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. He encounters Irina and finds that she isn’t available for a sexual encounter. She tells him she is married and a Christian. Whereas in the West he might have talked some pretentious nonsense about self-fulfillment, this man completely accepts Irina’s explanation and is eager to talk about religion and poetry. She has to remind him—she isn’t a prig—that his time isn’t unlimited and that he may have better luck with another woman prisoner.
The mixture of common sense, piety, and affection that shaped the relations between the Christian women in captivity is illustrated by the account of a Christmas dinner, which is both a Eucharist and an Agape, a communion and a love feast:
We gather around the table, and the words of the Lord’s Prayer ring out in Lithuanian, Latvian, Russian and Ukrainian, although Orthodox Christmas is still to come. Pani Jadvyga divides up a Communion wafer from Lithuania, so that there is a bit for everyone. This wafer, no thicker than a sheet of paper, was sent to her by relatives in an envelope. The censor let it through, either she had no idea what it was, or refrained from confiscating it without a direct order to do so. “Silent night, holy night,” sing Galya and Pani Lida in two languages. And we, despite our various creeds, never doubted for a moment that God was looking down on us all at that moment. Then we pray for Olya, a prisoner in solitary confinement, that she, too, might be eased in her solitude: that she would not be too cold, that she would not succumb to sadness.
The spirit that pervaded this small group of women—“a mixed bunch…a Catholic, a Pentecostal, several Orthodox, an unbeliever,” and later on a Baptist—was powerful. The signal example of this was the way in which such acts of injustice by the authorities, e.g., measures compelling prisoners to admit their criminal status (as in the wearing of identification numbers), were met by the weapon of the hunger strike. These were women in a frail state of health, but they never flinched from severe privations and solitary confinement. The hunger strike was extraordinarily effective; and yet it had to be used time after time. Plainly their custodians were often puzzled by the importance the women attached to what must have struck them as mere matters of form.
Ratushinskaya was dedicated to her vocation as a poet. She continued to write in captivity, and found that her work put much heart into her fellow prisoners. The women in the camp who were there for such crimes as robbery and false pretenses, murder even, were much affected by her example, reading her verses and valuing her sweetness of character. It is difficult to judge her work in translation. What is quoted in Grey Is the Color of Hope seems close to nineteenth-century romantic poets. It seems very little influenced by symbolism and modernist work in general. It is simple and direct and moralizes a good deal. It is often a transcript of present feeling rather than the fruit of feeling that has been stored within and left to its own devices. The voice we find in the poetry is that of Irina Ratushinskaya, the Christian and prisoner of conscience.
Perhaps one ought to add and to emphasize that she was not a milksop but a strong human being, with vivid feelings, including feelings of pleasure when the unjust are brought low. She describes what happened when the news of Andropov’s death reached the prison:
The scene that followed defies description: Pani Jadvyga, without a stitch on her, began dancing around the room, we cavorted around splashing water and doing any number of childish things to express our joy at such welcome news. We did not see anything improper in that rejoicing, nor do I see any now, when I look back on that evening.
The opening of Sharansky’s book reminds us of the opening of Kafka’s The Trial. “Shortly after six o’clock on the evening of March 15, 1977, I was abducted by the KGB outside an apartment on Gorky Street in downtown Moscow and brought to Lefortovo Prison.” But this is not a city transformed by dreams and obsessions and an overarching sense of guilt before a hidden authority. It is achingly real. The passage continues: “There the KGB charged me with espionage and treason against the Soviet Union, crimes punishable by death. I spent the next nine years in prison and labor camp…including more than two hundred days on hunger strikes.”
Sharansky affectingly explains how his conversion to his ancestral Judaism made him want to struggle for universal ends:
My interest in helping other persecuted peoples was an important part of my own freedom—a freedom that became real only after I returned to my Jewish roots.
For the activist Jews of my generation, our movement represented the exact opposite of what our parents had gone through when they were young. But we saw what had happened to their dreams, and we understood that the path to liberation could not be found in denying our own roots while pursuing universal goals. On the contrary: we had to deepen our commitment, because only one who understands his own identity and has already become a free person can work effectively for the human rights of others.
Perhaps this is a bit too easy, and the thought is not entirely clear. Many (for example in Israel today) who are most deeply attached to their roots are unable to see universal requirements; they view, for instance, detention for long periods without trial and the expulsion of citizens from their own country by administrative fiat with great complacency. What is certain is that, whether or not Sharansky’s fight for civil liberties in the Soviet Union was determined by his rediscovered Judaism, it was a long, bravely fought fight, an example for all those who struggle in apparent loneliness against tyrannical regimes.
One of the foundations of Sharansky’s success was the principle: No concessions in any circumstances to the KGB! This was a hard principle to keep to in his case. He was not only cut off for long periods from any reassuring communication with his family and friends. He was burdened with the advice of fellow prisoners who told him to be more pliable; sometimes there was reason to suppose that they were themselves creatures of the KGB. Above all, he was continually reminded that if he were found guilty of treason he would be liable to be shot; and he had no reason to think that such a penalty was unlikely. Surely, so his interrogators argued, a small concession, a frugal admission that he was at least technically guilty, would commend him to the mercy of the authorities and make his imprisonment shorter and lighter. He resisted all these blandishments and in the end, even as a matter of worldly prudence—not that this consideration weighed with him—this attitude of noncooperation proved to be right.
The methods of interrogation Sharansky describes are the familiar ones. There is the switching between tenderness and harshness; the suggestion that the interrogator and the prisoner are really on the same side and that they could so easily become friends if the prisoner would only make a slight concession, assent to a form of words having no great significance (as men of the world we—the interrogator and the prisoner—know how important it is for the public authorities to save face); the occasional probing remarks that reveal—and is it by accident that this comes out or is it deliberate?—the interrogator knows something that the prisoner didn’t know he knew, or could know—can a fellow defendant have been talking? There is the passing reference to the state of health of a member of the family: how hard the effects of the prisoner’s obduracy on his poor mother who longs to see him and is consumed by anxiety; the occasional disinterested pursuit of a historical or philosophical topic—this for a moment seems to restore to the prisoner the cultivated world and to give him the idea that he and the interrogator—the defender of civil rights and the KGB!—belong to the same world of discourse; and so on.
The conversations are interminable and go on for many months. Sometimes they break off suddenly, without explanation; and then, unexpectedly, they start again. They seem inconclusive, meandering, pointless; but they are all directed toward preparing the indictment the prisoner will face in court. How understanding, patient, and wise, if occasionally irascible, the KGB investigators seem to be, how much they give the impression of being reasonable men doing a difficult job under difficult circumstances and doing it as well as it could be done. Sharansky knew the logic of all this, and although he had occasional impulses to go a quarter of the way toward meeting his enemies, he didn’t weaken but recognized the sophistries for what they were and the interrogators for what they were: coldhearted liars and sinister buffoons.
Sharansky’s case for a refusal of any deals with the KGB is the fruit of years of reflection on his experience of Soviet prisons:
During my long years in other prisons, where I came to know many other zeks, I saw that everyone who ventured to play games with the KGB invariably lost, whether these games involved seeking a common language, trying to strike bargains, or looking for an honorable compromise. My game succeeded precisely because it fenced me off from the KGB and helped me to hide in my own world. The other games I witnessed and heard about put the defendant on the same level as his captors and eventually delivered him into their hands.
Sharansky had two pieces of good fortune: a loyal and understanding family, and a wife who was intellectually and spiritually one with him. Thus he passed without moral disaster through the years of imprisonment. On almost every point of difficulty, he discovered after his release that his wife, Avital, had shared his view. At one time it seemed unlikely that, he in the prisons and camps, she in Israel, they would ever be able to come together again. But neither of them lost heart or confidence and in the end they were able to share their lives once again. Sharansky would admit how much his release was probably a consequence of agitation and pressures from outside the Soviet Union. But without the simplicity and integrity of his wife, and without his own wisdom and resolution, it would have been a different, less moving, less exemplary story.
June 1, 1989