The following interview took place on March 5 at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, five days after the Russian poet Irina Ratushinskaya arrived in the US, and ten weeks after she and her husband left the Soviet Union, where she had been released from prison. The interview was conducted in Russian.
EWA KURYLUK: Because of your birthday party yesterday, I know that you were born on March 4, 1954. Where were you born? What was the profession of your parents? Do you have brothers and sisters?
IRINA RATUSHINSKAYA: I was born in Odessa. My father was an engineer and my mother a teacher of Russian literature. My mother’s family was descended from old Polish gentry. After the Polish uprising of 1863 my great grandfather was deported to Siberia. Then my great grandmother sold her estate in Poland and went to Siberia too. After they had settled in Odessa, my family was not allowed to return to Poland. So they stayed there. I know less about my father’s family because my parents were reluctant to discuss our family history with me. In the Soviet Union it’s dangerous to talk about one’s ancestors, especially when they come from gentry. I have just one sister who is twenty-one.
EK: What is she doing?
IR: She is studying physics at the University of Odessa, where I also studied.
EK: When did you begin your studies and why did you choose physics?
IR: In 1971. At school I had been equally good in mathematics, physics, and literature. But I realized that it was stupid to study the humanities in the Soviet Union. So I decided to change my female logic to a mathematical one. I understood that if I obtained a technical education, then this would open literature to me as well. In the Soviet Union people with technical professions are very much interested in literature and art. While people involved in the humanities are closed within their own fields.
EK: When did you begin to write? Did you have a school magazine of any kind?
IR: I learned to read very early. I remember that on the day of my third birthday, my grandmother solemnly asked me to read something from the speller. By the age of four, I could read anything. Before starting school I had already read my parents’ entire library. Of course, I did not understand everything, but that’s another matter. We had all the classical Russian literature because of my mother’s job. Gogol, Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Tolstoy—I knew them all from my early childhood, I was raised on them. I started to make rhymes when I was five, but I did not show them to anybody because they did not make much sense. Besides, it seemed so much easier to compose verses in my head than to commit them to paper, and I wondered why poets wrote at all. I simply memorized everything.
There was no magazine at our school, there was only a bulletin board with school matters and pupils’ grades which was of no interest to me. Until the age of eighteen, I wrote a lot of fantasy in verse, satiric scripts, humorous serials, about my schoolmates (which were very successful and eagerly awaited by the next installment), and parodies of all the poets whom I knew. This was a good way of exercising my hand and acquiring formal skills, although I did not realize for what purpose this would be used one day.
I continued to write poetry at the university but was too shy to show it to my friends. But somehow they got to know it and forced me to take it seriously. At that time students were involved in many independent activities: they organized poetry readings, theatrical performances, and satiric programs. My poems were set to music and, after a while, published in samizdat.
With us, samizdat has a long tradition. It existed in Pushkin’s day: a great deal of Pushkin’s poetry was not published in Russia but everybody knew it. I do not want to compare myself to Pushkin but simply to say that when people are interested in reading certain things, they will copy and disseminate them. The texts of my songs were recorded on tapes, and circulated this way. So without realizing it, I had become known in other cities. During the vacations, when unofficial celebrations took place, my songs were played, and so more and more people came to know them. Yefim Kotlyar [Irina’s friend who today lives in Chicago and who since her imprisonment campaigned on her behalf] was one of those who performed my songs to guitar music. That’s how we became acquainted.
EK: Did you ever try to publish your poems in any official publication?
IR: No, I did not try because I know how the system works. When a young poet wants to get his work published, he has to approach a magazine first. In order to have a few poems published, he must submit a collection containing at least two or three that are concerned with ideology. The editor will then scrutinize the poems and select those about Lenin or the Party. Then the poet will go to another magazine and the same thing will happen again. Once his work has appeared in several journals, he can approach a publishing house and push for a book. I could not be bothered with this. Pushkin said once that a poet should not drag his “noble sword” from one editorial office to another. So why should I do it? I never intended to earn money with verse, since I knew this was impossible. I wanted to be a physicist.
EK: So you studied physics, wrote verses which your friends set to music, and so on. When and how did your conflict with the authorities start?
IR: As a student, I was not interested in politics. I had a theory that ideology contradicted people’s wishes but that I could change nothing. Therefore I decided to keep out of politics as much as possible. A physicist does not need to mix with it, and this was one of the reasons I chose this profession. But when I was nineteen years old, I was ordered to come to the headquarters of the Komsomol [Communist Youth Organization] where some official of the KGB tried to persuade me to join a “special section” of our organization for which, interestingly enough, they recruited mostly girls. The girls were supposed to strike up acquaintances with foreigners, have a good time with them (there were no “prescriptions” or restrictions concerning this), and then report on them: whom they knew in the Soviet Union and what they knew about those who befriended them.
The KGB men treated me like a naive young girl. They told me that they had already asked two hundred students and no one had rejected the offer. And that it was my duty as a member of Komsomol to follow their request.
EK: And were you a Komsomol member?
IR: Yes. I joined the Komsomol when I was fourteen, like everyone else, because it is almost impossible to go to university without being a member. But the Komsomol meant nothing to me, and my only activity consisted in paying the membership fee of two kopecks a month. Now, however, I was told that if I did not do my duty, I would be thrown out of the Komsomol and therefore out of the university as well. So the blackmailing began: threats that my parents would get into trouble. But I always answered: no, no, no, I don’t like it. Nothing else happened then and they did not throw me out of the Komsomol.
After the fourth academic year students were to participate in what is called the academic praxis—to get acquainted with physics institutes in Czechoslovakia and Poland. Of course, I would have liked very much to go to Poland. Although everybody went there, they did not let me go. This was obviously a punishment for my refusal to cooperate. But what’s more important, it was clear that the KGB was keeping an eye on me. Later, by the time I was teaching at school, the KGB called on me again.
EK: So meanwhile you finished your studies. What year was that?
IR: 1977. I was working as a teacher of mathematics and physics.
EK: In Odessa?
IR: Yes, in Odessa. One day I was asked to come to the KGB and they interrogated me about an acquaintance of mine in order to start a file on her showing that she was engaged in Zionist propaganda among the students. This was not true, she simply wanted to emigrate. Of course, I did not answer any of the KGB questions and so they fetched some of my friends and interrogated them as well. This woman, Tolya Yanishevskaya, was a theater director, and at that time we were working on a play at an independent theater where students were actors. I was among the people who wrote scripts and now the KGB interrogated all of us script writers: What sort of theater project was this? What is the content? And what about your own poems? This was the first time my poems were mentioned. I refused to talk about anything, and for the time being nothing happened. But I knew that I was under surveillance.
Meanwhile life continued. I moved to Kiev when I married in 1979. My poems were circulated in samizdat; and some of my friends wanted to publish them as a book, and found an editor who was interested in it.
EK: This was to be an official publication?
IR: Yes. And I was not particularly keen on that. But my friends said: You will have nothing to do with it, we will do everything for you. But since this coincided with my refusal to cooperate in the case of the Jewish woman, the KGB intervened and the editor became afraid and phoned me saying, “I cannot do it. They rang me, you know who: nothing will come of our publication.” So I laughed at the idealism of my friends and continued to write verse and to teach.
EK: In Kiev?
IR: Yes. But for the first one and a half years I spent in Kiev, I did not have a residence permit because my husband did not have an apartment of his own but shared one with other people and was not allowed to register me at his place, unless everyone who lived there agreed. Such are our Soviet subtleties. So I had to live without the permit, and we found ourselves a private sublet. This was illegal but what else could we do?
EK: Is your husband also a physicist?
IR: Yes. He is an engineer of thermophysics.
Without a residence permit, I could not find a job. Therefore I gave private lessons in physics and mathematics, and so I earned a living.