in contrast to many male inmates who conversed about politics, means of escape and chess, she and other women focused on maintaining a microcosm of domesticity and civility.
“It is precisely these festive, archaic female rituals that give Irina Ratushinskaya’s memoir an idyllic, exultant tone unprecedented in camp literature,” Francine du Plessix Gray wrote of her memoir Grey Is the Color of Hope (1988) in the Times Book Review. “It also exemplifies the specific kind of religiousness – syncretic, deeply felt but lightly worn – that informs her text and makes her survival possible.”
After Amnesty International and the writers’ organization PEN International helped win her unconditional release, she moved to London for medical treatment and was appointed a poet in residence at Northwestern University in Chicago.
Among her other books were another memoir, In the Beginning (1991), and a satirical novel, Fictions and Lies (1999).
She and her husband saw their Russian citizenship restored under Boris Yeltsin, the first president of the Russian Federation, and they moved to Moscow in 1998. She continued to write, including scripts for the popular Russian version of the U.S. sitcom The Nanny.
Reviewing Grey Is the Color of Hope in the Chicago Tribune, Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet dissident, wrote, “In the present age of glasnost and perestroika, this moving book, which deserves a wide audience in the West, is powerful testimony that change comes about through the efforts of people like Irina Ratushinskaya and through Western support for such people.”
In that book, Ms. Ratushinskaya described the unending conflict in the prison camps between two factions, the inmates and the KGB. She also identified a third force: the people who refused to forget the prisoners and fought to free them.
“Believe me,” she wrote, “you of the third side, it all depends on you, and you are capable of achieving much more than you may think.”