Irina Ratushinskaya — Soviet dissident who fought the good fight

The Odesa-born writer has valuable lessons to teach the twenty-first century: lessons about the value of freedom and the price required to establish and maintain it.

Ronald Reagan with Irina Ratushinskaya.
Ronald Reagan with Irina Ratushinskaya. Credit: Maidun Collection / Alamy Stock Photo

On 11 October 1986, Mikhail Gorbachev was due to meet US President Ronald Reagan for a summit in Reykjavik. The Soviet leader, wanting to signal goodwill, had agreed to a prisoner exchange that saw Soviet dissident Anatoly Shcharansky and three men arrested in the Warsaw Pact for spying for the West exchanged for Warsaw Pact spies serving prison sentences in West Germany and the United States. But two days earlier, Gorbachev had signalled goodwill of a more surprising kind: he released Irina Ratushinskaya, a young poet imprisoned under the harshest of circumstances. Unlike Shcharansky, who went on to a successful and combative political career in Israel, Ratushinskaya did not turn to politics after her release and departure from the Soviet Union. But the Odesa-born writer has valuable lessons to teach the twenty-first century: lessons about the value of freedom and the price required to establish and maintain it.

Shcharansky’s release was a classic chapter of Cold War drama: joined by two West Germans and a Czech citizen who’d been serving prison sentences for espionage in the Soviet Union, the research scientist-turned-dissident walked across Berlin’s Glienicke Bridge and was whisked away by the US Ambassador to West Germany. Ratushinskaya, by contrast, was simply returned to her home in Kyiv, three and half years into a seven-year sentence in a strict-regime labour camp. Then again, unlike Shcharansky, Ratushinskaya hadn’t been convicted of espionage nor did she have a massive international supporter corps pushing for her release. Though PEN, some members of the US Congress and a string of ordinary people in the Western world had pleaded with the Soviet authorities to release her, most Westerners knew nothing about the 32-year-old poet who wrote about freedom and beauty, not politics. But she was also the Soviet Union’s youngest female political prisoner, and she was gravely ill. Her illness was hardly a surprise, since she’d been serving long stretches in solitary confinement in an unheated cell while temperatures outside plunged to minus 20 degrees Celsius, minus 30, sometimes even more.

Ratushinskaya hadn’t been allowed to write letters for some time, but a few months before her release seven fellow female inmates had written a letter to the authorities pleading for mercy: ‘Irina has over five years of camp before her, and if they are like the first, she will simply not survive’, they wrote. Sending the letter was an act of enormous courage, and Ratushinskaya herself had demonstrated remarkable fearlessness in writing her poetry despite knowing that it could cause the loss of her job as a school science teacher, the loss of her freedom, even the loss of her health.

Ratushinskaya never set out to become a dissident. Born in Odesa in 1954 to Russian-speaking parents, she did well in school. Indeed, she was a prodigious learner who had read the Russian classics before starting school and once arrived excelled at both literature, maths and physics. But she was also a Christian and a passionate believer in human dignity. And even though literature was her passion, she opted to study physics at her home city’s university. ‘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,’ she explained in an interview some months after her release from prison camp.

But even a physics student couldn’t escape the attention of the political authorities. Aged 19, she was called in for a meeting with the Komsomol, the Communist youth organisation to which all young citizens had to belong. There, she later told the interviewer, a KGB officer received her and ‘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.’ She refused. But the KGB didn’t forget.

After joining the teaching profession, Ratushinskaya sometimes deviated from the regime’s atheist orthodoxy. In her spare time, she continued writing poems, which were sometimes published in samizdat journals. With other dissident friends, she photographed banned works of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and other Soviet authors. In the end, they’d photographed 26,000 pages. When the authorities sacked the celebrated nuclear physicist Andrei Sakharov and sent him into internal exile for publicly expressing doubts about the Soviet nuclear programme, Ratushinskaya and her husband, Igor Gerashchenko, wrote to the Supreme Soviet criticising the measure.

Every one of these activities was dangerous on its own, and in accumulation they were extraordinarily brave. After being arrested and tried for ‘agitation carried on for the purpose of subverting or weakening the Soviet regime’, Ratushinskaya was sentenced to seven years of at a strict-regime labour camp followed by five years in internal exile. She had turned 29 the day before her sentencing.

Ratushinskaya had read Solzhenitsyn – but nothing could really prepare her for the sheer brutality of daily life in prison. In the interview, she described the cell she shared with twelve other female political prisoners: ‘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.’ The women’s prison garb was a thin cloak that barely covered their arms and legs. Like many of the other women, Ratushinskaya was regularly placed in solitary confinement.

Since the prisoners were not allowed to have paper with writing on it, Ratushinskaya should have had to give up writing – but once again the authorities failed to break her. She wrote poems by scratching the words into a bar of soap. She then memorised them and washed the words away. But on 9 October 1986, KGB officers turned up and simply drove her home. She managed to reach her husband, a physicist employed as a factory worker because of his activism. ‘It’s all clear, after tomorrow there is the meeting in Reykjavik,’ he told her. ‘I was one of the “gifts” to the West,’ Ratushinskaya later concluded. She went on to describe her penal-camp life in a memoir titled The Colour of Hope is Grey. Gorbachev, in turn, had rightly calculated that the release of Ratushinskaya and Shcharansky would put Reagan in a collaborative mood. Though in the end the two leaders failed to reach an agreement, they very nearly agreed to eliminate all their ballistic missiles and even discussed eliminating their nuclear weapons.

Soon after her release, Ratushinskaya was allowed to emigrate to Britain with Gerashchenko. They later moved to the United States and then – after the collapse of the Soviet Union – to Russia. But Ratushinskaya never gained the prominence of her fellow dissident-cum-political prisoner Anatoly Shcharansky. Ratushinskaya kept writing, though, and her never-failing commitment to liberty makes her a powerful voice once again.

Indeed, even though Ratushinskaya died in 2017, her battle against power is more relevant than ever. In Russia, in Belarus, in Iran, in China and a growing number of other countries, citizens face the choice of voicing their opinions and facing repercussions – or saying nothing and hoping the regime will leave them alone. As in Soviet times, most opt to conform. But if a society is to ever change, it needs brave people who will risk their employment, their health, their lives to speak up on everyone’s behalf. The brave citizens speaking up in Russia today can take consolation from Ratushinskaya. And all of us can learn from her.


Elisabeth Braw