Grey is the Colour of Hope is Irina Ratushinskaya’s prison memoir, written in 1987 after her release from the Small Zone in the Barashevo camp, but before the dissolution of the USSR. This gives it both a very particular angle on history, and strangely a sense of timelessness too. In the limbo in which it was written, it resonates with a more general ongoing repression – maybe if I’d read it before 2014 it wouldn’t pierce so deeply, but of course I didn’t, and Russia is once again up to its old tricks, the cast of characters barely changed.
Even more so now that even as I write this I find myself in one of those little limbos – Salman Rushdie has been stabbed, his fate unknown. By the time you read this, it too might be oddly specifically dated.
A little self-indulgent tangent: I’ve seen people calling for boycotts of all Russian art and culture during the war, mostly on Twitter, mostly claiming that if you don’t you’re complicit in the war, etc. Usually by random names I don’t really recognise and that I’m not going to give any attention to here, partly because why give such a trite view the satisfaction, and partly because they were already shredded in their comments for, among other things, the inaccuracy of their comparisons to “nobody listening to German composers during WW2” and it seems like overkill. But anyway.
Ratushinskaya was born in Odessa but is described as Russian, wrote in Russian, was writing about Russian experiences. It all seems very complicated, especially when defunct countries are involved, but the record calls her Russian so in light of my lack of expertise I’ll take it as written here. So I disagree with this “boycott everything” demand. It’s simplistic and facile. It’s easy to impose a boycott like that and feel smug about yourself, while you lump together genuinely problematic elements like the Bolshoi Ballet with those who loudly, and at real risk to themselves, decry those problematic elements. Russian dissident writing is hugely valuable, and guess what? It’s still Russian culture whether you or Russia like it or not.
Enough of my amateur thoughts. Back to the book.
The poetry translations are fantastic. Translated poetry is so hard, because poetic forms in other languages often don’t have equivalents in the target language, and because there’s so much wordplay, and because the rhythm is so important, and anything drawing on cultural touchstones to subvert or illustrate a point risks either intrusive footnotes or distorting the text, and after all that there’s still the meaning to get across. The poems showcased here read so well. I don’t speak or read Russian at all, let alone know the original versions, but from my layperson’s position, I was really impressed. Career goals. Seriously.
The rest of the memoir is horribly fascinating. Ratushinskaya goes into such detail on daily life in a Soviet work camp, with such a matter-of-fact tone, upfront even when she decides to change or withhold a detail or name so as not to give the KGB ammunition, because at the time of writing they were still active. Her neutral tone strays into dark humour often, as though she can’t quite believe herself what was going on, and more rarely lets out a glimpse of underlying fury. She never lets you forget for long that this is all based on real events.
She tells us that she’s not going to bias her account either positively or negatively, and she gives us the small moments of contentment, friendship, jokes as well as descriptions of the privations and tortures the female political prisoners went through, comparing and contrasting where she can with the experiences of the male political prisoners and the non-political prisoners at Barashevo. She’s unstinting in her depiction of the guards and staff that she despises. What struck me the most though, and this is probably saying more about me and my (lack of) knowledge than anything else, was the lack of malice of many of the more casual wardens and guards. Much more understandable, however, when put into the context of the lack of freedom of movement in the USSR and lack of other viable opportunities in the regions where the camps were based. Ratushinskaya gives us this context, points out that the whole edifice couldn’t stand without the cooperation of these people, and ends on the searing line, “Perhaps your children will be braver than you.”
I was surprised too by the lines the KGB wouldn’t cross, and the things they seemed to fear outside eyes seeing, as though it would tarnish their reputation. Related to that, this passage in particular hit me hard:
“War had been declared on our Zone, but apart from the two opposing sides, ourselves and the KGB – there was a third side involved in the conflict: all those people who were campaigning for our freedom: in Russia, Ukraine, Lithuania, Britain, Sweden, the USA […] It was this third side which decided the ultimate outcome of the war, forcing open the gates of the camp and allowing us to emerge one by one, until the small Zone ceased to exist. […] Believe me, you of the third side: it all depends on you, and you are capable of achieving much more than you may think.”
Important for people like me, who are on the third side of so many wars, to remember.