Five poems that spelled danger

Wolfer, Barbara

FIVE POEMS THAT SPELLED DANGER THE FATE OF IRINA RATUSHINSKAYA BARBARA WOLFER Lost amid the fanfare and political maneuverings of the Reykjavik summit was the release from prison of a young...

...I say "mental" because, once again, no normal person could ever bring himself to do such a thing yet this was done by a whole people...
...For the first time, and a little late, it dawned on me as I sat in my office late one night and she sat in prison, that this shy girl with the sad eyes was one of the finest writers I had ever met...
...Their assembly at Barashevo camp in 1983 did indeed concern camp officials, who immediately set out to break their spirit...
...It is no coincidence that the three poets who shattered forever Ratushinskaya's world view, all met tragic ends under the Soviet regime...
...Each of the women had already demonstrated courage and a capacity for self-sacrifice...
...Although more than 100 people were interrogated, and numerous houses searched in connection with her case, the sole evidence cited against Ratushinskaya at her trial was five poems she had written...
...Will I cry how are we able to do this Walk on partings as on water...
...In handcuffs, Ratushinskaya was taken to the KGB prison in Kiev, where it is believed the Gestapo once tortured its victims...
...Together they were sure to support one another and continue the efforts for which they had been imprisoned...
...Intense pressure was brought to bear on her to sign a "plea for clemency" better known as a recantation...
...There she joined the ranks of eight other extraordinary women whose ' 'crimes against the state'' ranged from helping the families of prisoners of conscience to organizing religious education...
...God himself found me, and helped me to endure, and nurtured my soul during childhood and youth...
...Gerashchenko had been active in the human rights movement...
...And, fettered to the ground, "Forever" sounds in answer That most ancient of words Behind which, without shadow, is the light...
...they won't be able to take it from me...
...Their future plans remain unsettled...
...Do you hear, O Lord...
...Over the next several years Ratushinskaya began to write in earnest, "making up," she wrote, "for ten years lost to my Soviet pseudo-education...
...All quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are from Ratushinskaya'sNo, lam Not Afraid, translated by David McDuff, Bloodaxe Books, England, 1986...
...The day Irina Ratushinskaya flew to the West from the Soviet Union, she left behind her more than 350 men and women in prisons and psychiatric hospitals because, like her, they dared to believe in God and dared to tell others in poems, in songs, in sermons...
...She was not even given a copy of the 27 February 1987: 109 sentence that deprived her of twelve years of freedom...
...Since that time, Ratushinskaya and her husband, Igor Gerashchenko, have been granted a three-month medical leave from the Soviet Union...
...Poetry has always enjoyed much greater popularity in Russia than in the West...
...I will tramp out my deportation, And I will remember everything By heart...
...The grandchild should not be contaminated...
...By way of explanation, the poet suggests an experiment: Let the reader try the following mental experiment...
...Writing of her belated selfdiscovery, "It was at twenty-four, not fourteen, that I acquired an understanding of genuine culture and history...
...They arrived in England in late DeBARBARA wolfer is a staff-member of CREED, Christian Rescue Effort for the Emancipation of Dissidents, located in Alexandria, Virginia...
...They were being harassed by the Ukrainian KGB, whose methods made the Moscow branch of the security police seem positively soft and easy-going by comparison...
...From the first, Irina Ratushinskaya played a leading role in the resistance, and received, as a result, particularly brutal treatment...
...Since the Revolution, however, poets have become more an object of control than veneration...
...In a document, later smuggled to the West, Gerashchenko revealed that the couple tried to emigrate in 1980...
...During transport she suffered another concussion...
...I was in bed with a fever and delirium . . . All my ideas about Russian literature and history began to crack and give way...
...they forbade them to speak to me of their love of religion and other such 'non-Soviet' themes...
...It's okay...
...Prayer vigils, poetry readings, letters, congressional representations, demonstrations one Anglican priest in England, Richard Rodgers, spent the whole of Lent in 1986 in a simulated prison cell, in conditions approximating Ratushinskaya's own all played a part in convincing the Soviets that the release of this young woman would win them good will, or at the least, a lessening of international bad press...
...But there was something disquieting, too that long dark hallway said there was a long difficult road ahead of us still...
...Although she was treated by a doctor upon arrival at the camp, later that same day four guards severely beat her and left her unconscious on the floor outside the punishment cell...
...How we begin to look like our husbands Our eyes, foreheads, the corners of our mouths, How we remember them down to each last vein of their skins They who have been wrenched away from us for years, How we write to them: "Never mind, You and I are one and the same, Can't be taken apart...
...In the first of several incidents, Ratushinskaya, along with two other women, was handcuffed and force-fed by six men in order to break her hunger strike in protest of the mistreatment of a sick fellow prisoner...
...Do I have a chance...
...Perhaps it is difficult for us in an open society weary of all the information and debate around us to understand the explosiveness of Ratushinskaya's discovery...
...Her parents were descendants of Polish gentry who strove to bury their nonRussian roots and become model citizens...
...Their application was denied, Gerashchenko related,' 'even though the right to exit from our country is guaranteed by Soviet law...
...The other decisive influence in Ratushinskaya's life was the discovery, in 1976, of three major Russian poets whose work is either forbidden or heavily censored in the Soviet Union...
...Collections of poems,are printed there in the hundreds of thousands and poetry readings draw large audiences...
...The couple had indeed been arrested and served the standard "administrative" (i.e...
...I'll make up for those lost years...
...FIVE POEMS THAT SPELLED DANGER THE FATE OF IRINA RATUSHINSKAYA BARBARA WOLFER Lost amid the fanfare and political maneuverings of the Reykjavik summit was the release from prison of a young Russian poet named Irina Ratushinskaya...
...I won't lose the thread as long as I live so long, I hope, as I'm not thrown into prison or some psych ward...
...Gillette was the only Western correspondent to have met Ratushinskaya prior to her release in October...
...How we breathe Each breath outside the law...
...In spite of these efforts, Ratushinskaya continues, "For some reason I was never able to accept the Soviet religion, although I knew no other...
...without trial) sentence often days Ratushinskaya in the infamous Butyrki prison...
...Irina Ratushinskaya was bom on March 4, 1954 in Odessa, 27 February 1987: 107 in the Ukrainian "republic" of the USSR...
...A long time later I realized that he had good reason to seem protective...
...When Ratushinskaya held firm, her mother and husband were approached to write them for her...
...Take a book you haven't read and, using a blunt saw, shred off a portion of it a quarter, say...
...Now from this portion attempt to understand the contents but first destroy the remainder, so you won't be tempted to look...
...That Irina Ratushinskaya was singled out for this mercy had much to do with international politics and the clamor raised by concerned Christians and writers in the West...
...She stumbled upon the poetry, in.underground editions, of these three forbidden poets...
...Boris Pasternak, after a long and distinguished career as a poet, died in disgrace following the publication abroad of his allegedly "anti-Soviet" novel Doctor Zhivago...
...Inevitably Ratushinskaya's health deteriorated drastically...
...It was months after this last meeting, when Ratushinskaya was in prison for the second time, that Gillette finally obtained her poems...
...That Ratushinskaya had no illusions about the cost of her beliefs and her vocation is evident in this 1980 poem: No, don't save, don't preserve, We've grown so unused to protection...
...What kind of God-seeking can one do if one doesn't even know one's motherland...
...Even with Secretary Gorbachev's latest effort at glasnost (openness), similar periods of cultural openness in Soviet society have met with sudden backlash and retrenchment before...
...Alexander Sol"zhenitsyn estimates in The Gulag Archipelago that 600 writers have perished in the Soviet Union since 1917...
...Yes, I had, of course, made earlier attempts, but they were merely the scrawlings of a child who through no fault of her own knew only half the alphabet...
...Ratushinskaya's dawning awareness of her vocation, and its inexorable consequences was quickened by two ominous events the following year...
...Instead, on October 9, she was delivered unceremoniously to her husband's doorstep with an "unconditional release...
...How much longer on crosses and executioner's blocks Through the fire of a mother's anxiety Must we clean from shame and filth His desecrated image...
...After six-months imprisonment incommunicado, Ratushinskaya was given a three-day trial during which, in violation of Soviet law, she was not allowed to choose her own lawyer, represent herself, finish her final testimony, or have her family present...
...She was almost completely unknown at the time, except to a tiny community of dissident intellectuals who had managed to read her verse in samizdat or listen to it through the screech of jammers on foreign radio...
...O, we're not at all those poets Who seek armor in verses We are not serfs and not a retinue...
...The answer to that question lies in Ratushinskaya's personal history as well as the history of poets under the Soviet regime...
...27 February 1987: 111...
...I'll do it," she concluded...
...In August 1981 both were summoned to KGB headquarters and threatened with arrest if they did not abandon their human rights activities...
...No rhetorical questions, dear reader...
...O ver the next months Ratushinskaya continued to wage hunger strikes to protest the punishment of the other women for which she was invariably sentenced to shizo, a special isolation cell in which prisoners are punished with intense cold and hunger...
...Before this article was completed I had a dream that I was walking down a long hallway hand in hand with Irina Ratushinskaya...
...At Gerashchenko's suggestion, Gillette dropped behind the couple, and in the time it took for Gillette to clear his vision from a blast of wind, they had disappeared...
...Three months later Gerashchenko was fired from his job and subsequently prevented from finding any other work in his field...
...They literally knocked me off my feet, physically...
...There is np doubt in my mind that even if we had been Jews, then the authorities would have refused us on some other pretext, or without pretext at all...
...108: Commonweal Later that year Ratushinskaya was invited to sit on the Entrance Examination Board of her Institute...
...I do not believe Irina Ratushinskaya will forget them can you and I? J remember an abandoned church near Moscow The door ajar, and the cupola shattered, And, screening her child with her hand, The Virgin Mother quietly mourning That the boy's feet are bare, And once again the cold is at hand That it's so terrible To let one's dark-eyed child Walk off across the snows of Russia forever. no one knows where To be crucified by this people, too...
...It was gray twilight and very cold when Irina and Igor appeared," Gillette writes...
...It was not long after Ratushinskaya's exposure to the lost poets of her country that she affirmed her own vocation as a poet...
...Ratushinskaya was set to be shipped back to prison camp after an unsuccessful fourmonth "re-education" period in a KGB prison in Kiev...
...The refusal was made unofficially, our attention being drawn to the fact that it is only Jews who are allowed to leave the Soviet Union...
...When Ratushinskaya later attempted to bring charges against the guards, she was incarcerated in the camp "prison" (a prison within the prison) for five months...
...But in the course of that year something far more momentous occurred...
...The couple's attempt to leave the Soviet Union accelerated their collision course with the state...
...What was so dangerous about five poems that one day following her twenty-eight birthday Irina Ratushinskaya was deprived of freedom for twelve years...
...How much longer must we wash the earth clean Of violence and lies...
...And these are only the ones for whom we have names and stories...
...What we live by Until the morrow...
...And I didn't do any seeking...
...In August 1985 Ratushinskaya was moved from Barashevo to a camp at Yavas...
...No easy answers" (Irina Ratushinskaya Poems, translated by Philip Balla, Hermitage, Ann Arbor, 1984...
...Must it really happen again and again For love, salvation, and miracle, For his open, undaunted gaze That here is to be found a Russian Judas, That the Russian Pilate is reborn...
...Osip Mandelstam, believed by some to be the greatest Russian poet of this century, died half-crazed in a Soviet prison camp in 1938...
...Ratushinskaya describes the experience in "My Homeland' ': " A kind of electric shock went through me when I was twenty-four, and in the space of a single week read almost simultaneously (I was only able to borrow the books for a short space of time), Mandelstam, Tsvetayeva, and Pasternak...
...She seemed sweet, modest (not a common trait among Russian artists), a bit shy, with large melancholy eyes...
...As one of the chief scriptwriters, Ratushinskaya was subjected to a lengthy interrogation by the KGB...
...Although she apparently suffered a concussion, no medical care was given...
...Ratushinskaya was ordered to stop writing poetry...
...He recently recalled his impressions of that meeting...
...The first involved a play which was closed down by the KGB for "anti-Soviet attitudes" after its premiere...
...the once healthy young woman began to suffer from chronic kidney inflammation, dangerously high blood pressure, and heart trouble...
...It was at twenty-five, and not fifteen, that I began to write...
...If you hear Give us the strength to serve her...
...Irina introduced herself as a poet...
...When it was explained to her that a special standard was applied to Jews (to ensure their exclusion), Ratushinskaya refused the position...
...Marina Tsvetayeva, whose poetry had perhaps the greatest influence on Ratushinskaya, committed suicide in 1941, following the disappearance (and presumed death) of her husband, and her daughter's disappearance into the Gulag...
...At this last meeting the three were followed by what Gillette described as a "gang of gumshoes flitting behind and ahead and across the street like cockroaches on the kitchen floor...
...Igor, a head taller than Irina, with a deep, penetrating gaze, stood by rather protectively, I thought...
...Ratushinskaya and Gerashchenko contacted Gillette again on December 10, 1981, United Nations Human Rights Day, and the annual occasion of a small demonstration- in Pushkin Square...
...the other seasonal workers were to be threatened with firing if they did not cooperate as witnesses against Ratushinskaya...
...Six months after her arrest on September 17, 1982, she achieved the uncoveted distinction of being the first woman in the Soviet Union to receive the maximum sentence for "anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda" seven years hard labor plus five years internal exile...
...That was what was done to world culture for us "the new generation of Soviet mankind...
...Ratushinskaya was sent to serve her sentence at hard labor at Barashevo camp for women political prisoners...
...She forbade them to do so under any circumstances...
...Some of her work evidently had reached the West...
...She was promptly demoted to a lab assistant, refused again, and shortly thereafter was fired...
...In it she was to ask the state for forgiveness for her past mistakes including her faith and her poetry and promise never to engage in them again...
...Ratushinskaya's husband confirms this testimony: "Irina started to believe in God at an early age and it was this faith not her atheistic family upbringing and school education which formed and preserved her soul...
...During this time Ratushinskaya and Gerashchenko had the first of three meetings with Robert Gillette, then Moscow correspondent for the Los Angeles Times...
...In two years at Barashevo, Ratushinskaya served a total of 138 days in shizo...
...cember...
...She asked me to follow them as they approached the square about a fifteen-minute walk through spitting snow and to let friends know if they were arrested...
...In 1979 Irina Ratushinskaya had married Igor Gerashchenko and the two moved to Kiev...
...Upon their release they arranged to meet Gillette...
...It's a family trait of Russian poets/To be shot at, like banners," Ratushinskaya once wrote...
...During this procedure Ratushinskaya was knocked unconscious and then thrown into a windowless cell in the psychiatric ward of the infirmary...
...1976 was an important year in some of the usual ways for a young woman: Ratushinskaya graduated with a degree in physics from the University of Odessa, and began work as a physics teacher, eventually securing a good position at the Odessa Teachers' Training Institute...
...Such events in the past call for caution on the part of human-rights advocates today...
...Members of the Christian and literary communities following her case were stunned by the Soviets' change of heart...
...After waiting in the park for forty minutes, Gillette could only conclude they had been arrested...
...In a poem from Barashevo, dedicated to two of her fellow prisoners, Ratushinskaya wrote movingly of their sacrifices, and of her obligation to be a witness: I will travel through the land With my retinue of guards, I will study the eyes of human suffering, I will see what no one has seen But will I be able to describe it...
...Irina Ratushinskaya first'garnered international attention when news of her arrest and sentence reached the West...
...Gerashchenko later learned that the jobs were a set-up...
...Ratushinskaya was arrested again on September 17, 1982, while she and her husband were working as farm laborers during the apple harvest outside Kiev...
...In our pride go on, punish us Not bending our knee . . . Don't admit us to the final paradise, Only save from corruption What to us alone is law and honor, That we may grow by our breathing And say our verses out loud Tnough we dare not say our names...
...As Ratushinskaya comments in an autobiographical essay, "My Homeland": "My relatives kept grandfather and grandmother from teaching me the Polish language...
...All these methods failing to rehabilitate her, Ratushinskaya was sent in July 1986 to the KGB prison in Kiev for a period of "re-education...
...Little wonder then that her release from this prison on the eve of the Reykjavik summit was greeted with amazement...
...It was a dream from which I was reluctant to awake for it seemed to promise that I would one day meet this 110: Commonweal brave young woman, and we would walk together as friends, as sisters...
...They had managed to evade surveillance at the train station in Kiev and had come to Moscow for the sole purpose of standing for an hour or so in the bitter cold by the statue of Russia's most revered poet...

Vol. 114 • February 1987 • No. 4


 
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