As we mark the bi-centenary of the death of novelist, Jane Austen scholars still debate its cause.
We’ll never know the full truth. But I reflect on this as I consider the coincidental passing of Ukrainian dissident poet, Irina Ratushinskaya as the modern writer also died far too young, aged only 63.
While the immediate cause was cancer, Ratushinskaya’s constitution had been irreversibly damaged by her incarceration in the ‘small zone’ of a labour camp in the republic of Mordovia, a ‘prison within the prison’ reserved for women deemed as particularly dangerous political criminals.
Initially deprived of paper, she wrote by scratching her work on bars of soap; memorised and erased the verses then rewrote them when paper became available before somehow smuggling them to her husband, Igor Gerashchenko who arranged their publication.
Ratushinskaya had been found guilty in April 1983 of “agitation carried on for the purpose of subverting or weakening the Soviet regime” and so given a maximum sentence of seven years in the camp followed by five years internal exile.
She was released suddenly on the orders of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev who wanted to prove he was genuine about improved domestic human rights as part of his policy of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (reconstruction).
Ratushinskaya then emigrated to the U.K., moved on to the United States and then returned to Russia in 1998, settling in Moscow with her family, but in relative obscurity.
While many of the best known dissidents of the period were Jewish, Ratushinskaya was a devout Christian. It seems the cruellest irony that she is now dead while contemporary Jewish heroes of the Soviet human rights movement like Jewish Agency chief Natan Sharansky who was released only a few months before her and Knesset Speaker, Yuli Edelstein survived to live at the acme of Israeli society.
I conclude this short tribute with her appropriately titled piece, Too Soon to Say Goodbye.
I must point out that the date at the end of the poem implies it was written after her release:
Too soon to say goodbye,
Too soon to say forgive me,
Too soon to send us your instructions:
You know what our luck is like.
Not a door but it will be locked!
Not a net but it will be cast!
Others took to the bottle,
And others just vanished.
Only a few of us left now,
So they're firing at us point blank.
What now? We can read Dostoevsky;
Chip in roubles - for vodka,
Only a few of us left anyhow.
And we know we must fight to the death.
And we know that cruel blacksmith
Forged as out of some unknown metal,
Perhaps doubting our endurance,
Perhaps expecting us to recant.
No! Give us your instructions!
We swear to fulfil them precisely.
Too Soon to despair yet.
You ought to know our luck.
Kiev, 9 December 1986
© Natalie Wood (20 July 2017)