Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Dark Chapter Opens On Soviet Literary Past




LONDON -- When Alexander Solzhenitsyn described life in the gulag, he gave voice to an experience commonly seen as the most harrowing in the history of the Soviet regime; when his fellow dissident, the poet Irina Ratushinskaya, recalls her stint in a Mordovian strict-regime labor camp in the 1980s, she thinks of it almost as a kind of deliverance.


It saved her, she believes, from the even more demeaning reality of life as a writer within the system, in cahoots with the KGB - an existence whose horror she has sought to expose in her novel "Fictions and Lies," published this month.


Ratushinskaya was herself hounded for a year by the KGB before being formally charged in Kiev in 1982 with "preparing and disseminating anti-Soviet materials." By this was largely meant her own verse, famously commended later by Iosif Brodsky for its "faultless pitch".


Ratushinskaya's reaction to persecution and interrogation was straightforward and never altered: total noncooperation and a stubborn silence.


"To all their questions I smiled and said no comment," Ratushinskaya, 45, said in a recent interview in London, where she is launching her book. "Initially they shouted, got angry, beat me with their fists and threatened to kill me. Then they got bored, calmed down and just asked official questions. I slept soundly, not worrying what they might find. They had their work, I had mine. We had no points of contact."


When she was released early in 1986, she left Russia, simply to recover. A year later she and her husband, the physicist Igor Gerasenko, were deprived of their Soviet citizenship - this at a time when such practices were officially disclaimed and the couple spent the next 12 years in enforced emigration in England and the United States.


Keen to downplay her own personal tragedy, she contrasts it with the different, nonphysical tragedy of her fellow, "official" writers.


"Of course, there were physical tragedies," she said of a prison spell in which she was starved and tortured. "But the shame of compromise, the fear that stifles a person with something to lose - these were things that people who went through the camps in open confrontation to Soviet society didn't have to face."


It is this culture of fear and shame, presided over in the latter-day Soviet Union by the fifth directorate of the KGB, that inspired Ratushinskaya to write "Fictions and Lies." The novel-thriller is dedicated to that majority of writers who did reluctantly talk under pressure, entering an uneasy alliance with the KGB, bartering their freedom for the right to publish. "Morally, for official writers the situation was far worse," she says of those who cooperated. "The majority of these writers didn't want to cooperate ... but they needed to compromise. There were very few convinced Communists."


The action is set in 1970, chosen, the author says, "because it was one of the most terrible years for the Soviet intelligentsia since the death of Stalin." The regime had come to realize that, after decades of brutal oppression of the free-thinking intelligentsia in the camps, it needed a new and more sophisticated instrument of terror.


"People, with their knowledge of previous generations, knew how to survive the camps. What to do, what not to do. The fear before the camps greatly decreased in the '60s, and the Communist Party faced the question: how to increase terror while not adding to executions that would be known all around the world."


The solution was the threat of the psikhushka, or psychiatric hospital. At the time the limits of drugs and psychotropic medicines were not known and it was believed (exaggeratedly, as it turned out) that the human personality could be radically changed - a prospect, Ratushinskaya believes, more terrible than any physical abuse.


Ultimately, she says, the threat was a largely empty one: No official writers ever ended up in the psikhushka. But the sheer fear of the unknown bludgeoned writers into submission. The hero of Ratushinskaya's novel, an innocuous children's writer, Nikolin, comes under suspicion for the overly fantastical nature of his tales. Hauled in by the KGB, he is sent through "the swings," a kind of repeated shock therapy, set up and interrogated. He gets a choice: enlisting on the KGB's list of agents provocateurs or the psikhushka. Told misleadingly that 90 percent of those recruited are never used, he enlists.


Despite "Fictions and Lies'" novel status (the characters are wholly invented for "ethical reasons") and despite the fact that she was still a teenager in 1970, albeit precociously well-versed in samizdat, Ratushinskaya believes her novel to be "100 percent real in terms of atmosphere and situation."


She researched her material with Nikita Petrov, a historian who spent his career researching the practices of the KGB and who, Ratushinskaya says, gained access to archives that were later closed.


This insider's view exposes a literary milieu in which nothing happens accidentally, a kind of inverted Utopia under the shadow of the KGB: friends are played off against friends, rumors are propagated through unwitting "agents of influence," the characters are manipulated by chemicals (Viagra-type pills play a prominent role) and crushing psychological pressure. It is an Orwellian world of unstated conspiracies in which everyone is guilty or could be guilty, and one that left a mark on Ratushinskaya's own personal life.


"The KGB had the habit of staining people with itself. They sent the rumor that my husband ratted on me. People who could have helped avoided contact for a year."


It was only when she sent a copy of her sentence from prison that the rumor was dispelled. "With my husband, all ended well. Others are branded to this day. If only we could open the archives many would be justified."


This sense of altruism is the one constant feature of Ratushinskaya's nomadic life that began in Odessa in 1954. A devout Christian, she was involved in the burgeoning human rights' movement in Russia before her arrest, while in labor camp she went on a hunger strike to protest abuse of other prisoners' rights. She even continued to lobby for convicted dissidents from her corner in London, until the last ones were freed in the early '90s.


For all Ratushinskaya's good intentions, one wonders to what extent writers in Russia, who might recognize elements of their own biographies in the book, will welcome this expos? by the returning emigr?. "Fictions and Lies" is yet to be published in the original Russian - Ratushinskaya says she is still re-establishing contacts with Russian publishers - but it will likely cause a sensation in Russian literary circles when it does. The time the novel deals with, after all, is not that long ago.


Ratushinskaya, however, has no doubts about the urgent need to open this grim chapter of Soviet history.


"One of the problems of humanity," she muses, "is that people forget what happened just recently. A different generation has grown up already since 1970. Those who were so cruelly destroyed by the KGB won't boast to their children about their cooperation. This generation risks not knowing what the vegetative period of communism, without mass executions, was actually like. A broken person won't do this - he'd be ashamed. I have to do it."


"Fictions and Lies," translated from the Russian by Alyona Kojevnikova, is published by JohnMurray and sells for pounds 16.99.