Irina Ratushinskaya. exiled Russian poet and human rights activist. has a single purpose. Her life is dedicated to one end: the release of all political prisoners in the USSR. In the defence of her beliefin fundamental human rights. she has sacrificed much. but there is no trace of self-pity. Even in her newly-learnt English. her concentrated resolve is apparent. It‘s rare to meet someone so committed and sincere.

Arrested in I982 for the ‘manufacture and dissemination‘ of poetry. Ratushinskaya spent four years in a Soviet prison camp. Her name and story are familiar to us. for it was through campaigning in the West that she was released in l986. Two months later. Ratushinskaya and her husband. Igor. were granted permission to leave the USSR for a visit to Britain.

‘Our authorities didn‘t know what to do with me because I was still a Special Dangerous State Criminal


A book special on poetry. Russian dissident poet. Irina Ratushinskaya. talks to Kristina Woolnough.

Poet. My poems became even more popular. During my imprisonment. I wrote three collections of poems. What could they do with these? It was over their heads. out of their control. People from other cities came to greet me and some of them came with warm clothes they collected for me. So I was Specially Dangerous again in my homeland. I was Specially Dangerous out of the Soviet Union too. because I promised them honestly I will never shut up until the last political prisoner is released. I understood I was released among the first only because ofthe great publicity in the West. Well. ifour authorities need publicity to release people. I am at their disposal. lam absolutely ready to help them in this direction.‘

Irina and Igor were stripped of their citizenship during their absence. They cannot go home. ‘It was taken by special order of the Supreme Soviet. They did it without

explanation. They just wrote an offical note that we behaved not like Soviet citizens.‘

Both wish to go back. but see no chance of this unless Soviet laws are changed. ls Irina optimistic about the new regime? ‘Yes. but I have to admit I have no logical reason for these hopes. I just know our people are not slaves by nature. They are tired ofliving in a totalitarian society. Gorbachev was not the first person who invented the word ‘glasnost‘. openness. A lot ofpeople during the long years struggled for openness and died in labour camps for openness. And they meant real openness. not a limited one like now.‘

Since their arrival in the West. Igor and Irina have made repeated public appearances to publicise the fate of those still in prison. After the strain of hunger strikes. near-starvation and the persistent degradation of the prison camp. how did she find this mass attention? ‘I have spent too much time alone. closed and isolated. It was physically difficult for me to deal with big audiences and crowds of people. But I understood my life does not belong to me.‘

She has been disappointed to find a prevalent theory in the United States that Russians ‘are just slaves. it is their Slavonic nature and the more totalitarian society is. the happier they are. It is great mistake to mix up totalitarian government and all the nation. I love my people. [cannot love my government. I just can pray for them. I want them to be human beings. Well. now they are not my government. They renounced us. But we are still Russians. No-one can take away our motherland.‘

The legacy of the prison camp is large: ill-health. wasted years. torturous memories. I asked ifshe would not rather put it behind her and begin again. And I asked whether the price for the right to have a conscience was not too high. Her response was vehement.

‘I have no rights to push it behind me until the last one will be released in our country. The majority of us are still behind bars. I have to remember it. I have always believed the human soul is much stronger than all the substances. You can‘t be forced to do any'ihing wrong if your soul is strong enough. No price can be too great when we are struggling not only for ourselves. not only for our human dignity. but for a whole nafionf

Ratushinskaya believes that there

are many who are more deserving of publicity than she. ‘l‘m still disappointed that poets have more public attention than other people. I was released first from my labour

camp because I was young woman and a poet. There were women as old as my mother in the labour camp and they were released after me only because they had less publicity in the West.‘

She attributes her own survival of the camp partly to the experience of generations before hers. ‘()ur generation was not the first one which was tortured for expressing its views. We have read a lot of books underground books like Solzhenitsyn which helped us avoid some very serious mistakes. We got all these lessons free.‘

Her autobiography of the camp years. Grey is the (ulnar ufllope. charts the experience of her fellow prisoners and herself. The sense of unity in the Small Zone (the camp-within-a-camp for women political prisoners) was a source of strength too. Igor explains his view ofthe book: ‘lt is about real communist society. It exists in concentration camps in the Soviet Union. ()1in your hankerchief belonged to you. All other things belonged to the government.‘ He asks rhetorically: ‘Do you know the difference between Soviet freedom and Western freedom? Soviet freedom is the freedom ofspeech. freedom of demonstration. freedom ofpress. Western freedom is freedom after speech. freedom after demonstration. We both had freedom all the time in the Soviet Union. It only depends on you. not on the circumstances. Freedom is the most expensive thing in our life. If you take it for granted. that‘s normal. Sometimes people can‘t i understand how important it is.‘

The couple‘s involvement in human rights. the right to free speech. to choose your own faith. came. explained Irina. because “we understood our responsibility. If you are just a kid. the generation of your parents is responsible for what sort of world you live in. If you are grown. tip. you are responsible for the next generation.‘ Igor concludes. ‘If not you. who else?‘

Grey is (he (To/our () f l I ope is published by H wider and Swag/iron a! £12. 95. Irina Rams/iinskaya 's laws! volume ()fpoems Pencil I .eller is available from Bloodaxe a! £4. ()5 (pbk) and [10. 95 (libk).

The List 2-1 June 7 July 1988 57‘