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Exploring Europe at the British Library

17 September 2014

The Colour of Hope – Irina Ratushinskaya in the ‘Small Zone’

25 years ago, the first Russian edition of Irina Ratushinskaya’s prison memoirs, Seryi – tsvet nadezhdy (Grey is the Colour of Hope), came out in London, under the auspices of the Overseas Publications Interchange. Born in 1954 in Odessa (then the USSR, now Ukraine), at the age of 29 Ratushinskaya was convicted to seven years’ confinement for dissident activity (writing religious poetry), and served a sizeable part of her sentence in the female penal colony ZhKh-385/3-4 in Mordovia. There she was kept together with the prominent human rights activists Tatiana Velikanova, Tatiana Osipova, Raisa Rudenko, Galina Barats, Lagle Parek and a few others, who, unlike most ordinary criminals, were entitled to neither amnesty nor parole. The book’s title refers to the colour of the uniform that the colony’s political prisoners had to wear. As their only crime was hoping for the country’s better future (and trying to do something to bring it closer), the garb indicating their outcast status also came to symbolise, for Ratushinskaya at least, their defiantly optimistic expectations.

Cover of  'Seryi – tsvet nadezhdy'Cover of the first edition of Seryi – tsvet nadezhdy (London, 1989). British Library YC.1990.a.8192.

As prison literature goes, Ratushinskaya’s book is rather traditional when it describes the forced labour conditions, deliberately (and not always successfully) designed to deter offenders from further crimes. In the words of a colony officer (compared by Ratushinskaya to the infamous Else Koch, the ‘Bitch of Buchenwald’),  “with the kind of life you live here, you’d never want to come back”. To the best of their ability, Ratushinskaya and her fellow inmates try to defend themselves against their environment by equally traditional methods, from deceit and insubordination to hunger strikes. Among other forms of resistance are growing an illicit vegetable patch and reading.

(Readers of this blog may be curious to find out that Ratushinskaya’s colony had a library but no catalogue. Moreover, some books, especially modern ones – mostly about  ‘love’ and  ‘war’– were hardly identifiable. They lacked a beginning and end because other prisoners used the first and last pages as cigarette papers. Yet the colony’s political prisoners (never more than a dozen at any one time) did read the relatively undamaged 19th-century Russian classics, up to ten volumes a fortnight or so. Their jailers did not mind, believing that this was better than writing letters of complaint.)

The fact that Ratushinskaya serves her time in a women’s prison does not significantly alter the generally familiar picture of penal conditions for both genders. It is true that, overall and practically everywhere, “women are far less likely to be arrested, tried, convicted and imprisoned than are men. … [Women] have less extensive criminal experience in … burglary, robbery, and larceny, and they less often have a long history of penal confinement. … They are more often involved in homicide cases where the murder victim is the husband or lover …, friend …, or child” (David A. Ward and Gene G. Kassebaum, Women’s Prison, (London, 1966), YC.1993.a.1109, pp. 59, 67, 62). Yet women’s sufferings in confinement are largely comparable to those of men, even though women apparently tend to “suffer more from separation from families and disruptions of familial roles” (ibid., p. 70).

Women are especially vulnerable in certain circumstances, and their jailers rarely hesitate to take advantage of these. For example, during her transfer from a Moscow train station to Lefortovo prison, two guards offered Ratushinskaya sex with either of them, claiming they were doing her a favour (if she fell pregnant she might be released early). When in Mordovia, she and her fellow inmates were blackmailed by a colony officer who threatened to send them to dangerously cold isolation cells: “Do you think you’d be capable of conception after that?” Other similar instances include a KGB officers’ visit to the showers area with naked women inside, and the embarrassing need to explain to a colony doctor, a colony chief and a state prosecutor how many sanitary towels a woman requires during her period. All this is, unfortunately, quite typical of reports about women in confinement – not only in the USSR.

Where the book does differ from many prison memoirs is in the nuances of Ratushinskaya’s attitude. Uncharacteristically, she and her fellow inmates do not hate their jailers: “We feel sorry for them, with a touch of contempt. Poor them – what is the principal difference between their lives and the prisoners’? Always in the same labour camp and wouldn’t dare say a word against an order”. Ratushinskaya explains: “Under no circumstances should you allow yourself to feel any hatred. Not that your tormentors don’t deserve it. But if you let the hatred in, there’ll be so much of it in all your years in jail that it’ll replace everything else inside you, and your soul will be disfigured and corroded”. She adds: “The only way to remain human in a labour camp is to feel other people’s pain stronger than your own”. Easier said than done?

405px-Evstafiev-Irina_RatushinskayaIrina Ratushinskaya (photo by Mikhail Evstafiev from Wikimedia Commons) CC BY-SA 2.5

For Ratushinskaya, her and other political prisoners’ sentences, unjust as they seemed, still served a particular purpose: if women could withstand prison conditions without giving up their principles (as Ratushinskaya and most of her fellow inmates managed to do), “cowardly men should be ashamed of themselves. And if my fellow countrymen stop being cowards, life may well change beyond one’s wildest dreams”. The disappearance of labour camps would signify such a momentous change for her (“Labour camps exist not to form but to destroy human personality ...  For how long will they remain in my land?” she says). Alas, the camps are still there. According to the Russian Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN), as of 1 August 2014, there were 675,400 prisoners in Russian colonies and jails, 50,000 of them women.

Until recently, the first Russian edition of Ratushinskaya’s book could not be found in the British Library because of a cataloguing error, which has now been rectified. The book has been translated into French, German, Swedish, Finnish, Danish, Norwegian, Italian, Dutch and Japanese. The translations in the blog are mine, but a published English version is also available (YC.1989.a.7849).

Andrei Rogatchevski, University of Tromsø


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