TIME has its own tricks of perspective; human nature can be almost ox-like in its resilience. As normal service resumes in the Soviet Union, it is hard to recapture the atmosphere of little more than a week ago, when thT. whole world seemed to stand trembling on the brink of a baleful and unknown future.
It is hard to see the ox-likeness in the delicate, frail, almost birdlike figure of Irina Ratushinskaya imprisoned for her faith and poetry in the final 13rezhnev years but it is no twist of perspective that makes the comparison resistible. Her suburban home in north London seemed on approach to make an incongruous venue for thoughts of abroad, but crossing its threshold made the holy Russia of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky suddenly accessible and familiar.
It was these authors, and those like them, that first drew bins to her Orthodox Christianity. "I was taught," she told me, "to struggle with God. My schoolteachers seemed to speak with so much hatred against God: how could they hate someone so much I thought who didn't exist?"
With her existential questionings, child-like simplicity, and enormous capacity to absorb and assimilate suffering, she seemed perhaps it is the almost luminous quality of her gaze that makes the suggestion
irresistable to radiate indomitable qualities of faith and hope.
"1 realised," she continued in her broken but jaggedly eloquent English, "that Christians in the west are in a much more difficult position than they are in the Soviet Union." I goggled at the paradox; at the detachment and strength it must take to say such a thing after the experience of arrest, interrogation, isolation from the world, solitary confinement, unjust imprisonment...
Around us, telephones rang, and Irina's husband, Igor, exchanged quiet and traubled conversation with a Ukrainian friend. The night before our morning meeting, the army had failed to storm the Russian Parliament, and Gorbachev's future was uncertain; Irina Ratushinskaya must have had more than half an ear cocked for the latest news, yet I was never aware of having less than her full attention.
She continued her theme. "It is much more difficult. I know plenty of people in this country who would rather be killed than
be embarrassed. They would be very brave in the Soviet Union. They would be ready to go to prison for their Christian beliefs. But they are not able to stand being slandered and mocked in the newspapers."
It was slander and mockery, in a certain sense, that led to her imprisonment. When Andrei Sakharov was arrested. officialdom said that the action had been carried out "on behalf of all Soviet citizens." "Being a Christian," Irina explained
painstakingly to me, "I couldn't allow the authorities to carry out any crime on my behalf."
She protested by all the means available to her. A year and a half later she was arrested, charged with writing "anticommunist poems" and human rights documents. After eight months in complete isolation at a KGB prison at Kiev, she was moved to a labour camp.
I asked her if she had ever doubted or despaired, and she considered, as if for the first time. "I was lucky," she said, "because I came to God of my own volition, not because I was taught to love God. I think that when the search for God costs something we don't so easily let go or change our minds."
She is capable of tragicomic moments of irony. When she was released from prison in 1986 after a long and determined campaign by human rights campaigners, she was stripped of her Soviet citizenship. "As a British citizen," she said, "I can now go back as a tourist." How deep, I wondered, is the sense of exile? She turned the question back on me, giving it a new scope and depth, and the source of her strength glowed out. "In a sense, of course, we are always how could we not be? pilgrims and exiles on the earth."