Rorate Caeli

Irina Ratushinskaya, Soviet dissident poet, RIP

First photo smuggled to the West
The below is a guest post by James Bogle, who campaigned for the release from the Soviet Gulag of Irina Ratushinskaya, who died on 5 July 2017. Her obituary in The Guardian can be read here.

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IRINA RATUSHINSKAYA, THE RUSSIAN CHRISTIAN POETESS, AND HEROIC RESISTER OF SOVIET EVIL, HAS DIED…

By James Bogle

IRINA RATUSHINSKAYA, the Russian dissident scientist and poetess, has died at the early age of 63.

She was born in Odessa in 1954 and was educated at Odessa University graduating with a Master’s degree in Physics.

On 17 September 1982, Irina was arrested for anti-Soviet agitation and, in April 1983, was convicted and sentenced to 7 years in a labour camp, to be followed by 5 years of internal exile.

So began the sufferings of yet another innocent victim of the Soviet labour camps.


In 1986 a leaflet came to my home by post from Keston College, then the only centre in Britain for studying the evil of Soviet Communism, and popped through the letter box.

It was strikingly different from the usual Keston literature in that it consisted not of academic political analysis but was dominated by a picture of a young Russian couple, side by side, with the large print, emboldened heading, saying little more than:

 “Please help me to save my wife!”

Who could not but be stirred to action by such an appeal to chivalry and finer feelings?

It was a desperate plea from Russian scientist Igor Geraschenko to the West to help save his young wife, scientist and poetess, Irina Ratushinskaya, who had been sentenced to 12 years punishment merely for writing poetry.

The brutal Soviet Communist regime deemed this to be “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda”.

She was a “political” sentenced to “special” treatment in the frozen hell of the Soviet prison camps.

To make matters worse, she dared to be religious, having been taught the Christian faith by her Russo-Polish grandmother.

The Soviet regime hated religion, all the while pretending to be “tolerant” of religion and of religious believers. Yet they reserved particularly “special” treatment in the camps for religious believers.

The Soviet leadership had long been specialists in lies, propaganda and deceit on a massive scale; nevertheless, bought-and-sold Left Wing journalists in the West continued to pretend to believe the lies pumped out by the Soviet lie machine.

When I was serving as a young British cavalry officer in Berlin, in the 1980s, it was said that no-one in the East really believed in Communism any more. Instead, one had to go to the so-called “Free University” in non-Communist West Berlin to find any professors who really believed in Marxism. And this was true, as I found out.

So, in 1986, moved by the plea from Irina’s husband, my wife and I resolved to join the campaign to secure her release from the camps.

It meant many evenings of letter-writing, addressing letters and envelopes to political leaders and the media, writing media releases, demonstrating outside government offices, Parliament and Eastern bloc embassies, particularly the Soviet embassy, pickets, media campaigns, protests, vigils, church services and constant lobbying of MPs and officials.

This was not entirely new for me. I’d both been campaigning since a tender age for the release of prisoners of conscience in the Soviet Union.

As a young student, I had joined the Charter 77 campaign of 1977 which sought to embarrass the Soviet government into releasing some of its many prisoners held in Nazi-style camps all over the USSR for daring to express views that did not accord with the prevailing false ideology of Communism – particularly religious prisoners of conscience.

Campaigners entertained little hope of success, knowing how politically compromised the Western media and political establishment were and how wilfully blind they were to the true horrors of the Soviet regime and its Gulags.

Programmes still regularly appeared on the self-deluding BBC telling its listeners that, although the USSR had a few issues with political freedom (yes – just a “few”!”), they had solved all their economic problems in contrast to the corrupt, Capitalist West.

It would have been laughable if it were not so seriously false and preposterous.

The late Malcolm Muggeridge, whom I had the privilege to know as a friend, when he was himself still a Leftist, famously and honourably wrote in the 1930s of the crassly stupid hypocrisy and wilful blindness of Western journalists writing of “plump, apple-cheeked dairy maids in the Ukraine” while, simultaneously, the horrifying, Stalin-manufactured, famine was being deliberately induced in the Ukraine.

This was the infamous Holodymyr – or Ukrainian holocaust - deliberately designed to wipe out, by starvation, 10 million Ukrainian men, women and children whose Catholic Christianity was deemed a threat to the corrupt Soviet dictatorship.

US Left wing journalists, like Walter Duranty of the New York Times, wrote loathsomely craven article after article extolling the glittering economic success of Soviet Communism, either too stupid to discern the truth or too corrupt to expose the lies.

Muggeridge seemed like a lone voice on the Left calling time on the massive fraud that was the Soviet Union.

Arriving in London after release from prison
Now, in 1986, this hideous monster of brutal tyranny was still lumbering on and crushing all opposition with a ferocity that easily equalled that of that other 20th century European monster, Nazism. The KGB and the Gestapo were merely two sides of the same odious, inhuman coinage.

And so we embarked on this fresh campaign – a campaign to save a young poetess from the Svengali-like beast of the East.

It was important to be able, later, to look oneself in the eye and say to oneself “win or lose, we fought the monster”, however puny our efforts might seem.

We met the familiar wall of silence from all but a few stout souls whom we already knew so well from previous campaigns, like the late, and much beloved, Sir Bernard Braine MP and Sir John Biggs-Davison MP, both a type of old-style Conservative Party MP that, alas, no longer exists.

Where, oh where, have those gentle but courageous souls all gone?

To another world, alas, in more ways than one, replaced by a generation of politicians who would not know an honest man if they fell over one. These are the “new men” (and women) that seem to make up present-day Parliaments.

It was dispiriting but….so what? We were used to that and had no intention of giving in. Win or lose, the show must go on.

Then, over the hill, rode Sir Galahad on a white charger, a Christian knight to the rescue.

However, this was no knight but actually a simple Anglican clergyman and former orthopaedic surgeon.

Enter the Reverend Dick Rodgers, unlikely hero of the hour and, seemingly, a throw-back to another, better time.

How to describe dear Dick?

He reminded me of nothing so much as one of those clergyman of my grandfather’s generation who, during the Great War, were seen, armed with little more than water bottle on one side and brandy flask on the other, jumping from shell hole to shell hole in search of wounded men, offering cigarettes, spiritual comfort, prayers and the plaintive question “shall I write to your wife?”.

They survived by dodging shells and bullets to bring brief succour to dying men.

In my school years, I had encountered a later generation of this same type, many having been prisoners of war in brutal Japanese POW camps.

They were readily identifiable, seen standing on the side of the Rugby field, in the pouring rain, clad in duffle coat, clerical collar and flat cap, pipe upside down to keep the water out, rainwater dripping off the end of their noses as they shouted manly encouragement from the sidelines to their young charges: “Come on, Smithers - get behind the ball!”.

That kind of clergyman has long since, alas, died out in the Church of England, to be replaced by a new generation who sometimes seem to think of the Christian ministry as a convenient platform for themselves and their “partners” (often of the same sex) to further their Left Wing campaigns of “political correctness”.

But not quite. For there was still Dick Rodgers.

This was just what was needed for our campaign to save Irina from the grasp of the Soviet Moloch.

Dick, too, had seen the plaintive letter from Igor about his wife and likewise felt the chivalric call.

He decided, with the permission of the Rector, to cage himself for the whole of Lent in a side chapel of St Martin’s Church in the Bull Ring, Birmingham, England, and put himself on the same Gulag rations that Irina was now enduring, to draw attention to her plight.

After some time, he finally caught the media’s attention and Irina’s cause began to gather media sympathy.

Irina describes, in her book Grey is the Colour of Hope, the sub-human conditions that political and religious prisoners had to endure in the Soviet camps, particularly in the so-called “Small Zone” to which prisoners of conscience were often sent.

Freezing cold weather conditions, living in primitive huts, in makeshift, ill-fitting clothing and foot-wear, living on literally starvation rations with arbitrary punishment by brutal camp authorities and made to work in unhealthy, poisonous conditions making jackets for long, 10-12 hour shifts – such was the lot of the “politicals” in the Soviet camps.

It was a hell on earth, made more hellish still by inhuman camp authorities under orders to persecute, in particular, religious prisoners of conscience.

Incredibly, in these inhuman conditions, Irina managed to continue to compose some 250 poems and was much later able to reproduce them because she committed them all – every one – to memory.

She had first written them on the crude lumps that passed for “soap” until she had memorised them.

Thanks to this we now have a number of volumes of Irina’s prison diaries and poetry, both classics of their type.

Meantime, global politics were undergoing new and seismic shifts.

The General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union from 1985 to 1991, Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev, had become the eighth and last leader of the Soviet Union, being
President of the Soviet Union from 1990–1991.

He introduced the ideas of Glasnost and Peirestroika which represented a significant softening of the old Soviet hard line and an increasing openness to the West. Eventually, these led to the collapse of Soviet Communism, beginning with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
Irena with the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher

But in 1986, this was not yet foreseen, still less expected.

Nevertheless, on 11 October 1986, Gorbachev and President Ronald Reagan met at Höfði house in Reykjavík, Iceland, to discuss reducing intermediate-range nuclear weapons in Europe.

To the immense surprise of both men's advisers, the two agreed in principle to removing INF systems from Europe and to equal global limits of 100 INF missile warheads.

At Reykjavík, first Gorbachev, then Reagan, both made dramatic new gestures.

Reagan offered the US Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI) hi-tech defence technology to the Soviet Union so that it, too, could defend itself from ICBM attack. It was so stunning an offer that the Soviets did not believe it.

The Reykjavik Summit was an opportunity not to be missed by Dick Rodgers.

Dick had set about organising a demonstration in Reykjavik to bring the plight of Irina into the debate between the two world leaders.

Iceland was small enough that the world’s media and the Soviet delegates could hardly fail to notice the very vocal demonstrators, led by the energetic, bespectacled English clergyman, calling for the release of Irina from her unjust imprisonment.

It was another inspired idea by Dick because it put the issue of Irina’s freedom onto the map of international geo-politics.

And it worked.

Mr Gorbachev was the first to make an announcement. He decided to steal the show by announcing that he would be releasing the dissident poetess, Irina Ratushinskaya, on 9 October 1986, the very eve of the Summit.

Because this move was made in the context of the Reykjavik Summit, the news flashed across the globe through the world’s media and was soon headline news worldwide.

Irina, the Russian dissident poetess, would soon be free!

It seemed like a kind of miracle.

The eccentric clergyman, with his bespectacled, old-fashioned English clerical manner, hunger strikes and self-imprisonment in a church, had, to the world’s amazement, made Irina’s release an issue for a global summit.

I remember the excitement with which the news was greeted by all and not only by us, the rank and file of the campaign for her release.

Then we were told that Irina and her husband would, after her release, be flying into Britain direct from the Soviet Union and we instantly determined to form a welcoming party for them at the airport.

In later life.
As is the usual way with modern, corrupt politics, hitherto unconcerned, uninvolved and un-heard of politicians and pundits began jockeying for position to be seen welcoming the released dissident heroine, elbowing out of the way those who had genuinely worked in the campaign for her release.

I remember one particularly noisome object, a Liberal Democrat MP from that class of MPs who had done precisely nothing to assist Russian dissidents over the years, managing to get himself photographed coming through the airport arrival gates with Irina and Igor, posing for the media as if he had been the principal engineer of her release, not Dick Rodgers and the real campaigners.

Thereafter, of course, this MP would not been seen for dust, he having milked the photo-opportunity for his own benefit and not for the benefit of the dissidents.

Such is the cheap worthlessness of all too many of our politicians in the West.

But nothing, not even this piece of transparent dishonesty, was going to spoil our joy at the release and arrival of Irina and Igor.

This was, moreover, a hugely significant event because it was the first really major early release of a Russian dissident that the Soviet regime had made, in recent times.

It signalled a genuine and intense thaw in the cold-hearted brutality of the sinister “Evil Empire” that had brought nothing but horror, darkness and death to the world since the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917.

It will take decades for Russia to recover from the near-death experience of Soviet Communism that it endured for 72 years but the worst of the nightmare is now, thank goodness, over.

The protest of innocent and heroic men and women dissidents, most prominent among whom was Irina Ratushinskaya, fighting back, day in, day out, against Soviet Communism, was the greatest contributor to the fall of that most evil of evil empires.

To the utter shame of the West, and particularly the Western media, the truth about the evil of Soviet Communism is still being obscured by journalists and politicians in the West.

For all the bluster of the American national security agencies, they did but little to assist the dissidents in Russia and shameful was their failure adequately to denounce the apparatus of evil that had imprisoned them.

In 1987 Irina moved to the USA where she received the Religious Freedom Award from the Institute on Religion and Democracy in the very same year that she was deprived of Soviet citizenship by a Politburo still bent upon persecuting the innocent.

She was appointed poet-in-residence at Northwestern University from 1987-89 but later she and her husband decided to return to the UK in December 1998 and thence, like Russian novelist Alexander Solzhenitzyn before her, back to her Russian homeland in order to educate her children in Russian schools.

But this required, first, a lengthy year of complex, bureaucratic procedures seeking to restore her citizenship, before she could be allowed to return to her still recovering homeland.

Her maltreatment in Soviet prison camp had left Irina’s health seriously damaged and she was told later by doctors that she would be unable to have children.

Fortunately, however, after treatment, this diagnosis was overcome and she and Igor were able to have 2 sons. But the toll on her health from her mistreatment by the Soviet regime was lasting and undoubtedly contributed significantly to her early death.

Irina was the author of some 11 books, including her poetry. Her memory lives on among those who are left to mourn her passing, a bright light in the firmament of those who bear the burden of injustice and oppression to save the rest of us, an often ungrateful humanity, from having to suffer the same fate.

Farewell, great soul!

There can be little doubt that her light glows ever brighter in the next world where injustice and evil are no more and the deeds of the virtuous shine eternally before the souls of the just and a merciful God.

If we, in this life, are too ungrateful for the sacrifice of heroes like Irina Ratushinskaya, we can at least be sure that it is not so in the next life.

Eternal rest grant unto her, O Lord. May she rest in peace. Amen.







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