Review: Grey Is the Color of Hope by Irina Ratushinskaya Print E-mail

irina(San Diego Tribune November 4, 1988)

A Soviet Poet's Prison Memoir

When we speak of human rights records, we talk of one country's violations and another's gross violations.

Remembering recent atrocities, we know too well that the denial of rights in Cambodia and the denial of rights in the Philippines are not the same; we distinguish wisely between murder and torture on one hand and economic neglect on the other. But how are we to judge the grossly hypocritical violators, those who insure the right of food, job, housing and medicine to all, but disallow rights to political dissenters? A clue emerges in "Grey Is the Color of Hope," a prison memoir written by a young Soviet poet, Irina Ratushinskaya, that exposes the gross hypocrisy of her country's human rights policies.

It is a harrowing account of her prison term of more than three years in a "strict-regime" camp for writing poems not "against the government," but "independent of it." As a political prisoner Ratushinskaya is sent to live with about a dozen women in the Small Zone, a clapboard house surrounded by a few birch trees and barbed wire in the midst of a prison camp.

There are hundreds of criminal prisoners in the camp too, outside their space.

The groups are segregated because the warders—the KGB—fear the "politicals" will corrupt the ordinary criminals.

After all, the former might incite others with their Christianity, their literature or their habit of speaking out vigorously for changes in Soviet society. These women are dangerous, all 12 of them, because as Lenin once noted in a dissenting context of his own, it is not the principle of the resister the state fears, but their passion for the principle. Ratushinskaya's book tells the passionate story of her principles in action, as well as the resistance her fellow zeks (prisoners) forge together in the Small Zone. To resist, each new political adapts into camp life the particular dissent that she engaged in outside the camp.

For Irina this means writing and publishing poems (often about the closeness she develops with others in the camp). Since she has paper enough to write only occasional letters, she carves poems with a matchstick on a bar of soap.

"If it was a wrong word, I simply wiped it clean, without soiling any paper."

Writing short verses, she memorizes them and, after 20 or 30 are done, she copies them down on paper and smuggles them out to her husband, Igor Gerashchenko, a human rights activist, who in turn publishes them. The women's most active dissent while imprisoned involves their refusal to wear identity tags.

The result?

SHIZO, a deprivation punishment cell where, after a number of days of cold, hunger and isolation, they usually emerge in worsened health.

If a person in poor health is sent back to SHIZO, for whatever reason, then the women, if able, go on a collective hunger strike. (One-third of Ratushinskaya's sentence was spent in SHIZO, often on hunger strikes.) Often, because word of these protests does get out, the KGB is disturbed by the publicity: Too much of it might show that the penal system is not rehabilitating anyone.

Rather, their punishment is making prisoners more recalcitrant.

As the camp motto orders, the zek must go "Back to freedom with a clear conscience." But whose conscience was corrupt in the first place?

Ratushinskaya believes that "Just because I am imprisoned it does not mean that I shall let anyone deny me the freedom to behave like a normal human being."

To hate, lie, steal and coerce is to behave as her tormentors want her to, as the ordinary criminals have already been conditioned to act.

The politicals' goal is to emerge with their principles intact.

Although cajoled with favors or even freedom to recant their positions, they renounce none of what they believe individually.

Time and again their struggle with the KGB is successful. Be unlike them, Ratushinskaya says, and if enough of us are, they will vanish.

A big lesson indeed, which she learns after the one time she tries to lie.

The incident involves a canceled meeting with Igor. Distraught over missing him, she says "I sat down and wrote an explanatory letter to the camp commandant, seeking to overset their silly reason for canceling the meeting with an equally silly distortion of facts." Her momentary weakness enlightens her, and she realizes that "lying to an adversary is tantamount to sanctioning his lies to you."

It is the incessant lying, of the KGB, or anyone, that may inevitably have the grossest of ends.

Need we forget Stalin or Pol Pot? I have concentrated on discussing here the politicals' resistance because it was successful.

Every one of Ratushinskaya's group eventually got out. I've left out much: the stories of her political comrades in prison; Irina's poetry; her Dostoevskian weightiness of style; her lack of dramatic narrative.

But beyond these aspects I wanted to magnify the will of her conscience. Two days before the Reykjavik summit in October 1986, she was released.

A gift from Gorbachev, Irina and Igor now live in the United States.