Celebrating the Lives of Soviet Women: Irina Ratushinskaya
11th July 2017
Dissident poet, Irina Ratushinskaya died in Moscow on 5 July 2017, aged just 63. Born in Odessa, Ukraine, in 1954, Ratushinskaya appears to have had a pretty standard Soviet upbringing. She was awarded a degree in physics in 1976 before going on to teach for a while in a local pedagogical institute. In November 1979, she married childhood friend and human rights activist Igor Geraschenko, with whom she had two sons. By the beginning of the 1980s, Ratushinskaya had fallen under the watchful eye of the internal security services not, as she claimed, for doing anything overtly anti-Soviet but for being independent of the regime. She was a strong supporter of human rights and by this time, despite her scientific background and atheistic upbringing, she had become a member of the underground Orthodox Church. These aspects of her life began to be reflected in her poetry and prose, which attracted the readership of the samizdat press and the unwanted attention of the KGB.
In March 1983, approaching her 29th birthday, Irina was sentenced to seven years in a labour camp, to be followed by five years of internal exile. Her time in prison is recounted in Grey is the Colour of Hope (1988), grey being the colour of her prison uniform.
In the women’s camp in Moldovia, she continued to write poetry using a burnt match to etch into a bar of soap, which was then wiped clean when she had committed the writings to memory. Some of her work was successfully smuggled out of prison on the edges of letters from her husband and scraps of paper. In this way, she found an audience in the West and a group of international campaigners for her release. On the orders of Gorbachev, she was released in October 1986 on the eve of the Reykjavik summit.
For a decade after 1987, Ratushinskaya lived in the US and then London, her right to Soviet citizenship having been removed by the Politburo. After a year-long campaign to restore her residency rights, she returned to Moscow in 1998, where she died earlier this week.