poem as risk to national security pt. 2: the Small Zone

July 18, 2013 § Leave a comment

I know it won’t be received
And won’t be sent. The page is in tiny shreds
No sooner than I’ve finished scribbling it.
Later. Some day. After all, you’re used to it,
Reading between the lines that haven’t reached you,
Understanding everything. And on the tiny sheet
I find room for the night, taking my time….

— excerpt from “Pencil Letter” in No, I’m Not Afraid, Irina Ratushinskaya (Bloodaxe Books 1986)

In her memoir, Grey is the Colour of Hope, Irina Ratushinskaya describes how she would write her poems on cigarette papers to smuggle them out of the penal colony where she had been imprisoned:

In minute letters, I write out my latest poems on four-centimetre-wide strips of cigarette paper. This is one of the our ways of getting information out of the Zone. These strips of cigarette paper are then tightly rolled into a small tube (less than the thickness of your little finger), sealed and made moisture-proof by a method of our own devising and handed on when a suitable opportunity presents itself. p.75

Here’s a reproduction of some of the manuscripts which were preserved: the longer strip on top measures 2 1/4 inches wide, and just over 6 inches long:

pencil letter

–Image reproduced from Pencil Letter, Bloodaxe Books 1988, p.92

The irony is that she had been sent to prison for writing anti-Soviet poems in the first place. On 5 March 1983, a day after she turned 29, Irina Ratushinskaya was sentenced to seven years’ hard labour, in a “strict regime” concentration camp; she was also given five further years of internal exile to follow the seven years. This sentence was decided after a three-day-long trial. She was sent to Barashevo, 300 miles SE of Moscow; her crime was “‘agitation carried on for the purpose of subverting or weakening the Soviet regime’ (under Article 62 of the Ukranian SSR Criminal Code). Cited in evidence was the fact that she had written and circulated poems critical of the Soviet Union” p.11.

She was placed with other political prisoners in a prison within the prison, called the Small Zone, also known as Zone 4 (ZhKh 385/3-4) within the ‘Dubrovlag’ (‘The Oak Leaf Camps’) — built during the Stalinist era as part of the Gulag prison system, in the Mordovian Autonomous Republic. The Dubrovlag consisted of 14 labour colonies in total, administered by the town of Yavas; it was known as a “strict regime” colony, the harshest one that existed at the time for women. In early 1985 a 23-page diary was smuggled out which had been compiled by its inhabitants. It has also been reproduced in No, I’m Not Afraid.[1]

plan of the small zone

— Plan of the Small Zone. Image reproduced from p.30, No, I’m Not Afraid. Bloodaxe Books 1986; original image from Amnesty International’s “Russian Women Prisoners of Conscience: A Report by Amnesty International on the Small Zone of Mordovian corrective labour colony No.3” June 1985

While in the camp, Ratushinskaya participated in many protest strikes with other political prisoners, protests very much like the current protests being carried out by prisoners in Guantánamo Bay (see my earlier post, “poem as risk to national security pt.1: Guantánamo Bay“.) In August 1983, for example, she participated in a 3-day hunger strike after she was refused a visit with her husband; she was also forcefed, and suffered concussion at the hands of the guards.

Punishments in the Small Zone included being placed in SHIZO (solitary confinement, which included an unheated cell, with warm clothes removed, fewer rations, and so on); she spent 39 days here from Dec 1983 through February 1984.

Despite adverse conditions (or rather, because of them), her poems were smuggled out of the prison (written on strips of cigarette paper, or other papers) and circulated by samizdat, by magnitizdat (cassette tape), and by memory; they were then published in northern European Russian journals like Grani and Possev and Russkaya mysl’. Again, there are echoes of Guantánamo Bay, where prisoners in the earliest days of the prison wrote poems on styrofoam cups before having access to paper.

Of the women incarcerated with Irina Ratushinskaya in the Small Zone, several had also been convicted of circulating poetry, including:

— Natalya Lazareva: a former theatre director in Leningrad, sentenced for 4 years and 2 internal exile for “allegedly compiling an unofficial collection of feminist poetry and prose entitled Maria, and sending it abroad.” p.41

— Raisa Rudenko, a technician from the Ukraine sentenced to 5 years in the camp and 5 years of internal exile, “convicted of smuggling poems from her husband’s corrective labour colony and sending them abroad.” p.42 (as described in Amnesty International’s report, June 1985)

The attempts by various oppressive states to suppress poetry and song never seem to work; yet they nevertheless continue to try. As Ratushinskaya’s husband, Igor Gerashchenko, observed:

Poems are created in the soul, not on paper. I would find it difficult to say which is the best environment for poetic creation — the West, where people have enough to eat, or the concentration camp, where everyone goes hungry. As regards publication, the experience of recent years shows that prison walls in the USSR can be penetrated both by poetry and by prose. p.21

[1] The Dubrovlag is the same penal colony where Pussy Riot member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova is currently imprisoned (in IK-14). Fellow member Maria Alyokhina was sent to IK-32 in Perm (Wikipedia). A collection of poems in support of these women was edited and published in October 2012 by English PEN:  Catechism: Poems for Pussy Riot


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