Irina Ratushinskaya, the Soviet dissident poet and novelist, was a legendarily defiant figure. Sentenced in 1983, on her 29th birthday, to seven years in a labor camp for “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda,” she not only survived, but wrote poems on bars of soap with the burnt ends of matchsticks. She memorized and erased them before somehow smuggling them on cigarette paper to the outside world. Her husband had many of them published in the West. With human rights groups constantly at his back, Gorbachev released Ratushinskaya four years early.
Even as a teenager, Ratushinskaya showed talent and a rebellious streak. While still a schoolgirl, her work was shown to a Soviet official. He told her that to become a state-sanctioned writer she had to write three poems: one each about the Communist Party, about Lenin and about a traditional subject such as the natural world. She refused.
This was something of a pattern in her life. She also refused to spy on dissidents and foreigners for the K.G.B. Instead, she became a schoolteacher. But after protesting against the school’s anti-Semitism, she lost her job.
If defiance was her hallmark, we shouldn’t forget her poetry. The great Joseph Brodsky – an exiled Soviet dissident who later became Poet Laureate of the United States – described her thus: “a remarkably genuine poet with faultless pitch.”
Irina Ratushinskaya died on July 5th, 2017, of cancer.