ELLEN SANTILLI VAUGHNEllen Santilli Vaughn is editorial director for Prison Fellowship Ministries. She collaborated with Charles Colson on his latest book, Against the Night (Servant).

It was her face that fooled the KGB. “We thought you would be easy to break,” a Soviet agent told Irina Ratushinskaya months after her arrest for writing “anti-Soviet” poetry that celebrated Christian faith and human rights. “You looked so young, so vulnerable.”

But Irina Ratushinskaya, steeled by her Christian convictions, was invulnerable, even when the Soviets almost killed her through the cold and starvation of the labor camp. She survived, thin and frozen. And her soul, nourished by the peace of God and love from her fellow inmates, flourished. So did her creative genius.

Irina’s first book of prose, Grey Is the Color of Hope, was a best seller in Europe after its publication in 1988. It details her daily life in the Barashevo labor camp in Mordovia, spanning the regimes of Soviet leaders Chernenko, Andropov, and Gorbachev. American leaders have found in it a harsh indictment of treatment afforded Soviet prisoners under all three administrations. Sentenced in 1983 to seven years hard labor and seven years internal exile for her poetry and her human-rights activities, Irina managed to write more poetry as well as record prison information, and to smuggle such documents out of the camp.

After public outcry from human-rights organizations and Christian groups in the West reached Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, Irina was released—two days before Gorbachev’s Reykjavik summit with President Reagan in 1986. She was able to end her raw account of life in the camp with an account of the day she came home from prison.

Yet even as she returned to her home in Kiev, Irina and her husband, Igor Geraschenko, knew that it was only a matter of time before KGB agents would knock on their door again, this time to detain Igor. As human-rights activists, they realized their life under the current Soviet regime could be nothing but a cat-and-mouse game—a game exhausting for the mice.

Irina and Igor managed to leave the Soviet Union in 1986. After medical treatment in the United States and a stint for Irina as poet in residence at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, they now live in London. Her poetry is still banned in the Soviet Union—and disseminating it, according to the KGB, is a crime worthy of the gulag.

Irina and Igor’s life today is filled with speaking engagements and writing commitments; yet they took time recently to reflect on such things as glasnost and Gorbachev, as well as their faith and future.

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Limited glasnost is like limited air

Do you believe Soviet attempts to bring about glasnost are serious?

Irina: I believe glasnost itself is a very serious matter, because it is an old Russian word. It was not invented by Gorbachev. Glasnost means openness—the spreading of information. While he was still in the gulag, Solzhenitsyn said sooner or later an era of glasnost would come to our country, long before Gorbachev mentioned this word.

But now they are calling governmental policies glasnost. And this I don’t take too seriously. Limited glasnost is like limited air. And the government’s glasnost is very restricted. You can always see the limits the authorities impose. For instance, our people are now allowed to criticize Stalin, but they are not allowed to criticize Lenin. Or they are allowed to speak about horrible labor camps in Stalin’s time. Or in Brezhnev’s time. But not in Gorbachev’s. You can sense this borderline everywhere.

So you don’t think Gorbachev is a genuine reformer?

Igor: He is a reformer, in some things, yes. Gorbachev wants to change the situation in industry, for example; he knows that is necessary.

Irina: But Western people are the only people who sincerely believe that Gorbachev wants real democracy. People believe what they want to believe. The West sees the Soviet Union like we see the moon—just one side.

What do you think of Gorbachev personally?

Irina: If you will look at the old newspapers, you can see what sort of a person Gorbachev is. In the autumn of 1985 he gave an interview to the French newspaper, L’Humanité. They asked him how many political prisoners there are in the Soviet Union. He said there were none.

I was at this time in the punishment cell—half-alive, but still alive—and one of my warders brought me this newspaper, even though doing so was illegal. She said, “Look at this, then destroy it.” It was very interesting for me to know that I didn’t exist.

Igor: And after this, at the beginning of 1987, Gorbachev admitted, “Oh, yes, there are approximately 200 political prisoners in our country, and those people will be released.” And approximately 200 political prisoners were released. But what does it mean? If, in 1985, Gorbachev said there were no political prisoners, and in 1987, 200 are released, it looks like Gorbachev put 200 people in prison for political reasons. Or he lied.

What about political prisoners in the Soviet Union right now?

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Irina: There are about 200 at the moment. I believe the most current information you can get regarding present political prisoners is from the Center for Democracy in New York. But I will mention one name: Bogdan Klymchack. He is a Ukrainian writer. He tried to escape from the Soviet Union with a manuscript of his book because he couldn’t publish it in the Soviet Union. He was captured at the border. And for this terrible “crime” he was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor and 5 years of internal exile. He needs help now—while he is still alive.

What should we know about dealing with Gorbachev?

Irina: He is much more flexible and sometimes much more reasonable than leaders before.

Igor: And he is a clever man.

Irina: And if you push, he gives in. Because of the current state of the Communist economies, he needs money. He is afraid to lose all monetary support from the West like the Chinese did. And that’s his soft spot, so you can press.

Gorbachev faces problems on just about every front in his country.

Irina: It is very easy to see the collapse of the communist system everywhere. In the Soviet Union, 5 of the 15 republics are under martial law. Unrest is erupting there so fast nobody can control it.

What is fueling these events?

Irina: It is not only spiritual energy. People who have lived long enough under a communist regime simply do not believe in communism anymore. If people are not allowed to work to earn enough to feed their children, if they are starving, they cannot be patient.

And that is what is happening in the Soviet Union. Hunger is coming to our country. Not because of Gorbachev’s activities; Gorbachev didn’t do anything especially wrong, but he didn’t improve the economy. And it is impossible to do so. This sort of economy simply doesn’t work, and it is collapsing to such a degree that people just cannot cope with it anymore.

Believe Me

Believe me, it was often thus:

In solitary cells, on winter nights

A sudden sense of joy and warmth

And a resounding note of love.

And then, unsleeping, I would know

A-huddle by an icy wall:

Someone is thinking of me now,

Petitioning the Lord for me.

My dear ones, thank you all

Who did not falter, who believed in us!

In the most fearful prison hour

We probably would not have passed

Through everything—from end to end,

Our heads held high, unbowed—

Without your valiant hearts

To light our path.

By Irina Ratushinskaya.

If the situation is so volatile, what do you think is going to happen?

Irina, Igor (together): Civil war, we’re afraid.

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Why do you fear civil war?

Irina: It is probably the only way to get out of this communist system. And in civil war, those who are killed are the best people; it has always been so. Civil war is horrible, even if it is for good. It would involve plenty of blood.

When do you think this will happen?

Igor: In one year; not more than two.

Irina: Gorbachev will try to tighten the screws, and in the near future things will become more intense than before. You know, he started to play with the word democracy, and people took it seriously. But the Communists are not going to share their power.

Igor: The difference between Soviet democracy and American democracy is that in Soviet democracy you have freedom of speech, freedom of demonstration, freedom of meeting, whereas in Western democracy you have freedom after speech, freedom after demonstration, freedom after meeting [laughter].

A girl in such a country, who loves God

Your second book of prose, In the Beginning (Knopf), will be published next year. It has to do with how people like you—who grew up in a repressive society that denied the existence of God—have come both to believe in God and to have a strong commitment to human rights. How did that happen for you?

Irina: It happened, I believe, with the first miracle that God organized for me. I was nine years old. Odessa, my native city, is on the Black Sea and warm enough so that it doesn’t snow every winter. Snow was something very special for us kids.

Now in school, after our lessons, we had to stay for propaganda. At the moment it was to begin, snow started to fall. I felt angry and thought, I’ll miss it. I will never have an opportunity to play with snow. It is because of God that we are sitting here. Otherwise, nobody would keep us after school.

Well, it was not exactly a prayer because I didn’t know how to pray. But I said something like, “Dear God, I know you exist. Otherwise our teachers would never speak about you so much.” I thought they had something personal against him. “But if you exist, if you can do whatever you like, why shouldn’t you prolong the snow for us?”

It snowed for three days and three nights—for the first time in about 60 years. It was a great event.

So you felt a personal connection with God. Where did it go from there?

Irina: I decided to figure out who God is.

I realized that when adults tell you there are no gremlins, they tell you once, and that’s it. But my teachers told us over and over again that there was no God. Because they felt they had to keep telling us, I knew he must exist.

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There was no Bible in our house. I was just a kid, and I had no rights to go to an adult library. (It wouldn’t have helped, as it turns out.) So I gave up searching for a Bible.

But I did like to read. There was no TV; our greatest joy came from books. I read the great Russian classic writers—Pushkin, Dostoevsky. My mother was a teacher of Russian literature, so our home was full of books.

I found that if I put together all the pieces where those writers mentioned God, I could see that God is someone who wants us to love him, love others—and especially important to me, that God is someone who always cares. It was beautiful.

My grandparents were believers, but faith was a forbidden topic in our family. It was not because my parents despised believers, but they didn’t want their daughter to get in trouble. For me to go to church would have brought trouble not only to myself, but to my parents. I understood this and never tried.

So my relationship with God was hidden, a secret. I didn’t know how to talk to God. I believe it was rather childish talk—just asking plenty of questions. I didn’t hear voices, but I noticed, very soon, that the answer would come. Sometimes from a book, which I happened to pick up, sometimes from adult talks, sometimes it was just a feeling. But I knew God replied to me.

And I had one more secret. Nobody knew of my writing poems. It was the sort of stuff a small girl writes about—dragons, flying cats, and so on—and after I wrote I would say, “See, God! Do you like this?” It was a game—like throwing a ball back and forth.

I was 23 when I was able to read the Bible for the first time.

How did you get it?

Irina: A Jewish friend emigrated to America and gave me a copy. It was very old, printed in the eighteenth century and not in Russian, but in Old Slavonic. It took me about a month and a half to learn how to read this language. And then all the pieces I knew from before, all the episodes I knew from literature, came together. I saw the picture—and realized, I am a Christian.

Because I didn’t have much reason to trust adults, I decided to ask no one about it. I thought, I am a girl in such a country as this, who loves God. God must come and help me.

If you laugh there is no place for hatred

How do you write your books?

Irina: We spend so much time discussing what I will write that I don’t need much time to actually write the book. I wrote Grey Is the Color of Hope in a little less than eight weeks.

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Do you write by hand?

Irina: Yes, in pencil. I make so many changes it is easier to rub them out.

When you sat down to write Grey Is the Color of Hope, did you know you would start with the scene of your coming home in a black Soviet car?

Irina: Yes, all that was worked out. I just needed a quiet place where I could think in Russian and concentrate.

Do you love the writing itself?

Irina: I hate it. It’s such boring work. Even if you don’t have the time, you must keep writing 14 to 16 hours a day, stopping only for coffee breaks or sleep.

The happiest moments were when, exhausted though I was, I knew I had written two chapters. I would make the last touches, and then feel, Ah, that’s it. When I am writing, the best moment in the day is when the day is over.

You have said that one lesson from the camps was that of not hating, since hatred destroys a person. How were you able to disarm hatred within yourself?

Irina: When I realized how dangerous hatred is because it burns you on the inside, I invented some tricks to use when I started to feel it. I tried, for example, to find something funny in the situation. If you laugh, there is no place for hatred. So, if my interrogator spoke some rubbish about my husband, or tried to blackmail me, I just tried to think, What a funny situation this is. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men against one woman and they cannot do anything to me.

I found that the KGB won’t meet your eyes; they avoid straight looks. And that is funny. Or I would try to think about my interrogator: Probably his kids will grow up to be believers. It happens very often; children of party bosses and the KGB grow up to be fairly decent people; you always hope that in the next generation the interrogator’s name will not be covered with shame.

Or you direct your thoughts somewhere else. I tried to be absent-minded and compose a poem. I don’t really need paper to do it; I can start it in my mind; and when I compose something, it is my escape to another world.

Like all totalitarian societies, our society holds only one terror over people: death. And it is impossible to terrorize real believers with death.

You’ve talked about being in the icy cold of the punishment block and yet feeling warmth, knowing, as you have said, that “people are talking to the Lord about me.” Were you aware that there was a strong prayer movement in the West for you?

Irina: When I was in the labor camp I didn’t know much about this; letters from abroad were confiscated. But I do remember this: When I was freezing in the cell, I would feel a sense of warmth. Before, I was slightly afraid to speak about this; I had no doubt it was so, but people did not believe me. They would think I was a religious fanatic. But this same feeling was described by Alexander Ogorodnikov, a prisoner in a different labor camp released soon after I was. So I couldn’t be mistaken. I will speak out about this, and those who think I am crazy can do with me what they want.

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I know what your life in prison was like because of your books. What is your day-to-day life like now in London?

Igor: It is not possible to describe [laughter]. We travel so much. We don’t have normal days.

Irina: When we came to the West, we were disappointed at first, because we thought we deserved some rest. But you know God’s way—if you have done something, the only payment for it is that you have something more to do. It doesn’t matter how tired you are.

When we came to the West, we were well known, and plenty of people in the Soviet Union hoped we would do something to explain the situation, to campaign for those who are in labor camps. And Western people invite us here and there to speak, to share about our experiences, and we believe it is a good thing to do.

Do you have a desire to go back home?

Irina: I believe that in our lifetime Russia will be a free country. I do believe this. After the coming collapse, almost everything will be destroyed, including the economy. It will be our duty to go back and to start to rebuild. It will be in my lifetime. But now to go back is just to go back to the labor camp again.

In the beginning of Grey Is the Color of Hope you write about the temptation to forget about what has happened, to say “enough is enough.” But you also wrote, “I know what must be done.” Even as you call attention to those still in the camps, do you ever want to give up, to leave it all behind?

Irina: Human-rights activity is not something that we enjoy very much. We are not doing this because we are professional politicians. Igor is an artist, I am a writer, and each hour we spend toward this is taken from our own creativity. It is something we have to do, like dishwashing, like all sorts of things that you don’t like but you just have to do. If the last political prisoner is released in our country, we will be very happy to shut up and rest a bit. But we have no right to do so before that.

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