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Criminal Poetry

Irina Ratushinskaya

Beware pressing atheism upon a schoolgirl with a contrarian streak. She might start "feeling sorry for God" when "everybody's ranged against Him." Meet Irina Ratushinskaya, survivor of a stretch in the Gulag Archipelago and still feisty in her forties. What got her incarcerated in her Soviet homeland at age twenty-nine? The first charge against her was "authorship of poetry"! Then authorship of "documents in defense of human rights," "possession of anti-Soviet literature," and "oral agitation and propaganda." Reading Solzhenitsyn helped this Russian Orthodox woman endure the gulag: "Never believe them, never fear them, never ask them for anything." Deteriorating health prompted her release as a goodwill gesture on the eve of the Gorbachev-Reagan summit meeting at Reykjavik in 1986. She and her husband, Igor Gerashchenko, sojourned briefly in the United States, moved temporarily to England (where, against medical odds, they had twin boys), and now are back home in Russia, post-Soviet Russia.

She has penned memoirs, Gray Is the Color of Hope and In the Beginning, about prison and childhood, respectively. She has published two novels. But her specialty is poetry, available in several volumes; the late Joseph Brodsky called her "a poet with faultless pitch, who hears historical and absolute time with equal precision." She is now beyond the improvisation imposed by imprisonment, when she wrote with matchsticks on bars of soap, memorized, then washed the evidence down the drain. On Irina's second visit to my college, she brought me an intricately wrought cross from Igor, a hobbyist jeweler. As I read the fresh translations of old and new poems in Wind of the Journey, I look up to the cross.

Today the morning is ashy-haired.

And, embracing her slender knees,

Lazily watches the scattered birds

In the damp sky. The burden of renewal

Is weightless today; in this bottomless respite

There is no sorrow and no shore.

Only the straps of discarded ...

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