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Ratushinskaya, Irina



  • Existence: 1954-2017

Biographical Statement

Irina Ratushinskaya, samizdat author, poet and dissident, was born March 4, 1954 to Boris Leonidovich, an engineer, and Irina Valentinovna Ratushinsky, a teacher. Branches of her family reach back to the Russian royal court; another branch, Polish, revolted against Russian imperial occupation.

She was educated at Odessa University, the city of her birth, and graduated with a Master's Degree in physics in 1976. Before her graduation, she taught primary school in Odessa from 1975-78.

During her student years she discovered the poetry of the Russian “Silver Age,” particularly that of Akhmatova, Mandelstam, Pasternak and Tsvetayeva. Their intensely personal vision and insight provided spiritual nourishment, and impressed her to write with increased purpose. Consequently she directed her talent toward criticizing human rights violations in the Soviet Union. Soon an agitated KGB demanded that she discontinue writing poetry. As her husband wryly comments, Irina was found guilty of harboring “an unenthusiastic way of thinking.” She was duly arrested in 1982.

During trial, she was not allowed a lawyer of her choice, nor permitted to conduct her own defense or complete her final testimony. She was charged with anti-Soviet agitation, convicted and sentenced to seven years in a labor camp at Barashevo, a colony built during Stalin’s regime, 300 miles southeast of Moscow.

Surrounded by brutality, cold and illness, she and her fellow inmates read and treasured the Bibles left in cells by previous generations of prisoners. The Scriptures were not confiscated; doing so would simply instigate revolt among the detainees who, protesting, might well fast themselves to death.

Reading and praying in close circles, the prisoners often experienced mysterious physical warmth amid the freezing cold. “And we all knew,” she recalls, “without a shadow of a doubt, that this was the force of prayers being offered on our behalf to the Almighty, a force which no amount of barbed wire or stone walls could withstand.”

Her prison writings number some 250, etched on soap and memorized before the impression washed smooth. These works express an appreciation for human rights, liberty, freedom and the beauty of life. Her previous work often centered on Christian theology and artistic creation, not on politics or policies as her accusers stated.

Imprisoned, she suffered high blood pressure, fever and severe kidney trouble, receiving no medical assistance. She was also subjected to solitary confinement, beaten and force-fed, frequently edging near death. Often her bed was locked to the wall; so she slept on the floor.

There were joys, however small, amid the stark deprivations and starvation. For one New Year’s Eve celebration, Irina and her cellmate added water to dry toothpowder and outlined a full-sized Christmas tree on the floor. They used their boots as the “trunk.” She writes: “…Lying on the floor – Natasha on her sixth day of hunger strike and I on my eleventh – we rejoiced as we looked at it, like a couple of children.”

Meanwhile, her prison poetry was smuggled to the West and published in literary journals and newspapers, directing astonished international attention to the plight of Russian dissidents. Public readings of her work were performed in Los Angeles and New York; impassioned speeches were offered on her behalf on the floor of Congress.

She spent only four years as a political prisoner. Her release occurred on the eve of the summit in Reykjavik, Iceland, between President Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in October 1986. The action was perceived as a possible concession by the Soviet government to the West. After her release she visited Britain, receiving treatment for injuries sustained in prison.

Her memoir, Grey Is The Color of Hope, chronicles her experience as a “zek,” or prisoner. Every aspect of her life was subject to rigorous regulation; her mind manipulated, her body humiliated. Her faith, however, deepened, refined. Sorely tormented, she refused to hate: “If you start to hate you can never stop…You can burn yourself up from inside.” Novelist Joyce Carol Oates comments: “No one who reads it will ever forget it…Like [her] poetry, the story of her imprisonment seems to shine with a special intelligence and luminosity.”

Later poems recount struggles to endure the horror of prison life. A second memoir, In the Beginning, chronicles Irina’s childhood in Odessa, marriage and her Christian faith. Adrienne Rich, poet and activist, suggests that Irina’s work is “…part of a great international literature of dissent. These poems flash with imagery, wit, fury and love of life.” Another fine poet, Luci Shaw, writes: “…There is steel behind the words…She writes her reverberating realities, and holds out the rich gift of her life to us with open hands.”

Irina’s gray uniform, the color of hope and a symbol of survival, she still proudly owns. Political prisoners now wear black. “What hope do they have?” she asks. “Perhaps only that which we can offer.” She remains concerned that political prisoners not be forgotten, encouraging the writing of letters, though many may not reach them. At the very least, government officials will note that the world is not turning a blind eye to those persecuted for their ideologies.

She married Igor Geraschenko, an engineer, on November 16, 1979. In 1987 she visited the United States where she received the Religious Freedom Award from the Institute on Religion and Democracy. From 1987-89, she was the Poet-in-Residence at Northwestern University.

Irina is a member of the International PEN, who monitored her situation during the incarceration. In 1998 her citizenship was restored by President Boris Yeltsin, and she was permitted to return to Russia. She and her husband live in Moscow, and are the parents of two sons, Oleg and Sergei.

Other books include Beyond the Limit (1987); Dance with a Shadow (1992); and Wind of the Journey (2000). She also contributed the foreword to Religious Prisoners in the USSR, a collection of biographical essays. She died on July 5, 2017


Author: Wheaton College Archives & Special Collection staff

Found in 1 Collection or Record:

Irina Ratushinskaya Papers

 Collection — Container: Books
Identifier: SC-044
Scope and Contents Ocuppying .5 linear feet, the Irina Ratushinskaya papers, housed in Special Collections, include her works of poetry, secondary material, correspondence, articles, audio and artwork. The largest portion of the collection is devoted to secondary material about Ms. Ratushinskaya while imprisoned and as individuals worked for her release. The bulk of the collection dates from the period, 1985-1987.
Dates: Created: 1979-2011; Other: Majority of material found in 1985-1987; Other: Date acquired: 1992