When it was reported that Solzhenitsyn had died, I was asked whether I had read anything of his. ‘Only One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich’, I replied, remembering his account of a typical prisoner’s day in one of Stalin’s labour camps, based on his own experience in the 1950s. ‘Ah, yes, at least the short book was available for those who couldn’t bring themselves to tackle the big ones’, discerned the totally accurate response.
What I took down from my shelf wasn’t Solzhenitsyn at all, but the poet Irina Ratushinskaya. I turn out not to have Grey is the Colour of Hope, her account of her own labour camp imprisonment in the 1980s, but only its prequel In the Beginning. Nevertheless, I remembered that in the earlier book she thanked Solzhenitsyn more than once for preparing her for this experience: above all Ivan Denisovich retained humanity by doing his forced labour tasks with care and by eating even the worst meals with manners; Ratushinskaya in turn refused all inducement to deny her own dignity and even regretted drafting a letter of complaint which included a slight distortion of the facts in her own favour.
Two other incidents stick in my mind. She wrote about clinging to the last hints of warmth in a heating pipe in the punishment cell knowing it would soon freeze, and somehow rejoicing in the beauty of frost on the window in the morning. She mentions someone queuing with her at the gate of a camp discovering she was a writer and asking whether she could write about where they were; I’m not clear why life is more livable when described, honoured and shared, but this person instinctively knew that it is as much as Solzhenitsyn and those who mourn him.
The poems she composed in the camp were written on soap and then memorised before being washed away. And magically I once very briefly handled one of the tiny scraps of writing which had then been smuggled out so that they could be published; she came to a national conference for Prison Chaplains in Lincoln, the organiser very kindly allowed me to attend the session, and she passed the examples round.