Irina Ratushinskaya was one of the political prisoners released from the Russian gulag just before the Ronald Reagan-Mikhail Gorbachev summit in Reykjavik in October 1986. She was a poet; a latter-day Aleksandr Solvhenitsyn whose philosophy of overcoming evil with good made her famous worldwide.
She spent four years in the gulag in her late 20s and early 30s. She died on July 5 at the age of 63.
Her autobiography “Grey is the Color of Hope” tells of her refusing to remove the cross from around her neck despite threats from her guards; how she and other inmates went on a hunger strike when their Bibles were confiscated; how she and a fellow prisoner would comfort each other with verses from Ecclesiastes that say “two are better than one … for if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow.”
So one would think that any mainstream news obituary would have to highlight her faith -- correct?
Not so fast.
I’ll start with the good stuff, such as the Times of London’s obit:
She had been beaten, given virtually no medical treatment for her worsening blood pressure, heart problems and kidney disease, and endured rotten cabbage and bitter cold in a labour camp 300 miles east of Moscow. “Hair starts falling out, your skin gets loose,” recalled Irina Ratushinskaya. “There are days and weeks when you can’t stand up because of hunger. I was quite close to death.”
Yet she and her fellow prisoners still challenged the camp authorities with what she called her “holy disobedience” -- sticking to an idea of lawfulness and human decency when the authorities seemed full of lies and spite. With her spirit undaunted, she was put into solitary confinement for several months -- a final attempt to intimidate a poet whose work had circulated in samizdat (clandestine literary) circles and who had been sentenced in 1983 to seven years’ hard labour for, among other things, “producing materials that damaged communist ideas”.
Ratushinskaya would not be silenced. “They can’t confiscate your brain,” she once commented. Denied writing materials, she would inscribe a new poem on to a bar of soap using a matchstick. “When I finished,” she said, “I would memorise it, wash my hands and send it down the drain.” Her writing and resilience reflected a profound Christian belief. “My faith ... taught me how to avoid my psychological life being permanently damaged by hatred and bitterness,” she said.
Further down, there is this:
Taught atheism at school, she remembered initially “feeling sorry for God. ... He’s going to be left completely alone and friendless when all the believers die”. She decided she was a believer, and began to take a particular interest in the traditions of her Polish Catholic grandparents and the hidden life and faith of those left exiled or denied their identity. And poetry, she began to sense, was where she could explore what mattered most to her. In a world where there was no religious education and Bibles were confiscated, “the poets tried to keep the spiritual links fresh and alive”.
Other British newspapers had decent content. The Guardian, which reminds readers that she and her husband, Igor, emigrated to the U.K. after her release from prison, mentions her Christian convictions twice.
This BBC broadcast made some passing references to her Christian faith but mainly concentrated on how her poetry helped the prisoner survive.
On this side of the pond, The New York Times gave ample space to her beliefs:
Ms. Ratushinskaya (pronounced ra-TOO-shin-SKY-yuh) wrote without rancor. “If you allow hatred to take root, it will flourish and spread,” she said, “and ultimately corrode and warp your soul.”
Instead, she conjured images of nature’s majesty and her Christian religious passion as poetic proof to her captors that, as she once said, “they can’t confiscate your brain.”
But the Washington Post mentions her connection to God in the last sentence of a long obit. Why so little, so late?
Other missing details. than the hint left by the Times of London that her forebears were Catholic, there’s no hint in any of these obits as to what sort of Christian she was. Could she have been Orthodox, which is basically Russia’s state religion? Or, since she was born in the Ukraine, was she a Ukrainian Catholic?
I had to dig about the internet to find this link, which told me that she'd been baptized a Catholic but became Orthodox before she went to prison.
For those who cared to know, there was a lot that Ratushinskaya said about religious faith. The Dec. 15, 1989, issue of Christianity Today featured their interview with her on the cover.
Yes, her poetry animated her, but her faith was the power behind the poetry. Several scribes in the media never got that distinction.
As this obit from the Institute of Religion and Democracy points out, Ratushinskaya is an icon for the global persecution of Christians, a timely topic if there is one.
Too bad that more journalists could not have connected the dots and made the connection between what this poet lived through more than 30 years ago and what's happening right now worldwide.