Grey is the colour of hope

Forty years ago, in April 1983, a well-known Soviet poet, Irina Ratushinskaya, was sentenced to seven years in a Soviet prison camp for “agitation carried on for the purpose of subverting or weakening the Soviet regime.”  Poetry was always seen as dangerous to the ‘health’ of the communist state.

After her release she described conditions in the “small zone” of the camp in a remarkable book, Grey Is the Colour of Hope (1988). This restricted area, a kind of prison within a prison, was set aside for particularly dangerous female political criminals, including many of the prominent female dissidents of the time. These women were segregated because the KGB feared they might corrupt ordinary criminals with their Christianity, their literature, and their habit of speaking their minds.  Ratushinskaya describes them with occasional humour and much insight, as they help and sustain each other in appalling conditions.  

She was not a natural dissident. Born in Odessa, in Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union, she was the daughter of Boris, an engineer, and Irina, a teacher of Russian literature. She graduated in physics from Odessa University in 1976 and became a primary school teacher, marrying Igor, a physicist, in 1979. A gifted poet and with firm Christian convictions, she tried to inculcate her own standards in her pupils.

World publicity had already raised Irina’s profile to international status. An Anglican priest, Dick Rodgers, spent the whole of Lent 1986 in a cage in Birmingham attempting to simulate the jail conditions and diet of this young prisoner. Irina came to believe that the huge publicity he engendered contributed to saving her life.

In 1986 as a new Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, came to power, he began a policy of ‘glasnost’, a season of openness to the west, and freedom for his own people.  He showed his commitment to a new way of ruling by releasing some of the most prominent Soviet dissidents of the day, including Ratushinskaya.   Through these years of suffering, release, and a new life in the West, Ratushinskaya was sustained by her vigorous Christian faith.

Even in prison, Ratushinskaya was able to continue writing. Deprived of paper, she would scratch her poems on bars of soap, commit them to memory, erase them and then write them down on cigarette paper when available.  Somehow she smuggled them out to her husband, and he relayed them to the world. They made a huge impact.

In her prison poetry, Irina was able to capture the atmosphere of the camp

in a remarkable way, finding joy in the simplest experience, as in ‘I Will Live

and Survive:’

And I will tell of the first beauty
I saw in captivity.

A frost-covered window! No spy-holes, nor walls,
Nor cell-bars, nor the long endured pain –
Only a blue radiance on a tiny pane of glass,
A cast pattern – none more beautiful could be dreamt!
The more clearly you looked the more powerfully blossomed
Those brigand forests, campfires and birds!
And how many times there was bitter cold weather
And how many windows sparkled after that one –

But never was it repeated
That upheaval of rainbow ice!


Our psalmist too knows about suffering unjustly at the hands of ‘a noisy crowd of evildoers’(v.2).  They, like the Soviet state apparatus, used ‘their tongues like swords, aiming bitter words like arrows.’  But our psalmist, like Irina Ratushinskaya, knows the power of healing, truthful, beautiful words.  After lament and complaint, she closes with this affirmation:  I ultimately trust God’s power rather than human power (v.7); joy is possible even in hardship.  I trust that evil is sowing the seeds of its own destruction.  Trusting God I find the joy that liberates me for praise (v.10).

Everyone sees it.  God’s                                                                       

work is the talk of the town.                                                                 

Be glad, good people!  Fly to God!                                                             

Good-hearted people, make praise your habit.   [MESSAGE]