Pushkin, of all people, was not at all opposed to the censorship of his time. ‘Let us have a strict censorship by all means, but not a senseless one,’ he writes to a friend, as if strictness (strogost) were a cosy and reassuring fact of Russian life, as it might be in England village cricket or well-rolled umbrellas. How else explain the perverse logic of the business, on the face of it so unnecessary and counterproductive, even by Marxist standards?
In his bones Pushkin was no doubt aware that his status as a poet depended on the shamanistic independence and authority which Tsarist oppression bestowed on him. The poet was ex officio a rival voice: he hints as much in his thrillingly powerful and melodious poem, ‘The Prophet’, which Dostoevsky towards the end of his life used to declaim to his friends in a mad quavering treble. But the poet’s and artist’s status does not by itself explain the widespread acceptance in Russia of the principle of censorship, nor why it should be so genuinely popular with ordinary people. It is, paradoxically, one of the few institutions in the Soviet state that expresses the will of the majority, and in so doing reminds us of the delicate balance of forces in an open society which enables it to set aside the majority feeling in favour of hanging, anti-homosexual laws, rescinding state payments to hippies. If it comes to that, there would probably still be a majority in this country in favour of the Lord Chamberlain’s rules on the theatre.
There are ways round this in a pluralistic society, but in a monolithic one the bosses have no choice but to bow to majority feeling. In a revolutionary situation these things sort themselves out. At the start anything goes, as it did in Russia in the first heady years of the Twenties. But then the philistine power of the new proletarian bourgeoisie, who have acquired all the benefits of the new system, makes itself felt. How can the proletariat feel comfortable with these antics going on? Why did we make a revolution, comrade, if X and Y can go around saying what they please? The new state must recognise the phenomenon of mass agoraphobia which it has brought into being, and take measures to protect the patients. The bosses have got nothing against X and Y personally – Ratushinskaya and Shcharansky in this case – but getting rid of them will make things normal and comfortable again.
All this has a familiar ring to it, not only a Biblical one. Elitism, so-called, is unpopular in the socialist society, a smear word to be used against artists and dissidents, Jews and intellectuals. (The KGB, like the Militant Tendency, never, of course, constitutes an ‘élite’.) Would Ratushinskaya consider herself an élite person, one marked out with a coal of fire, like Pushkin’s prophet, to preach the word in her poems? Would she, for this very reason, like Pushkin, instinctively approve of censorship? In one of her poems she writes, ‘Let the majority control the laws,’ suggesting, as Tolstoy did, that freedom is to be equated with a special position of helplessness inside the state. Shcharansky is a different matter, a man who has fought all his life for the right of Jews to leave Russia for Israel. This is a more straightforward matter of separate identities and divided allegiance, for not only were many Jews convinced Communists and members of the Party: they shared with Russia all they had themselves put into fighting the Germans in the war. Colonel Lev Ovisishcher, one of Shcharansky’s fellow martyrs, was an ex-pilot and political commissar, who had gone up in a small plane with a megaphone at Stalingrad, to try to urge the Germans to surrender. Martin Gilbert’s account of Shcharansky’s struggle is admirably done, as one would expect of the author of so many spare and scholarly historical inquiries, including a definitive study of the Jewish Holocaust.
Ratushinskaya and her young husband Igor Gerashchenko, who contributes a dignified note on the circumstances of her arrest, were not Jewish. As he puts it, with rather touching quaintness, ‘the Soviet way of life was equally unacceptable to both Irina and myself,’ and in 1980 they applied for permission to leave. This was refused, unofficially – it had to be unofficially because the right to leave the country is guaranteed by an appropriate article in Soviet law – and their ‘attention was drawn to the fact that only Jews are permitted to leave the Soviet Union.’ The usual black joke – black jokes having unfortunately nothing to do with real humour – and one which Shcharansky would have appreciated. In December 1981 both the young people were arrested during the annual demonstration in defence of human rights on Pushkin Square in Moscow, and given a formal sentence of ten days in Butyrki prison. Irina Ratushinskaya had already been summoned to KGB headquarters a few months before, and warned about writing poems that circulated in samizdat and had not been submitted to the censor. ‘Her poems were a threat to the security of the Soviet Union,’ so she was told, ‘since they constituted an undermining of the Soviet regime, and the Soviet regime had no option but to defend itself against them.’
No poet-prophet could have been offered a more handsome compliment. The state says pathetically: ‘Please stop, because you are doing a lot of harm to the great majority.’ In fact, the state is neurotically wrong about this, for there is no evidence that the great majority today care anything for Pushkin or for Ratushinskaya. Even in Russia, in Auden’s words, ‘poetry makes nothing happen.’ But it might make things happen, if only to a limited extent, if the state thinks it will. All the poetry and prose written under the Tsarist regime did nothing to disturb it: it was overthrown only by defeat in war and by Lenin. But because it did come to an abrupt end its successor regime has to make quite sure that the same thing does not happen again. One of Ratushinskaya’s poems describes a dream in which John the Baptist appears in the Gulag, filthy and ragged, and is succoured by one of the female inmates before he gets ready to fly away. She longs for a miracle, to see her daughter, and begs him to perform it. But he is silent, weeping, and she wakes up from a dream that is no longer happy. Yet the poem says:
Is there any place from which one can love
Than from here?
Prophetic images, images of faith and miracles, make a natural appearance in the poems, among the circumstances of camp life. The state is pushing the poet towards the role of prophet, seer and truth-teller. Yet nowadays this role is in itself a negative one. Ratushinskaya’s husband observes that her poems are ‘remote from politics. In order to call for the overthrow of a regime one must have some idea of what one wishes to replace it with. For Irina herself the most suitable social structure would be democracy on the Western model – but she has always been quite clear in her mind that such a structure would not suit the overwhelming majority of people in the Soviet Union.’
That is a significant point. The spiritual élite today knows that it is no use appealing to the masses. At previous moments in Russian history, or wherever revolutions were planned or foretold, the great idea was to convert the people, to indocrinate the masses and get them on one’s side. Lenin’s highly realistic revolution showed that this can only be done after power has been seized by other means. But Ratushinskaya knows quite well that nothing can be done, and that may be why the authorities particularly fear her sort. With a counterrevolutionary, or a new sort of revolutionary, you know where you are, but the KGB could only find her guilty of ‘an unenthusiastic way of thinking’. A splendid phrase that tells much, but it would make Dostoevsky, even Pushkin, shake their heads as sorrowfully as the KGB shake theirs. A prophet with no message except ‘human rights’? No wonder the masses pay no attention. After his years in Siberia, and his persecution at the hands of the Tsarist regime, Dostoevsky found his own kind of popular role as a prophet: not as a prophet opposed to the government, but, on the contrary, as one who saw the government’s true purpose as a spiritual one – the purgation of Russia by suffering and the salvation of Europe by Russia’s example. Even Pushkin wrote: ‘In hope of all the good and glory, I look ahead devoid of fear.’ What kind of hope and regeneration does Ratushinskaya see for her country? Evidently none at all, and that makes the essential hopefulness of her nature and her poems all the more poignant.
In the introduction to her first collection of poems, written before her arrest, Ratushinskaya stresses her lack of any specifically Russian awareness, the kind of awareness to which writer and dissident have always clung, however much they were against the regime. ‘Of course I despise my country from head to foot,’ wrote Pushkin, ‘but I get very angry if anyone else does.’ Entitling her introduction ‘My Motherland’, Ratushinskaya doubts that she has one, except perhaps the Ukraine and Odessa, where she was born. ‘Soviet power’, however, has removed local awareness from the officially approved consciousness of the Soviet peoples. ‘Siberian taiga is every bit as much our motherland as the Baltic states, for example. And if we decide to chop off a bit of Finland, or Poland, or Japan in the same way – then they will also be our motherland, the same one we have to love until the tears come, and for which we have to be ready to lay down our lives. There is, of course, no normal person who could have such a conception of motherland.’ Odessa, a town with a long cosmopolitan tradition, has a sort of ‘multinational’ dialect of its own, different even from Ukrainian: but the annual Odessa show ‘Humorina’ was banned by the Komsomol authorities on the grounds that ‘Odessa has great revolutionary and working-class traditions, and there was no question of any other characteristically Odessan phenomena.’ So the show was transferred to Tver, where it was incomprehensible and didn’t catch on.
Ratushinskaya’s grandmother was a practising Roman Catholic, frequently persecuted for it, and a memoir by a friend stresses her Polish family connections and her links with old and distinguished Russian families, Golitzins and Kuragins, names familiar both from Russian history and from the pages of War and Peace. This is no doubt a significant provenance, from which (as she puts it) ‘genes’ could have helped her to become both a poet and a member of a highly-educated élite (her subject is physics), but it certainly makes no difference to the nature of her poetry or the simple candour of her common sense. Like other poets, she has learnt from her predecessors, except that her predecessors were hard to get hold of, and she had hardly heard of Mandelstam, Tsvetaeva and Pasternak until she was 24, when she read them all in a week. ‘A kind of electric shock leaped through me ... They literally knocked me off my feet, physically: I was in bed with fever and delirium.’ That is the cultural equivalent of Pushkin’s Biblical prophet, who lay like a corpse in the desert while God put a coal of fire in his mouth instead of a tongue. Of course the situation is less dramatic than that, and Ratushinskaya uses a homelier metaphor for deprivation in a waste land: ‘Take a book you haven’t read, and using a blunt saw shred off a portion of it – a quarter, say. Now, from this portion attempt to understand the contents – but first destroy the remainder so you won’t be tempted to look. That was what was done to world culture for us – “the new generation of Soviet mankind”.’ But in rare cases this starvation can produce an élite unlike any other. How many promising students – even poets – have lost interest because too many books were available to them, rather than too few?
In his brief but authoritative introduction Joseph Brodsky says that Irina Ratushinskaya is ‘a poet with a voice of her own, piercing but devoid of hysteria’, who has been influenced but not taken over by the majestic voices of the Russian poets of the persecuted epoch – Mandelstam, Tsvetaeva and Akhmatova. Certainly the individual tones come across, even in English, in David McDuff’s very capable and accurate-seeming translation, although in the absence of the Russian text it is not possible to ‘give way’ to them as one does to authentic sound in a poem. But the atmosphere of fresh reality – the flavour of the camps, dreams, visions, moments of liberation in them – is unmistakable. One of the most striking things is the way in which religious imagery – ‘the bitter face of a brown icon/And the solid murmur of a thousand swords’ – enters the poems without seeming to be summoned or made use of, and almost against the conscious will of the poet. It is as if in this predicament, and with a poet’s talent, she cannot help but see seraphim in ‘winged Decembers’, hear tolling bells.
This implicit refusal to fall back on religion as an alternative authority is both moving and impressive. From Jane Ellis’s scholarly and revealing work on the contemporary history of the Russian Orthodox Church we learn that the Ukraine has by far the largest percentage, in the USSR, of Orthodox believers and worshippers. Irina Ratushinskaya is not one of them, at least does not appear to be, in the sense that Solzhenitsyn, for example, is a committed believer in the Byt, the Orthodox way of life as opposed to the Soviet way. But as Jane Ellis shows in one of her well-documented chapters, ‘The Rise of Orthodox Dissent’, the Church has a difficult time with rebels like Solzhenitsyn, who insist they are of it, but at the same time reject its historical status and traditions. Church and state were one in Holy Russia and although throughout history there were plenty of doughty heretics and intransigent patriarchs, the Church was solid with the Tsars and the regime. After its first attempted destruction of the institution, the Soviet state has seen the logic of having the same sort of relation to it. Priests get good salaries, rather higher than the Soviet average. In their suppression of Orthodox dissent the KGB is considerably more lenient than they have been to other dissenting groups – to demonstrators in defence of human rights, for example – and they have been rewarded by a good many public recantations on the part of once turbulent priests, one of whom admitted that he had ‘inflicted damage on the Soviet state, for which I am very sorry’. Repentance on the state’s behalf is significant, for Church, state and people are apt to be united in a preference for strogost. Nor is Solzhenitsyn against the principle of such severity, although the Metropolitan Serafim, of Krutitsy and Kolomna, proclaimed publicly that the novelist’s expulsion from the Soviet Union was ‘the only correct measure’ for dealing with him. In a letter to the Times the Metropolitan repeated that Solzhenitsyn had acted against the interests of his country and people, concluding that ‘in the eyes of believers of the Russian Orthodox Church he has long forfeited the right to call himself a Christian.’
Strong characters love to be strogy with each other. By contrast, some friends of Irina Ratushinskaya and her husband produced a tiny play ten years ago at the University of Odessa, described in a short memoir by her friend Ilya Nykin.
It lasted no longer than half a minute. At first the stage was dark. Then a flashlight landed on the scared face of a mime, who said: ‘What can I do alone anyway?’ Another beam, another mime ... There were about twenty of them on the stage. Their faces appeared out of the darkness one by one ... they marched away backstage, their voices almost cheerful: ‘What can I do alone anyway?’
For doing nothing Irina Ratushinskaya got seven years’ hard labour in a camp and five years’ exile, and will be back in the Nineties, if they let her out. That is quite something.