Spirit Of Survival

"No, I'm not afraid: after a year

"No, I'm not afraid: after a year

Of breathing these prison nights I will survive into the sadness . . .

It isn't true, I am afraid, my darling!

But make it look as though you haven't noticed."


In March 1983 Irina Ratushinskaya was sentenced to seven years' hard labour and five years' internal exile, accused of anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda. She suffered beatings, force-feeding and solitary confinement in freezing conditions. She developed heart, liver and kidney trouble, ovaritis, angina and chronic bronchitis. Her crime was writing poetry, which she continued to do even within the labour camp, smuggling the poems out on scraps of paper given to sympathetic warders, soldiers and visitors. The publication of her poems in the West made her plight the subject of international concern. British human rights campaigners sent copies of her book to Gorbachev and Reagan. She was eventually released from prison in October 1986.

Now 44 and the mother of twin boys, Irina is preparing to leave what has been her home in London. She and her husband, Igor Gerashchenko, are hoping to move to Moscow: "We applied for Russian passports last November. We haven't received any reply, perhaps because of bureaucratic disorder."

Her English is fluent, but she speaks with a heavy Russian accent. "I'm not sure if we will be welcome," she wonders. Yet even her six-year-old boys, Sergei and Oleg, hanker to go back. She brought them to visit a small fishing village in Russia last year: "We wanted to show them everyday reality in Russia, with nothing special: just ordinary food and mosquitoes in the summer. They were absolutely happy. They made friends quickly and said goodbye with tears. They keep photographs of these friends on their writing desks. Now they pray every night that we will go back to live in Russia. They are ready. Apparently they are more Russian on the inside than we thought."

Irina notes that there have been many positive changes in Russia in the 12 years since she left: "There are no political prisoners in today's Russia. It is no longer a totalitarian regime where you could be arrested for reading or writing things the Communist Party didn't like. There is real freedom of information in Russia now."

When she came to the West, "it was in the time of Gorbachev. Most of my friends were still in labour camps; Sakharov was still in exile. I spent my time travelling around the world, campaigning for their release." While we in the West thought that the former Soviet Union's troubles were over because of what we perceived as the enlightened leadership of Gorbachev, Irina's firsthand accounts of her life in the Small Zone (a special unit for women political prisoners at Barashevo in Mordovia) tell a very different story: "People in the West were saying `you must be so grateful for Gorbachev. He released you'. But three weeks after I was released a political prisoner, a writer, Anatoly Marchenko, was killed in prison."

Of Yeltsin, she is hopeful: "I know he has sacked his cabinet and the instability will not help the Russian economy. I am confused by his choice of Sergei Kiriyenko [who at the time of our interview, was acting prime minister], a man who is both a scientologist and a communist. But I appreciate Yeltsin's courage in 1991 when there were tanks around the White House in Moscow and thousands of people came to fight for democracy with their bare hands. He couldn't be sure he'd survive.

"And then he had to start with a zero budget. All the money had been controlled by the Communist Party and it simply disappeared, perhaps to Switzerland. The whole country was robbed. So whatever he did, he couldn't bring life to the economy overnight. Although it is far from perfection now, it is an improvement on seven years ago."

In spite of her interest in politics, she does not (and never has, in spite of her imprisonment) believed that poetry should contain overt political statement: "Otherwise it becomes propaganda." Quoting the great Russian poet, Osip Mandelstam (who died in a labour camp hospital in Siberia), she sees the role of the poet as primarily spiritual: "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."

She sees her Christian faith as vital to her survival: "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." In one of her poems she asks: "Is it not Your law that clay/Is only stronger after firing?" (from her collection Dance with a Shadow).

Another key to her survival in the camp was the incredibly strong and supportive relationship she had with the dozen other women prisoners of conscience in the Small Zone. They regularly went on hunger strikes to protest if one of their number was ill-treated: "I feel very happy that all of us survived. During the time I was there, one-third of the population of the male camp died." She will always suffer from complications such as headaches, but she pays tribute to "today's dentists who can perform miracles - thanks to them I can smile again". And after "expensive private medical treatment", she was finally able to have her twin boys.

She is still visited by bad memories. "One Christmas Eve, I was being transported with my Estonian friend from the punishment cell to the camp, in temperatures of minus 30 degrees. The truck broke down and the soldiers left us in our cages. We were freezing for hours before they returned. When we were delivered, we couldn't talk or move. We were like frozen vegetables. We had to be carried to the barracks."

She prefers to concentrate on her good memories, and Christmas features high on the list. "We would sing together, and celebrate, perhaps just with a slice of bread and a cup of warm water. The experience has taught me a lot about the enormous capacity of the human spirit to be happy in spite of any circumstance."

She names the great Russian poet, Anna Akhmatova, as a key influence: "Her poetic style is very different, but she went through much more serious suffering than mine with great dignity. It is still believed that the KGB arrested her son (who was in and out of labour camps for nearly 20 years) as a way of keeping her muzzled. Her third husband was also arrested. She spent hours in prison queues to pass some warm clothes to her loved ones. She was expelled from the Writers' Union. But she never lost her dignity."

Ratushinskaya has written, with bitter irony: "It's a family trait of Russian poets/To be shot at, like banners./And it's done by roster" (from "We're Untranslatable" in No, I'm Not Afraid). She has published two volumes of poetry, two books of memoirs, a collection of poetry for children, and an historical novel set in Russia. She is now finishing a second novel. She always writes in Russian: "It is important to feel the flavour of the language, and I can't do that in English." Josef Brodsky, the Nobel-prize-winning Russian poet who was an admirer of her poetry, told her to appreciate her translators (notably David McDuff), and she has heeded his advice: "I myself cannot judge the quality of the translation, whether it flies like poetry should, or whether it lies flat on the ground. So, with my translators, I have had to become a trusting and thankful person." Meanwhile, back in her native city of Odessa, one of her books was published after the collapse of communism, and her collected poems are being prepared for publication in Moscow. "My Russian readers have told me that my poems have been useful." She rejoices that her work can be read free of charge on the Internet: "This is like a technological version of good old samizdat. The poetry is freely available for anyone who wants to read it, so they can enjoy the luxury of forgetting about the materialistic side of life."

She often describes Russia as "the Motherland" in her poetry, a Motherland with whom her relationship has been marked by both "kinship" and "conflict": "My hateful Motherland/How I dream of your crucified ones" (from "My hateful Motherland" in No, I'm Not Afraid). She explains: "Everything I write about Russia shows how much I am a Russian. We've had domestic quarrels but I have a right to speak out simply because I belong there. It is not an insult (although it would be from a foreigner). It is between myself and other Russians." Her voice is light, full of hope and laughter even after the battering she has received from this difficult Mother:

"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 shadow."

(from "I Will Live and Survive" in No, I'm Not Afraid)

Irina Ratushinskaya reads from her poetry on Saturday night at 8.30 p.m. at the Cuirt International Festival of Literature opens tonight with a reading by the English novelist Jeanette Winterson at 9 p.m. Other highlights include Liz Lochhead and Bernard McLaverty tomorrow at 8.30 p.m. and Sebastian Barry Joseph O'Connor and Pat McCabe on Saturday at 6 p.m. with critic Tom Paulin, All these readings are in An Taibhdhearc. Tel: 091-561808