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.

EK: Where did your husband work?

IR: In a scientific institute. [Irina’s husband, Igor Gerashchenko, was fired from his job in November 1981.] At this time Sakharov was exiled to Gorky. Upon hearing this, we decided to become involved in human rights. Since we read samizdat publications, we knew that the old guard of activists was confined to camps or in exile. When, on top of this, Sakharov was banished as well, we realized that it was time for our generation to enter the scene. In Izvestya we read that Sakharov had been exiled upon the request of the Soviet people. We could not accept the government’s claim that it spoke in the name of the entire nation, so we wrote a letter to the Supreme Soviet stating that we did not know who had demanded Sakharov’s exile but that we were not among those who did. This was an open letter; it was signed by some people besides ourselves, and dispatched to the West.

Now that we were known to work for human rights, other activists would look us up. For instance, members of the Helsinki Watch committees. However, our idea was to remain on our own, not to join any organization. There were several reasons for this: first, it does not take long to detect an organization. The Helsinki Watch group had hardly established itself and was already in jail. Second, we wanted to bear our moral responsibility as individuals, not to be responsible for a group where there are always diverging opinions. So we acted as human rights advocates and compiled a samizdat library. We photographed books by Solzhenitsyn, Mandelstam, Avtorkhanov….

EK: Photographed with a normal camera?

IR: Yes, in the Soviet Union photographing and typing are the only ways of duplicating material. So we took pictures of every single page, developed the films and printed the enlargements on photographic paper producing incredibly fat books. For instance, Solzhenitsyn’s First Circle consisted of four volumes.

EK: But that’s not only terribly complicated, it’s also terribly expensive.

IR: Very expensive. But people who wanted to read the samizdat books collected money, so we were able to buy all the necessary photo material. And the books were always in demand. Altogether we did over 26,000 pages.

We also gathered information for SMOT [Free Interprofessional Union of Workers, an organization similar to the Polish Solidarity], which published a bulletin containing information about human rights abuses throughout the Soviet Union. Igor and I did all this together. Each letter, each document, each article was signed with the names of both of us. So it was obvious that when the KGB would get one of us, they would attempt to blackmail the one against the other. Being a woman, who looked young and wrote poetry, I seemed to be a more suitable victim. My fragile appearance and my poems made me the right choice for the KGB. So in 1982 they arrested me and left Igor free.

EK: Was this your first arrest?

IR: No, the first time I was arrested together with Igor, on December 10, 1981, was during the annual demonstration in defense of human rights at Pushkin Square in Moscow. Our arrest was witnessed by the correspondent of The Los Angeles Times, Bob Gillette. We were accused of hooliganism and, among other things, I read in the indictment that I was using foul language while standing at the Pushkin monument. This was our introduction to the world of prisons which had been opened to us through the books of Solzhenitsyn, Bukovsky, Marchenko. Therefore it was not so hard for me to be imprisoned. Nothing new, nothing that I would not have known.

EK: How long did you stay in jail following your arrest?

IR: Ten days. The second time, and this was now the real thing, I was arrested on September 17, 1982, and taken to the Investigation Prison of the KGB in Kiev—the same place which during the Nazi occupation had served as a prison of the Gestapo—where I was subjected to interrogation over six months. But since I had read all of Solzhenitsyn’s books, and knew how the KGB worked, I did not answer any questions. I was simply silent. Then I was brought to trial which none of my relatives or friends were permitted to attend. They did not admit Igor, whom they had interrogated and who refused to testify against me. But, nevertheless, he managed to get me some news, for instance that I had been elected a member of PEN.

At the trial I was denied the right of defense, and could not choose my own lawyer. I refused the lawyer appointed by the KGB saying that I did not need two prosecutors and would rather defend myself. They told me that I did not have the right to do so. Thus the KGB lawyer took the job, but she would not say one word.

EK: So it was a woman who “defended” you?

IR: Yes, she participated in all the political trials in Kiev.

EK: How old was she?

IR: Young, in her thirties.

EK: So not much older than yourself. I mean, the same generation.

IR: Yes. And as the trial ended, the right of final testimony was taken from me as well. A month later I was in the camp. [Charged with “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda,” Irina was sentenced on March 5, 1983, one day after her twenty-ninth birthday, to seven years of hard labor and five of internal exile, the maximum possible punishment for this offense.]

EK: Where was your camp located?

IR: In Mordovia, some three hundred miles east of Moscow, where an enormous network of concentration camps operates. Among them, there are two “strict regime” camps for political prisoners—for “especially dangerous state criminals”—one for men, the other for women.

EK: How were you transported to the camp?

IR: In a way that is referred to as “etap“—“in stages.” This means special prisoner cars are attached to freight trains. These are windowless cargo cars with bars dividing them into two parts. In one section sit the guards, in the other the prisoners. The prisoner sections are terribly overcrowded, with people one on top of the other. There is always a shortage of water. No air. And the guards are too lazy to take you to the toilet. So people travel, sometimes for days, sometimes for weeks, sometimes for months.

EK: How long did your transport take?

IR: It took us six days from Kiev to Mordovia, which is in the European part of the Soviet Union. So it was not such a bad deal.

When I arrived in the camp, I saw a small wooden house surrounded by barbed wire; there lived the female prisoners whom I was to join. The house consisted of a larger room which served as the dormitory—with beds standing one next to the other—and a tiny room, half the size of this one [the student dormitory room where Irina and her husband were lodged while visiting Northwestern University in Evanston and where this interview was held], with a table where we took our meals and shelves for our books (each prisoner was allowed to bring with her five books). Besides, there was a television set, but it did not work. Finally, there was a workshop with six sewing machines where we were to sew gloves.

EK: What was the routine in the camp?

IR: One can hardly speak about any routine at all because our life was regimented by the KGB and thus we did not have a single quiet hour—we were always afraid that some absurd pretext would be invented for confining us to the punishment cells [SHIZO]. At any moment a guard could appear and say: Ratushinskaya, prepare yourself for etap, you are being transferred to the punishment cell. Since there was no SHIZO in our camp, we were transported—“in stages”—to the main camp. Upon arrival, we had to undress and, in return for our clothes, we were given flimsy gowns, short, enormously décolleté, with short sleeves and often with holes, which offered no protection against the cold in the unheated and damp cells.

EK: Could you describe such a cell?

IR: Small, cement walls, a wooden floor rotten through with damp, a window with bars so thick that my hand would not fit between them, a door with iron fixtures reinforced by iron bars and opened with two enormous keys and, on the opposite side, another set of bars, also opened with a key. In this place they kept us half naked.

EK: Give me a few examples of “crimes” for which you were thrown into the SHIZO.

IR: Here one has to differentiate between the reason and the cause. The KGB has one aim: to break the prisoner by making him abandon his activities and his friends. Those whom they manage to break begin to collaborate, are then despised by everybody, and have no one to turn to. The reason for punishment was our lack of humility, the inner disobedience they sensed in us, our refusal to reject the past, and the ideas and commitments we cherished. The immediate causes hardly mattered, they could always be found. For instance, they would say: Ratushinskaya, why don’t you wear your identity tag? But this was the very day these had been first introduced. Or: Ratushinskaya, we have a report that you did not get up at six in the morning. But in fact I had been up at five. Whenever a report is needed, it is produced. As an overseer put it: “Pay attention, Ratushinskaya, they want material against you, so they are going to spy on you day and night.”

EK: Could you speak about the other women with whom you were imprisoned in the “small wooden house”?

EK: Including Tatyana Velikanova who left the camp in 1983 for internal exile in Kazakhstan, we were twelve women. Their cases did not differ much from mine. Jadvyga Bieliauskiene from Lithuania belonged to a group of Catholic activists engaging in independent social projects (she was active in a club for children with whom she went to the circus and worked on theater projects). Lydia Doronina, a sixty-year-old Baptist from Latvia, was sentenced for recording Western radio programs and distributing the tapes. She was arrested in 1983 and this was her third imprisonment on political grounds. Galina Barats, a former Communist, was a member of the Pentacostal Church and applied together with her husband to emigrate from the Soviet Union. [Since this interview it became known that Jadvyga Bieliauskiene and Galina Barats were released. Lydia Doronina is in exile in Barnaul.]

Since my liberation I have been trying to gather information about my former fellow prisoners. I feel guilty that I have been released—because of all the Western publicity about me and my poetry—while they remain incarcerated. In particular, I want to draw attention to the tragic fate of Tatyana Osipova [a computer programmer from Moscow who was arrested in 1980 for her part in the Helsinki monitoring group]. Before her imprisonment, Tatyana began to receive treatment for infertility, as she wanted to have a child. This treatment was interrupted when she was arrested but she was told that it would be resumed if she testified against certain people. She refused, and not only was the treatment never resumed, but she was confined to a punishment cell (she spent the same amount of time in the SHIZO as I did, approximately a year). There, like all of us, she contracted pelvic inflammations. Tatyana Osipova is now thirty-seven and after five years of camp she is now serving a five-year term of internal exile—together with her husband [Ivan Kovalyov, a fellow Helsinki monitor, serving a ten-year sentence]. Her health is ruined and she is unable to have the medical treatment to enable her to bear children. Their application to emigrate has been rejected. Raisa Rudenko from the Ukraine and her husband, the poet Mykola Rudenko, are also in exile, in the Altai region [Raisa was convicted for smuggling her husband’s poems and sending them abroad while he was serving his sentence in a corrective labor camp].

EK: But let us return to your camp. Can you tell me something about the mail? Were you allowed to receive letters and packages, and to send out anything?

IR: The prisoners in the “strict regime” camp are allowed one package a year but only after half the term has been served. That means that during my seven-year term I could receive only three packages of ten pounds from which, however, certain things—for instance books—were excluded. Nevertheless, after three and a half years I still had not received a single package because time spent in the camp prison and in the punishment cells was subtracted from the half term.

We were allowed to write two letters a month. They were censored and the censor had the right to confiscate them without giving any reason. So occasionally I would write two letters and both would be confiscated, and sometimes even four months passed and not one letter went out. The censor worked for the KGB and the withholding of letters represented a means of blackmailing us, me and Igor; he never knew if I was alive or not.

EK: And could you receive letters?

IR: In principle, there was no limit on the number of letters I was entitled to receive, although they, too, were subject to censorship. But in practice the bulk of my correspondence simply disappeared. For instance, I knew that thousands of people were writing to me from abroad, but in our zone of the camp nobody ever got a foreign letter. Similarly, the regulations state that when a letter is confiscated, the prisoner must be notified. But nobody ever complied with this rule in order to make us think that we were forgotten by everyone. Only one third of the letters from Igor reached me (he made a copy of each letter to me and when I returned home we could then compare: which letters were confiscated, which sentences were censored). Therefore I always kept Igor’s letters with me, these were the most valuable things I possessed.

EK: When writing your poems, you must have been constantly afraid that they would be confiscated. But what were the regulations? Was a poet allowed to write in jail?

IR: There were no regulations concerning a writer’s writing or an artist’s drawing (although painting was explicitly forbidden). We were allowed to have paper and pen, but every bit of paper covered with writing was taken away from us (for instance a letter from my husband which had passed censorship was confiscated and I had to go on hunger strike in order to have it returned). So clean paper was permitted; paper with writing on it prohibited.

EK: So how did you manage to preserve your poems?

IR: I learned them by heart and destroyed the manuscripts. And each word remained in my memory.

EK: How many poems did you write during your imprisonment?

IR: More than three hundred, some short, some long. The most difficult thing was to remember the “table of contents.”In order to memorize it, I took the first line of each poem and composed a jingle out of them. But, of course, I also wanted to send some poems to Igor. And succeeded. But how this was done, I cannot disclose because the same ways are still being used by other prisoners.

EK: When did you hear first about your liberation?

IR: The employees of the KGB began hinting it eighteen months before it took place by encouraging me to beg for mercy. To acquire the status of a legal document, a plea for mercy has to contain the following three points: (1) One has to admit that one is a criminal. (2) One has to ask for mercy. (3) One has to promise that one will never again arouse the displeasure of Soviet authorities. But since I never stooped to negotiating with the KGB, I automatically rejected their proposition. My refusal was punished by incarceration in isolation cells, and a deadly war began. I was placed in solitary confinement time and again, until I really felt only half alive. At the beginning of 1986 I could hardly stand on my feet—from the cold, hunger, and pain. Then, later in the spring, they started to feed us better. Previously we were mostly given half-rotten cabbage and noodles. Now for the first time we were allowed to buy milk in the camp store; and our rations increased.

One day a KGB official appeared and explained to me that a process of democratization was taking place in the Soviet Union and, since everything was improving, I should take the opportunity and write a plea for mercy. As usual, I refused to do so. Soon afterward—it was a beautiful spring day—I was ordered to prepare for etap. I did not have the slightest idea where I was going, to the punishment cell or to freedom. I left all my belongings with the other women, took only Igor’s letters and a change of underwear, and went. The guards at the gate searched me and then the same KGB official appeared again and said: “You are going to be released. You did not want to believe me but things are really changing.” This convinced me and for two days, when they were transporting me to Kiev, I really believed that I was going home. But they took me to the KGB prison in Kiev and told me: “So you have come to be freed? Write a plea for mercy, otherwise you will get a life sentence.” Since I knew that I would never plead for mercy, I was certain that they would send me back to the camp. Again, they began to blackmail me, to threaten that they would arrest Igor. Then they tried to make Igor write a plea on my behalf. But he refused, and forbade my mother, whom they also approached, to do so.

Then, on October 9, I was ordered suddenly to get my things together because I was pardoned by a decree of the Supreme Soviet. I did not believe it, I thought this was one more exercise in the psychological warfare which by then had been going on for about three months. But this time they put me in a car, drove me home, opened the door for me and, very politely, returned my passport, without any mention in it of my imprisonment (even though it is standard practice to note such a circumstance in a Soviet citizen’s documents). So I found myself back in my room, in a state of total confusion: then I called Igor, taking him completely by surprise (he was in the factory where he was employed as an ordinary worker). One of his colleagues told me later that when Igor put down the receiver, he was white as a sheet and shaking. This man made him sit down for a quarter of an hour because he was afraid that if Igor rushed home in this state of mind, he might be run down by a car (people in the factory knew our story and had a lot of sympathy for us). Finally Igor arrived and said: It’s all clear, after tomorrow there is the meeting in Reykjavik. So I was one of the “gifts” to the West.

EK: What happened between this moment in Kiev and now—that we are sitting in the suburbs of Chicago? When did you decide to go abroad?

IR: The idea of going abroad had already been suggested to me by the doctors in the camp, who told me that after all that I had been through, I would not be able to have children. Maybe this was one more psychological trick. But in any case, I did not have confidence in our doctors—not because I thought they were not good specialists but because I was afraid they would do whatever the KGB told them to do. So I decided to go abroad to get medical treatment. But since I had been freed and allowed to return home, I began to believe that a process of democratization was indeed changing the country. Therefore when we applied for our travel documents, we did not think about leaving for good. We just intended to go to the West for medical assistance. However, we were turned down and had to fight for two months for the right to leave. During those two months the Kiev bureaucrats made it clear to us that the democratization as described in the papers was one thing, but that as far as Soviet life went nothing had changed. We had to go twenty times to the OVIR [the passport office] before we finally obtained our papers. At the very end we experienced such abominable treatment, such blackmail, that we realized how far away we were still from a society which complied with basic human rights. When the day comes when these rights are respected, and I hope that day will come, we shall go back. But to return now would mean a return to the camps, where thousands are still imprisoned.

EK: So what are your plans?

IR: We have hardly made any plans. There are two reasons for this. A lot of people from many countries, backgrounds, and faiths campaigned for my release. It is important to see these people, to thank them. Moreover, many of our friends and many people who are unknown to us are still imprisoned. Some are in KGB prisons, like Valeri Sentirov; some remain in exile, like Tatyana Osipova [on March 17, The New York Times reported that Tatyana Osipova and her husband had been released and allowed to emigrate]; some are confined to psychiatric hospitals, like Vladimir Gershunin. We want to appeal to all these who helped us (they realize by now that it is possible to achieve something) to assist us in fighting for their release. Therefore we have to travel and talk to many people. After that, we can think of finding a place to settle down.

EK: But where, here in the United States or in Europe?

IR: That depends not on me, but on where Igor will find work. For six years he could not pursue his profession, so now he has to find out where he would have the best chance to return to it. I can write anywhere.

This Issue

May 7, 1987