Last week I happened to turn on to Radio 4 soon after midday. A voice in deeply accented English was talking about poetry and life in communist Russia, and even before I learnt the title of the programme, The Imprisonment of Irina Ratushinskaya, I guessed who the speaker was – Ratushinskaya as being interviewed by Louise Hidalgo.
A friend had given me a copy of Ratushinskaya’s book about her experience of four-years’ imprisonment in a labour camp, Grey is the Colour of Hope, as soon as it had been published in 1988 and like everyone who read it, I was deeply impressed by its author’s courage and conviction, despite the severe privations of camp life in the “Small Zone.”
Now, nearly 30 years later, here she was talking on Radio 4 about her Christian faith, her poetry, her exile in the UK and her return to live in Moscow just before the millennium. “Our world is not such a horrible place as some people think”, she reflected, adding, “If you take a stand on conscience, people will help.”
By coincidence, I happened to visit the friend who had introduced me to Ratushinskaya on the evening of the morning I had heard the broadcast. We both listened to the interview again and I borrowed Ratushinskaya’s subsequent book, In the Beginning, about her life before her mock trial in 1982, from my friend’s book shelf.
It struck me how God can penetrate the most improbable places, such as the rigidly atheistic school environment in Odessa, where Ratushinskaya grew up in the early 1960s. Stalin might be dead but under his successor, Khrushchev, the penalty for anti-Soviet behaviour, such as writing religious poetry, was still extraordinarily harsh.
As a child Ratushinskaya started to pray, convinced that God existed because her teachers kept insisting that He didn’t. She understood almost instinctively that that only through religious faith would her soul “remain my own: nobody will be able to manipulate me.” Later she learnt that her grandmother had her secretly christened when she was a baby.
As a young student, a friend had given her a Bible, written in Old Church Slavonic; she taught herself to read the ancient alphabet, writing “After that, all the revelations I had either read or guessed about elsewhere, fell into place…I realised that yes, I am a Christian and my loving God confirms that it is so.”
Amazingly, Ratushinskaya’s future husband, Igor, who trained as a scientist, had also reasoned himself into faith in God: “There had to be a beginning of some kind to our world; that stands to reason”, he told her. They married clandestinely, in an Orthodox ceremony.
Now, thanks to Radio 4, I have been reminded of an inspirational woman and how it is so easy to take faith for granted when one has not had to suffer to bear witness to it.