I was saddened to hear of the death of Russian poet Irina Ratushinskaya at the relatively young age of 63, but a triumph given the conditions she endured after being sentenced to seven year’s hard labour in 1983 for anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda. Her only crime was writing poetry.
Irina was said to be the youngest woman in the ‘Small Zone’, a special unit for women political prisoners in Barashev, Mordovia. During her time in the women’s labour camp, Irina faced beatings, force-feeding and solitary confinement in the most brutal conditions. She still managed to memorise poems that she had carved on pieces of soap.
Written before and after her arrest, an anthology of Irina’s poems, No I Am Not Afraid, was published by Bloodaxe in 1986. Although hailed as the most important Russian poet of her generation, Irina had fallen gravely ill and it seemed unlikely that she would survive her sentence.
At that time, I was living in Bath where my near neighbour was a Russian Orthodox Church whose members were actively campaigning for Irina’s release and working closely with Keston College (the centre for study of religious in communist countries) doing everything to ensure that Irina’s profile was kept in the public eye.
Prayer vigils were held, birthday cakes baked for Irina for press events, and the book was launched with local celebrities reading Irina’s poems. In particular, I recall that the late Lesley Crowther went out of his way to support the campaign.
A few months after the book was published, Irina was released – to read a detailed account of this, click this link to The Guardian’s obituary by Canon Revd Michael Bourdeaux the founder of Keston College who did so much to campaign for Irina’s release.
No, I’m not afraid: after a year
Of breathing these prison nights
I will survive into the sadness
To name which I escape.