Irina Ratushinskaya was, for a brief time, fashionable in the west; a bold young woman, sentenced in 1984 at age 28 to seven years hard labor by the Soviet state for the crime of writing poetry ("anti-Soviet agitation"). Her case drew the attention of Amnesty International, International P.E.N., and other institutions of the educated and well-meaning. She spent four years in a "strict regime" forced labor camp until international pressure, together with the early beginnings of Glasnost, resulted in her release and forced exile to the west. Her citizenship finally restored by Yeltsin in 1998, she now lives in Russia with her family.
Several volumes of her poems were published in English translation, but, with nothing being so unfashionable as last year's cause, most are now out of print. There are also two volumes of memoirs, Grey is the Color of Hope, and In the Beginning, as well as a novel for the interested reader to explore. Cornerstone Press, a small Christian publisher, has put out a new volume of her poetry. You can read selections at their web-site by following the link. More excerpts can be found, along with a short article, at the Books and Culture magazine website.
Ratushinskaya is a believer. Some of her poems are explicit about her faith. In others, it is a quiet background, the horizon behind the observations and word plays in even her more seemingly secular work. Here are two shorter poems. The first, uncharacteristically direct, was written the day after her release. The "Small Zone" of the second poem is Zone 4 of corrective labor colony number 3, where Ratushinskaya was imprisoned.
Believe me, it was often thus:
In solitary cells, on winter nights
A sudden sense of joy and warmth
And a resounding note of love.
And then, unsleeping, I would know
A-huddle by an icy wall:
Someone is thinking of me now,
Petitioning the Lord for me.
My dear ones, thank you all
Who did not falter, who believed in us!
In the most fearful prison hour
We probably would not have passed
Through everything - from end to end,
Our heads held high, unbowed -
Without your valiant hearts
To light our path.
Kiev, 10 October 1986
So tomorrow, our little ship, Small Zone,
What will come true for us?
According to what law --
Like an eggshell over dead waves?
Covered in patches and scars,
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.
Small Zone, 18 September 1983
If you can find her poems, whether in a library, used book store, or in one of the volumes still in print, I recommend her as a companion through Lent. Here are a few more lines from the Cornerstone Press collection, Wind of the Journey, as food for the journey:
In our hearts we're not waiting
For April but growing toward it.
Oh, 'tis joyful and hard
Like all journeys we make for Your glory.