Irina Ratushinskaya’s book discloses nothing new or unknown about the miserable and horrifying life of the Soviet people, nothing we haven’t read in the long series of denunciations that began with the writings of Boris Souvarine in France in the 1920s. Souvarine was the first to expose the Gulag prison system. By 1931, the Romanian writer Panait Istrati, in “Russia Unveiled,” accused the Soviet regime of anti-Semitism and of exploiting its workers. Regarded as the Gorky of Central Europe, discovered and protected by Romain Rolland, Panait Istrati died four years later at the age of 51, crushed by the savage campaign of defamation unleashed against him by European communists. Rumors were spread that he was an agent of the Deuxieme Bureau (the French Secret Service), among other lies. Shortly thereafter, Arthur Koestler was accused of belonging to the British Intelligence Service, and Andre Gide of having criticized the government in Moscow, in his “Return From the U.S.S.R.,” because communism didn’t permit homosexuality.
What new information could Ratushinskaya possibly come up with, having spent fewer than four years’ time in a Soviet jail, between the ages of 28 and 32? Much more has been said by the son of one of the architects of the Gulag system, whose name remains a secret. Soviet television has just completed a documentary on this man’s pronouncements relying on the data and statistics he inherited from his father. This documentary has as yet no date for release, but the Soviet press is already talking about revealing this information when the new edition of “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” is published.
Nevertheless, having traversed the entire vast literature written by those who gained information, by their own means or from those able to leave those Soviet prisons alive and having myself endured, in Argentina, the jails and tortures of a regime no less cruel than that of the Soviets, I find reading “Grey Is the Color of Hope” a true, moving revelation. There is something new, original and unexpected in Ratushinskaya’s account of her life as a dissident and as a prisoner: humor, happiness, poetry.
It no longer surprises us that a woman should be condemned for writing poetry that does not agree with the official lyricism of a dictatorship. I have shared a prison cell with psychoanalysts who were under arrest because their profession supposedly destroyed the Christian morality proclaimed by another dictatorship. But if this woman, when removed by car from a concentration camp by the secret police, can look through a window and say to herself, “Look, instead, at the falling leaves outside--yellow, red--it’s October,” she introduces us to a new manner of struggling against oppression: to take cognizance of the beauty of the world.
The world’s beauty runs through the entire book by Ratushinskaya. Not the beauty of man, but the beauty of a world in which man is a very small particle and not the most commendable. It is a book in which the gray of a prisoner’s uniform can be the color of hope, and the beauty of the world can gush forth from the rags, the filth, the denunciation, the heroism, the hunger, the violence, the hypocrisy, the omnipotence.
Ratushinskaya is a poet who remembers her own poetry in addition to dozens of poems by other artists, and who recites them for her fellow political prisoners and the common criminals. She brings the beauty of the world into a contaminated place created for criminal minds by the Kremlin. Ratushinskaya writes poems without using paper, memorizing, looking with tenderness and amazement, entirely as a poet, at the reality that surrounds her, at fate, at her fellow man:
According to what law--
Like an eggshell over dead waves?
On the word--the honest word--alone--
By whose hand is our ship preserved,
Our little home?
Those of us who sail to the end, row, live to the end--
Let them tell for the others:
The touch of this hand.
Ratushinskaya was arrested Sept. 17, 1982, and freed Oct. 9, 1986, on the eve of the Reagan-Gorbachev summit meeting in Iceland. An international campaign of writers, with the prominent intervention of Arthur Miller, had created a situation in which the Soviet government believed it was paying too high a price for keeping such a poet in prison. But even while in jail, Ratushinskaya had achieved a high degree of internal freedom. She wrote 300 poems during those years, created ironies and played jokes on the prison and its jailers to lift the spirits of the other prisoners; and her active mind gathered fragments from history with which she could ridicule the Soviet regime. For example: “Having no expectation of being able to conduct a regular correspondence with Igor, I tried an experiment with the text of the last letter written by the French poet Robert Desnos, which I found in one issue of the journal Foreign Literature. Desnos wrote this letter to his wife from Flossenburg concentration camp, where he died several months before the end of World War II. The Nazi censors had allowed this letter through. I thought it would be interesting to find out how our camp censors would react to it. To allow the KGB some odds, I did not reproduce the whole letter, only the beginning and the closing sentence: ‘I send you as many kisses as will be allowed by the censors who will read this letter.’ Then I addressed it to Igor. The letter was confiscated, of course, all three lines of it! The Zone laughed about this for a long time.” And to think that Robert Desnos was one of the great heroes of the Resistance, a member of the French Communist Party.
It is not easy to uncover in the complexity of a human being what it was that brought him or her to prison. Why did she speak when it was possible to remain silent? Why did she identify with causes in which she risked her life or her freedom? Why did she imagine that her personal intervention could determine something in the course of events, the destiny of a dictatorship? Why, though educated under a dictatorship, and knowing no other reality, did she choose to fight for democracy? What makes her different from the majority, from the others, from those who always survive? I haven’t found the answers, either in my life or in the life of Irina Ratushinskaya. Many men and women with the same moral principles, the same sentiments, the same ideology as Ratushinskaya said nothing in the Soviet Union during those years and are only beginning to speak up now, protected by glasnost .
But I find in Ratushinskaya’s book affirmation of something I felt on leaving prison in Argentina: The only ideology that I could embrace was that of human rights. Shortly after getting out I was able to express it to Robert Bernstein in New York when I told him that now I understood that the struggle for human rights was not philanthropy; it had become an ideological world belief.
I find this same response in Ratushinskaya’s book. When she was already free, in England, someone asked her, “To what do you feel allegiance?” To which she responded, “To human rights.”
In a Soviet concentration camp, a young poet discovered the beauty of the world. And an original and moving lyricism to express it.