Criticism & Features

NBCC Reads

Long Tail: Karen Long on Irina Ratushinskaya

By Eric Banks

Over the past month we've been publishing the results of our Fall 2010 NBCC Reads survey, in which we asked our membership and past winners and finalists for out-of-print works of fiction or nonfiction that ought to be newly republished. Here's what board member Karen Long had to say (click here to read all the responses).


My first choice is Grey Is the Color of Hope by the poet Irina Ratushinskaya. I will be thinking about her memoir for the rest of my life. It was published in the States in 1989 via Vintage's International Editions.


Sentenced to seven years' hard labor for her political outspokenness, Ratushinskaya was 27 when she was arrested in 1982. The Soviet Union's Barashevo prison camp is a horror, but the author records her experiences carefully, calmly, in luminous language. She kept her wits about her, and her sense of humor, even in the face of SHIZO, the solitary confinement that sometimes killed the inmates. In these conditions, we watch the author's humanity honed and burnished. The harshness doesn't diminish her.


Instead, she forms a community with the five others––all women deemed particularly dangerous––with whom she is isolated. Their solidarity becomes something that Karl Marx might have been proud of. These prisoners freeze and enact hunger strikes on behalf of each other, and in defense of their own dignity.  Eventually, Ratushinskaya is exiled to the West in 1986.


Despite its clunky title, Grey Is the Color of Hope belongs on the select shelf of prison literature that illuminates every struggle for freedom. It is magnificent.