In the Beginning by Irina Ratushinskaya

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In the Beginning by Irina Ratushinskaya

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Category: Autobiography
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: An eye-opening autobiography about life in 1950s-1980s Russia leaves us with a sense of injustice and the impression of a brave, talented, resourceful woman who retains a twinkle in her eye. Very detailed and very worth it.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 400 Date: August 2016
Publisher: Sceptre
ISBN: 978-1473637245

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Irina Ratushinskaya was born in the Ukraine of 1954 to an engineer and a teacher. Irina's very early childhood is innocent, having been sheltered by a loving extended family from the harsher side of Soviet life. However, when Irina starts school she begins to realise that doing the right thing is often frowned on and tainted by an illogical regime. Early on she realises she has a choice: be a good Soviet citizen or be true to her own sense of justice. The choice – and living with its repercussions – form Irina's existence from that point onwards for Ratushinskaya the poet, the writer, the dissident, the prisoner.

Russian writing has the unfortunate reputation of being high falluting and packed so densely with deep meanings that it's impenetrable. Irina, being a world class poet, would have every excuse to adhere to this stereotype. It's therefore with a huge amount of relief that I confirm she doesn't. She's very detailed in her observations and is obviously an accomplished writer and yet her style is chat-over-a-glass-of-wine accessible. Irina comes over as being very ordinary and yet her experiences, courage and sense of resolve mark her as anything but.

When we meet her as a child we get the impression that Irina would be a great friend but a nightmare to parent. From an early age she displayed intelligence and, in her country's circumstances, a dangerous capacity for logical argument. In school she was picked on by her teachers for her disagreement with the communist-dictated natural order, scaring her parents who can see the connotations beyond the institutionalised bullying.

On leaving school Irina becomes a teacher herself and shows us the pressures from the other side of the chalk-face. Teachers live in fear of a vindictive pupil reporting them to the local Party representatives. They therefore must stick to the Party line with a defensive fierceness for the sake of more than just their career.

'They' doesn't include Irina, of course, who applied her conscience rather than the rules, supported by her childhood friend, husband and human rights activist Igor Gerashchenko. We're in no doubt about how important Igor and Irina are to each other as Igor's chapters alternate with Irina's until they become an item.

This book is dramatic and sometimes horrific but the drama and horror is extrapolated by us. For Irina and Igor this is matter-of-fact life, be it the victimisation that Ukrainians go through, the struggle to get information about the regime out of the country, the imprisonment, the hunger strikes, the torture and lies… Even when Irina is relating the episode in which she's told she's being freed from prison when in actual fact she's being taken to another prison camp, she tells it with grace and without the rancour that many of us would believe its due. She even makes us smile whenever she manages a small victory against those who oppress her and even, at one or two points, makes us giggle when Irina and her fellow dissidents beat the regime at their own game.

We may gasp at Irina's courage but she would just say that she was doing the right thing. The biggest gasp from me came when I discovered that, after years in exile in the US, Irina, Igor and their family have gone back home to Putin's Russian Federation… now that's really brave.

(Thank you to the folk at Sceptre for providing us with a copy for review.)

Further Reading: If you'd like to read another remarkable Russian autobiography, we heartily recommend Notes from the Blockade by Lydia Ginzburg which goes back to the author's life during the Siege of Stalingrad.

Buy In the Beginning by Irina Ratushinskaya at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy In the Beginning by Irina Ratushinskaya at Amazon.co.uk


Buy In the Beginning by Irina Ratushinskaya at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy In the Beginning by Irina Ratushinskaya at Amazon.com.

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