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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.