I’m not quite sure what got me thinking about Irina Ratushinskaya recently but something did, and brought back how closely I followed her work during the eighties; Poets all over the world took her case very personally. Many of us wrote letters protesting her imprisonment and asking for her release. (Here is a link to an appeal in the New York Review of Books on June 30, 1983: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/6168 )
Arrested in 1982 for her involvement with the human rights movement and for writing poems that were considered anti-Soviet propaganda, she was tried and sentenced to seven years hard labor and five years of internal exile; almost immediately she was sent to a labor camp where she lived as a “zek” and continued secretly to write poems by carving them into bars of soap, memorizing them, and then destroying the evidence by washing them away. (She also copied poems in minuscule script onto strips of paper which she managed to smuggle out; a number of these were published in the 1984 collection Poems and later in Pencil Letter.) Reagan and Gorbachev negotiated her release in October, 1986, an agreement timed to warm things for the summit in Reykjavik. Ratushinskaya’s Soviet citizenship was revoked; physically frail after years of harsh camp conditions, she emigrated to the U.S., where she lived for two years (as the poet-in-residence at Northwestern University) before moving to London, and then finally back home to Russia in the late nineties. A book of her poems, Beyond the Limit, came out in 1987, shortly after her release; Gray is the Color of Hope, a memoir, appeared in 1988. If you haven’t read these, you should.
Since then Ratushinskaya has published a number of volumes, including Wind of the Journey, poems in Russian and English from Cornerstone Press (2000), translated by Lydia Razran Stone. Here is poem 35 from that collection:
The cock has sungBut angel horns are still.We live on a narrow ledge aboveThe precipice of time.We sense the end is near.But, heedless, children run.There are no dreams that willAssuage their urge to fly.What power then is this?Drawing them to the abyss?
I also located a number of new poems in the May 2008 issue of The International Literary Quarterly: http://www.interlitq.org/issue3/irina_ratushinskaya/bio.php
Why do I think of her now? Perhaps because we still have so much to learn from the Russian poets—not just Ratushinskaya but also Akhmatova, Pasternak, Mandelstam, Tsvetaeva. In this time of inflammatory talk radio hosts and shows, and of senators who shout “You lie!” to the president in the middle of a congressional address, I say to myself, let us look to the Russian poets and be both heartened and instructed.