A poet in Soviet prison - dignity and a secret garden amid the lies

GREY IS THE COLOR OF HOPE by Irina Ratushinskaya

Translated from the Russian by Alyona Kojevnikov

New York: Knopf. 368 pp. $18.95

HARROWING, poignant, appalling, inspiring, even humorous at times, the testimonies of prisoners of conscience, from Alexander Solzhenitsyn's exhaustive portrayal of ``The Gulag Archipelago'' to Natan Sharansky's recent memoir ``Fear No Evil,'' have become a familiar part of our mental landscape. Yet perhaps not familiar enough, for there are still hundreds of political prisoners in the Soviet Union alone, as Irina Ratushinskaya estimates, each with a story that is both typical and unique.

Born in Odessa in 1954, Ratushinskaya loved writing poems even as a child but trained to become a physics teacher in the hope of avoiding politics and the particular politics that seemed inseparable from poetry in her native land. Yet, by the time she was arrested at age 28, she had abandoned atheism for Christianity, participated in the struggle for human rights, married human rights activist Igor Gerashchenko, and written poems that she refused to submit to censorship.

At a trial she calls ``extraordinary even by Soviet standards'' (she was permitted no defense counsel and prevented from making a final statement), Ratushinskaya was condemned for the ``crime'' of writing ``anti-Soviet'' poetry. She spent the next 3 years in Barashevo prison camp in Mordovia. In 1986, thanks to the untiring efforts of human rights activists both inside and outside her country, she was released. At present, she is poet-in-residence at Northwestern University.

When Ratushinskaya was sent to prison, she was forearmed with the knowledge of what to expect from having read Solzhenitsyn, whose work - like hers - had been published in samizdat (underground publications). She continued to write poems in prison - on scraps of paper, even bars of soap - and have them smuggled out. The weight of her burden was lightened considerably by the friendship and idealism she shared with her fellow political prisoners, a handful of women confined to an area known as the Small Zone.

In a dilapidated hut on a patch of land surrounded by barbed wire, these women made a home for themselves out of the paltry materials at hand. Outside, hidden amid weeds and flowers, they planted a secret garden of wild chives, nettles, and the odd vegetable to supplement the meager diets allotted political prisoners.

The harsh daily regimen was punctuated by 13- to 15-day periods in freezing punishment cells, where their already scant diets were reduced still further. Yet from the start, these women were determined to resist all attempts to deprive them of their freedom and human dignity. Sentenced for protesting against the Soviet system, they continued to write protests from prison, taking issue with attempts by the authorities to deny them rights supposedly guaranteed by Soviet law. Already malnourished, they went on hunger strikes to back up their words with deeds.

The women of the Small Zone faced hunger, cold, filth, debilitation, threats, bribes, anxiety, and the pain of separation from their families and other loved ones. But Ratushinskaya agrees with her friend and fellow prisoner Tatyana Velikanova (who is serving a term of ``internal exile'' even now) that the worst thing about camp life is ``the perpetual lies.'' From the large, windy lies that advertised the system that oppressed them as humane, just, and enlightened to the hundreds of maddening little daily lies - that an ice-cold radiator was hot - Ratushinskaya found that ``when everyone who is in any way connected with your imprisonment - from the supervising procurator through to the censor and the doctor - persists in lying day in, day out, you begin to feel as though you are in some huge lunatic asylum. The only difference is that here it is the overseers who are the psychopaths....''

The focus of this book is less on the methods used to break prisoners than on the ways these prisoners managed to resist being broken. It is instructive to see how these women from very different backgrounds (Russian, Ukrainian, Latvian, Estonian, and Lithuanian), holding substantially different beliefs (Russian Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Pentecostal, and atheist), were able to maintain solidarity while respecting each person's freedom to make her own choices along the way. Their achievement in doing so is all the more impressive in view of the fact that they were subjected to constant attempts to sow dissension in their midst, including the presence of an informer whose hysterical tendencies were quite as unpalatable as her duplicity.

Ratushinskaya and her friends often pondered the question of what it means to be human. Their determination to behave like normal human beings instead of servile prisoners made one of their guards remark, ```It's easier to deal with two hundred ordinary criminals than with you in the Small Zone.''' For, while the ordinary criminals were often violent, dishonest, and disorderly, the guards felt themselves ``masters'' of their unhappy inmates. The ``politicals,'' on the other hand, did everything they could to challenge the guards' feeling of superiority.

As Sharansky remarks in ``Fear No Evil,'' prisoners and KGB alike are human beings: The difference lies in the readiness of the latter to see other human beings as tools, and the insistence of the human rights advocates that a human being is an end in himself. Ratushinskaya found that altruism, ``the ability to set another's concerns before your own ... to care more about another's pain than about your own,'' was perhaps ``the best way to maintain one's humanity in the camps.'' Her portrayal of her fellow prisoners is a tribute to this quality. Ratushinskaya's personal qualities shine through her writing as well: She is forthright, pithy, sharp, boldly innocent, and tough - excellent qualities for a poet.

Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.