Crime or Punishment: Russian Narratives of Incarceration

Grey is the Color of Hope

Grey is the Color of Hope
Irina Borisovna Ratushinskaya
Primarily “The Zone” for political prisoners in a Mordovian labor camp; briefly also Ratushinskaya’s home in Kiev

PLOT SUMMARY: Ratushinskaya’s memoir illustrates her experiences while a political prisoner in a Mordovian labor camp. It begins with Ratushinskaya’s return home after four years imprisoned, during which she experienced many traumas, including starvation, malnourishment, overworking, and isolation. Throughout the text she describes the numerous ways in which the administration of the prison mistreated her and the other political prisoners. Ratushinskaya also describes the SHIZO, an isolation cell with freezing temperatures used to punish the prisoners. She explains that the SHIZO is so freezing and terrible that women emerge from there unable to bear children. 

     Despite the horrid conditions, Ratushinskaya spends a great deal of her memoir describing the will and dignity of herself and the other prisoners. She and the political prisoners refuse food that is over-salted, negotiate working conditions, and go on food strike to maintain what few rights they have. They successfully force one of the most abusive administrators, Podust, out of her job maintain an allied force against the rest of the administrators. Ratushinskaya emphasizes that, through it all, she and the political prisoners maintain their human dignity, despite the best efforts of the administrators to break them.
ANALYSIS: Ratushinskaya’s text focuses less on the torture and horrid conditions she had to endure and more on the power struggle between the political prisoners and the prison administrators. She emphasizes the collective power that they have and their strength in unity. For example, when Podust attempts to drive them apart with a rumor that Edita has syphilis, the prisoners band together to eventually get her removed from her job. Moreover, the women are remarkably strong – they go on food strikes for extended periods of time to gain rights for themselves, even though most of them are in unhealthy physical condition. 

     Ratushinskaya’s tone throughout the memoir reflects the women’s strong will, as at no point does she give up hope. On the contrary, Ratushinskaya consistently emphasizes how she and the other prisoners refuse to live in fear or to give up their human dignity. Her resistance throughout differentiates her texts from others, which focus more on the torture and inhumane conditions of imprisonment, leaving the reader with a glimmer of hope even after reading about the pain others have experienced. 

“They are watching me, so I must not show any sign of confusion, any emotion at all. The reflexes evolved during four years of imprisonment function automatically – never trust them! Never drop your guard!” (3)
“‘What is the worst thing in the camps?’ I asked Tatyana Mikhailovna at the end of my first week in the Small Zone. And she, who had already experienced SHIZO and suchlike answered without a moment’s hesitation: ‘The perpetual lies.’” (156)
“She cannot grasp that not a single one of us would ever change places with her. For we have breathed freedom – if only freedom from fear.” (162)
BIOGRAPHY: Born in Odessa, Ukraine in 1954, Irina Ratushinskaya was a Russian author of novels and poetry, known for her protests against the Soviet Union. Though Ratushinskaya went on to write hundreds of poems and several books, she was originally educated in physics, and she became a primary school teacher in both physics and math. However, Ratushinskaya was fired from her position when she spoke out against anti-Semitic policies, marking the beginning of Ratushinskaya’s fight for human rights in the Soviet Union.

     At the same time as some of Ratushinskaya’s poetry began to get published, she and her husband staged a protest against the Soviet Union’s human rights violations. As a result of this, in 1982 she was arrested and sentenced to seven years in hard labour camps for alleged “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda”. While serving her sentence, Ratushinskaya would write down her poetry on soap, which she would then transfer to cigarette paper and smuggle out. She was eventually released after four years due to massive protest and Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost. Ratushinskaya just recently died in 2017.

Roberts, Sam. “Irina Ratushinskaya, Soviet Dissident and Writer, Dies at 63.” The New York Times, 14 July 2017,

Renner-Fahey, Ona. “‘Our Only Hope was in these Plants’: Irina Ratushinskaya and the Manipulation of Foodways in a Late Soviet Labor Camp.” Seasoned Socialism: Gender and Food in Late Soviet Everyday Life, edited by Anastasia Lakhtikova et al., Indiana University Press, Bloomington, Indiana, 2019, pp. 247–270. 
This text adapts an interesting argument, focusing specifically on food and its contribution to Ratushinskaya’s success in the camp. It also discusses how the knowledge of food cultivation leads to an environment of caring between the prisoners. I used it to better understand the role of food in the prison.
Hauser, Gerard. “Women of the Small Zone and a Rhetoric of Indirection.” Prisoners of Conscience: Moral Vernaculars of Political Agency, University of South Carolina Press, Columbia, South Carolina, 2012, pp. 99–121. 
In this chapter Hauser discusses indirection as a rhetorical device. He describes indirection as the mobilization of ordinary people against a common enemy, even if the ends are not agreed upon. Hauser also explains that indirection often forces the listener or reader to be witness to the pain of others. He applies these ideas to Ratushinskaya’s text, emphasizing how Ratushinskaya’s actions are focused on resistance and not necessarily an overarching end goal.
Pallot, Judith, et al. “Patriotic Discourses in Russia's Penal Peripheries: Remembering the Mordovian Gulag.” Europe-Asia Studies, vol. 62, no. 1, 2010, pp. 1–33.
This article focuses specifically on the Mordovian labor camp, describing its history and providing examples of texts about the Mordovian labor camp.

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