Fear No Evil
Zek, gulag…such terms are now familiar and they speak to us from an increasing number of works: histories, eyewitness accounts, memoirs. The landscape of the Soviet prisons and penal colonies is now become as familiar as that of the prisons and camps of the Hitler period. For a long time the European Left sought to make distinctions between the brutalities of the Soviet and National Socialist regimes, the former being the consequences of “mistakes”; but this distinction is now hard to maintain. The German system had as its peculiar enormity the industrialized killing of Jews, though in its later days the Soviet regime was moving in this direction, and there may in fact have been more popular anti-Semitism—this is brought out in Sharansky’s memoir—in the Soviet Union than in Germany. Those who speak from firsthand experience of the Soviet system all give us the same picture of savagery, coarseness, bureaucratic blindness, pedantry, with here and there a touch of the comic and now and then a sudden blaze, a radiant witness, of humanity and goodness. Comedy and simple goodness resemble evergreens poking their heads above a snowy waste, signs that beneath the apparent blankness individual life is nourished and makes its occasional miraculous, as it were, presence known.
I don’t know if it is in any way significant that the two accounts here under review are by religious believers. Irina Ratushinskaya is a Christian, and in the end Sharansky made his way—a hard way for an educated Soviet citizen—to religious Judaism. The texts he studied in captivity were not the Marxist classics unpolluted by the vulgarizations of Lenin and Stalin but the Psalms of David. (Curiously, he seems to take them all as the work of David the King, the husband of Bathsheba and the father of Solomon.) Sharansky is more “political,” in that his work of agitation and subversion was centered on the demand for civil liberties for all. Indeed, he became internationally famous for his work and his release was perhaps (though one can never tell) a consequence of his being internationally known. Ratushinskaya, though a partisan of the general struggle for civil liberties, was identified both in the view of public opinion and in the view of her tormentors with the movement for religious freedom. It is the prominence of religious themes in her poetry that made it unacceptable to the socialist humanists who judged her.
Meeting Ratushinskaya in her memoir of her life in captivity is like meeting a nineteenth-century heroine. She seems a lady with manners and expectations of an old-fashioned kind and a delicacy of spirit rare among politically active women in the West. She thinks it proper for men to rise to their feet when women enter a room. Her piety is accepted even by those prisoners who don’t believe. She has an amusing story of a male prisoner, not a political but an ordinary criminal, who bribes his way into the women’s prison …