FOR her whole life, so it seemed to Irina Ratushinskaya, people had been trying to make her something she wasn’t. They stopped her jumping around in her parents’ flat in Odessa, or sliding down the iron bannisters, in case the neighbours complained. She jumped and slid anyway, scabs all over her legs. They tried to turn her into a little Communist by making her join the Komsomol and wear a red scarf. She was disruptive all the time, her head buzzing with silly rhymes. They forced her to go to school and learn English, when she wanted to go to the beach and race around by the untamed sea, like the ownerless dogs. She yearned to fly, but they wouldn’t let her try for a pilot’s licence—a weak reflex in an ankle, they said. A lie, of course! So many lies! She flew in her dreams, though as she grew older she tended to crash disconcertingly into high white cliffs.
They tried to make her a patriotic citizen of the Soviet Union, but how could she be? It wasn’t her motherland. Her parents were Polish, though they hid it; mustn’t speak the language, mustn’t practise that subversive Christianity! Her home was Ukraine, though she could not speak Ukrainian. Visiting Russia for the first time, quite grown-up, she found the much-sung birch trees didn’t move her. But the language did, and had from childhood, as she ran ravenously through Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Pushkin. And though she would never, never be a Soviet, what joy to be a compatriot of Pasternak, Mandelstam and Akhmatova! When she first read their poems she was knocked off her feet, delirious, almost as if it was April again:
and here I go flying down the steps—
almost in somersaults—as in a dream.
And the day is springlike to the point of madness,
…bluer than blue…
She could not possibly be a Soviet poet. A contradiction in terms! They tried to make her one: if she wrote a poem in praise of the party and another in praise of Lenin, she could win her official laurels. She wasn’t interested. Her themes were freedom and oppression: growing by breathing, as she put it, daring to say her verses out loud, even though “It’s a family trait/of Russian poets to be shot at”. She talked to God, too; having been told to be an atheist, she was naturally the reverse, because with faith her soul could never be manipulated. Defiantly, she and her husband Igor Geraschenko got these pernicious things published in samizdat and abroad, spreading evil propaganda and weakening the regime. In 1983 she was sentenced to a labour camp for seven years and internal exile for five, as a very dangerous criminal.
Cowed now? Of course not! She wrote more than ever, scratching poems with charred matches into bars of soap, crowding tiny letters on to cigarette paper to roll up and smuggle out, hiding scraps under the piles of gloves she spent her days sewing. Her best work was inspired by a regime of gruel and black bread, of beatings and freezing cold in isolation cells, where she would huddle in her thin useless dress against the icy pipes. In all she spent four months in isolation, and many weeks on hunger strike, rather than wear a badge with her name and number on it. That she utterly refused to do!
Indomitable as she was, she found plenty to delight her in prison. She cherished the other brave, resourceful women in the camp’s “Small Zone” (“our little ship…an eggshell/covered in patches and scars”), who improved the stomach-turning food with clippings of chives from the plot they carefully tilled, who sewed their rags to look presentable for visitors, and who sustained each other. She celebrated Nyurka, the prison cat, who brought her an especially plump mouse when she was on hunger strike, meaning her to eat it. When she asked a junior guard to sharpen her pencil, was she not a queen? Queen of tiny things. One small pane of glass, covered in frost, produced a blue radiance of trees and flames more beautiful than she had ever seen. One caramel, stealthily slipped into her pocket by some other prisoner, was the best she had ever tasted.
Nonetheless, she got weak and ill, and because the world cared about her she was released on Mikhail Gorbachev’s orders after three years, on the eve of the Reykjavik summit. Brought to the West for medical treatment, she and Igor ended up staying 12 years in Britain, still campaigning.
Sparrows in the frost
For the first time in her life, she could be herself. Yet as the invitations came in—to write, to lecture, to teach at Northwestern University in Illinois—she felt forced into a template again, the celebrity dissident abroad. It didn’t suit her. For all its horrors, the Soviet Union had nourished her poetry. She needed to return, even though
The angels of Russia
Freeze to death towards morning
Like sparrows in the frost
Falling from their wires into the snow.
Besides, she wanted her twin sons to be brought up as Russians, in the beauty of the language. And so they went back.
Life was comfortable enough. But she reflected that the most vivid dreams she had ever had, full of delicious aromas and wonderful music, were those that came to her in the isolation cell. And there, too, she really flew! As effortlessly as a bird.