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17 September 2014

The Colour of Hope – Irina Ratushinskaya in the ‘Small Zone’

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25 years ago, the first Russian edition of Irina Ratushinskaya’s prison memoirs, Seryi – tsvet nadezhdy (‘Grey is the Colour of Hope’), came out in London, under the auspices of the Overseas Publications Interchange. Born in 1954 in Odessa (then the USSR, now Ukraine), at the age of 29 Ratushinskaya was convicted to seven years’ confinement for dissident activity (writing religious poetry), and served a sizeable part of her sentence in the female penal colony ZhKh-385/3-4 in Mordovia. There she was kept together with the prominent human rights activists Tatiana Velikanova, Tatiana Osipova, Raisa Rudenko, Galina Barats, Lagle Parek and a few others, who, unlike most ordinary criminals, were entitled to neither amnesty nor parole. The book’s title refers to the colour of the uniform that the colony’s political prisoners had to wear. As their only crime was hoping for the country’s better future (and trying to do something to bring it closer), the garb indicating their outcast status also came to symbolise, for Ratushinskaya at least, their defiantly optimistic expectations.

Ratushinskaia Seryi – tsvet nadezhdy
Cover of the first edition of Seryi – tsvet nadezhdy (London, 1989). British Library YC.1990.a.8192.

As prison literature goes, Ratushinskaya’s book is rather traditional when it describes the forced labour conditions, deliberately (and not always successfully) designed to deter offenders from further crimes. In the words of a colony officer (compared by Ratushinskaya to the infamous Else Koch, the ‘Bitch of Buchenwald’),  “with the kind of life you live here, you’d never want to come back”. To the best of their ability, Ratushinskaya and her fellow inmates try to defend themselves against their environment by equally traditional methods, from deceit and insubordination to hunger strikes. Among other forms of resistance are growing an illicit vegetable patch and reading.

(Readers of this blog series may be curious to find out that Ratushinskaya’s colony had a library but no catalogue. Moreover, some books, especially modern ones – mostly about  ‘love’ and  ‘war’– were hardly identifiable. They lacked a beginning and end because other prisoners used the first and last pages as cigarette papers. Yet the colony’s political prisoners (never more than a dozen at any one time) did read the relatively undamaged 19th-century Russian classics, up to ten volumes a fortnight or so. Their jailers did not mind, believing that this was better than writing letters of complaint.)

The fact that Ratushinskaya serves her time in a women’s prison does not significantly alter the generally familiar picture of penal conditions for both genders. It is true that, overall and practically everywhere, “women are far less likely to be arrested, tried, convicted and imprisoned than are men. … [Women] have less extensive criminal experience in … burglary, robbery, and larceny, and they less often have a long history of penal confinement. … They are more often involved in homicide cases where the murder victim is the husband or lover …, friend …, or child” (David A. Ward and Gene G. Kassebaum, Women’s Prison, (London, 1966; YC.1993.a.1109, pp. 59, 67, 62; ). Yet women’s sufferings in confinement are largely comparable to those of men, even though women apparently tend to “suffer more from separation from families and disruptions of familial roles” (ibid., p. 70).

Women are especially vulnerable in certain circumstances, and their jailers rarely hesitate to take advantage of these. For example, during her transfer from a Moscow train station to Lefortovo prison, two guards offered Ratushinskaya sex with either of them, claiming they were doing her a favour (if she fell pregnant she might be released early). When in Mordovia, she and her fellow inmates were blackmailed by a colony officer who threatened to send them to dangerously cold isolation cells: “Do you think you’d be capable of conception after that?” Other similar instances include a KGB officers’ visit to the showers area with naked women inside, and the embarrassing need to explain to a colony doctor, a colony chief and a state prosecutor how many sanitary towels a woman requires during her period. All this is, unfortunately, quite typical of reports about women in confinement – not only in the USSR.

Where the book does differ from many prison memoirs is in the nuances of Ratushinskaya’s attitude. Uncharacteristically, she and her fellow inmates do not hate their jailers: “We feel sorry for them, with a touch of contempt. Poor them – what is the principal difference between their lives and the prisoners’? Always in the same labour camp and wouldn’t dare say a word against an order”. Ratushinskaya explains: “Under no circumstances should you allow yourself to feel any hatred. Not that your tormentors don’t deserve it. But if you let the hatred in, there’ll be so much of it in all your years in jail that it’ll replace everything else inside you, and your soul will be disfigured and corroded”. She adds: “The only way to remain human in a labour camp is to feel other people’s pain stronger than your own”. Easier said than done?

Irina Ratushinskaya (photo by Mikhail Evstafiev from Wikimedia Commons)

For Ratushinskaya, her and other political prisoners’ sentences, unjust as they seemed, still served a particular purpose: if women could withstand prison conditions without giving up their principles (as Ratushinskaya and most of her fellow inmates managed to do), “cowardly men should be ashamed of themselves. And if my fellow countrymen stop being cowards, life may well change beyond one’s wildest dreams”. The disappearance of labour camps would signify such a momentous change for her (“Labour camps exist not to form but to destroy human personality ...  For how long will they remain in my land?” she says). Alas, the camps are still there. According to the Russian Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN), as of 1 August 2014, there were 675,400 prisoners in Russian colonies and jails, 50,000 of them women.

Until recently, the first Russian edition of Ratushinskaya’s book (YC.1990.a.8192) could not be found in the British Library because of a cataloguing error, which has now been rectified. The book has been translated into French, German, Swedish, Finnish, Danish, Norwegian, Italian, Dutch and Japanese. The translations in the blog are mine, but a published English version is also available (YC.1989.a.7849).

Andrei Rogatchevski, University of Tromsø

15 September 2014

A Teuton take on tartan: Sco(t)tland and the Germans

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Although I have used the title ‘Anglo-German Centuries’ to describe this series of blog posts, the intention was always to look at cultural ties between Germany and the whole of Britain. With the Scottish independence referendum imminent, this seems like a good moment to reflect specifically on Scotland in this context.

The early Hanoverian monarchs showed little personal interest in Scotland; since they had replaced the Stuart dynasty (which had ruled Scotland since the late 14th century) and had faced various Jacobite attempts to regain the crown, a certain wariness is hardly surprising. It was not until George IV’s visit to Scotland in 1822 that the increasingly anglicised Hanoverians also began to embrace their inner Scot and remember their Stuart ancestry. From here we can perhaps date the British royal family’s particular affection for Scotland, which continues to this day.

The man primarily responsible for this was Sir Walter Scott, who persuaded George IV to make his visit and the Scottish nobility to welcome him (and all concerned to don tartan kilts). But Scott was not just instrumental in introducing Britain’s ‘German’ monarchs to his country; he was also an important mediator of German culture in Britain. In his early twenties Scott had become fascinated with German literature – ‘German-mad’ as he later described it, His first published work was a translation of two ballads by Gottfried August Bürger in 1796 and the following year produced the first English translation of Goethe’s Götz von Berlichingen

Walter Scott
Sir Walter Scott. Frontispiece fom vol. 1 of  The Prose Works of Sir Walter Scott  (Paris, 1840) British Library 12273.g.2

Scott maintained an interest in German culture and literature throughout his life, and was influenced by the activities of the German writers and scholars who were rediscovering and recording national folklore and mediaeval literature (he corresponded for example with Jacob Grimm). He also encouraged Robert Pearse Gillies, another Scottish enthusiast for German literature, to found the Foreign Quarterly Review (London, 1827-1846; 268.h.15.), a journal devoted to continental literature. Through its pages Gillies introduced Kleist, among others, to British audiences.

Scott was among the 15 British admirers who presented Goethe with a golden seal on his 82nd birthday and was thanked in a poem addressed to ‘Fünfzehn englischen Freunden’. Chief among these ‘English’ friends was another Scot, Thomas Carlyle, who had begun a correspondence with Goethe after translating Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre. Carlyle was another great 19th-century champion of German literature and thought in Britain; indeed, in the words of the critic R.D. Ashton, he ‘became convinced that he alone knew anything about German literature … and that it was his duty to teach it’, and he continued in this mission for all his writing life.

Germans were also taken with Scotland and its culture. James Macpherson’s ‘Ossian’ poems were influential to the writers of the ‘Sturm und Drang’ and Romantic movements (and of course play a climactic role in Goethe’s Werther).  A combination of Macpherson’s work and actual Hebridean scenery inspired Felix Mendelssohn’s overture known both as ‘The Hebrides’ and ‘Fingal’s Cave’, and the same tour of Scotland inspired his ‘Scottish Symphony’.

Both Scott’s and Carlyle’s own works were well-received in Germany. Richard Andree, a German traveller to Scotland in the 1860s, described Scott as ‘the man who has brought Scotland’s history closest to us Germans’. On arrival in Edinburgh he hastened to pay his respects at the Scott memorial, but when he visited Scott’s home at Abbotsford he was somewhat disappointed by the stout guide who ‘smelt alarmingly of whisky’ and took quantities of snuff as she showed him round: ‘an unpleasant addition to the rooms where The Lady of the Lake was written’. 

In Edinburgh Andree almost immediately encountered fellow-Germans working there: three Swabian waiters at his hotel and a group of Palatine musicians busking in the street. This comes as something of a surprise as Scotland generally attracted far fewer Germans to work or settle in the 19th century than London or some of the northern English cities. Nonetheless, by the end of the century Edinburgh and Glasgow each had sufficient German populations to support a German church, so Andree’s waiters were part of a trend, if only a small one. (The musicians may have been a more itinerant group – he later encountered them again in Inverness.) A salutary reminder that sometimes the term ‘Anglo-’ is not enough when looking at British- German relations between 1714 and 1914.

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Studies


Max Batt, ‘Contributions to the History of English Opinion of German Literature I. Gillies and the Foreign Quarterly Review’, Modern Language Notes vol. 17, no. 3 (March 1902) pp. 83-85. P.P.4970.i.

R.D. Ashton, ‘Carlyle’s Apprenticeship: His Early German Criticism and His Relationship with Goethe (1822-1832)’. Modern Language Review, vol.71, no. 1 (January 1976) 1-18 (p.7).

Richard Andree, Vom Tweed zur Pentlandföhrde: Reisen in Schottland (Jena, 1866) and available online [] 

Panikos Panayi, German immigrants in Britain during the nineteenth century, 1815-1914 (Oxford, 1995) YC.1996.a.721


12 September 2014

A nurse, a poet and a girl – women’s diaries of the Great War

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In Russian cultural memory the First World War does not occupy the same place as in the  cultural memories of other peoples who fought this war. One of the reasons, of course, is that it was overshadowed by the events of the Russian Revolution. For the Russians, the Great War did not come to an end, as it did for the other nations, on 11 November 1918. Therefore, it was not properly reflected upon either in  Soviet or in émigré Russian literature.  Russian authors and poets had a very short time window to respond to the war, which they certainly did, but it proved almost impossible to reflect on it thereafter. As diaries and memoirs often manifest themselves as intermediaries between document and fiction, it was interesting to see what was written and published in Russian in these autobiographical genres. Not surprisingly, as with literature, there is no abundance of diaries or memoirs solely devoted to the time of the war and where wartime events, emotions and thoughts are at the core of the work. In any case, there are fewer diaries and memoirs left from the time of the First World War in Russian than, for example, those describing the Russo-Japanese war  of 1904-1905.  

The three examples which I shall present here are all created by women.

We do not know anything about Lidiia Zakharova, who in 1915 published a book Dnevnik sestry miloserdiia: Na peredovykh pozitsiiakh  (‘Diary of a wartime nurse: on the front line’;  British Library X.700/19594). The book was published in the series Biblioteka Velikoi Voiny (‘The Great War library) and of course was meant to be part of wartime propaganda.

Image 1 - War library blurb
An advertisement at the at the end of Lidiia Zakharova’s Dnevnik sestry miloserdiia, for other publications in the series.

When you read it, it is very difficult to believe that the diary was indeed written in field hospitals and trenches, although some scenes are very vivid and disturbing. However, the book is full of clichés, like the overwhelmingly forgiving attitude shown by Russian soldiers towards German prisoners, the good humour and modesty displayed by war heroes, or kind treatment of a Jew and a Polish girl which allowed them to demonstrate their profound gratitude to the Russians. In her narrative, Lidiia Zakharova also mentioned that she had somehow copied samples of soldiers’ letters which are quoted in the book as proofs of the heroism, courage, humanity and simplicity of their authors. Artificially sweet and lacking any individual character, they are reminiscent of a book of patriotic poetry created by Zinaida Gippius, a poet well established on the Russian literary scene by 1914 (photo below from Wikimedia Commons).


 The book Kak my voinam pisali i chto oni nam otvechali: kniga-podarok  (‘How we were writing to warriors and what they were replying: a book-present’; Moscow, 1915), which is very rare and unfortunately not held at the British Library, consists of poems written in the form of letters from three ordinary Russian women to soldiers. The letter-poems and the replies were written in stylized folk-poetic language, but as one of the contemporary researchers puts it, “the soldiers clearly did not have the language of their own to express their feelings and thoughts, and the overall result was … stereotypical and banal … (Ben Hellman, Poets of Hope and Despair. The Russian Symbolists in War and Revolution (1914-1918); Helsinki, 1995,  YA.2002.a.8054,p. 148).

However, Zinaida Gippius’s own diary, published in Belgrade in 1929 under the title Siniaia kniga (1914-1917) (‘The Blue Book (1914-1917’);, is a very interesting  story of a poet and intellectual who undertook the task of documenting the times. In the preface to the 1929 edition Gippius wrote: “’Memoirs’ can give the image of the time. But only a diary gives it in its continuity”.
This correlates with the words of Gippius’s contemporary Virginia Woolf: “So they [memoirs] say: ‘This is what happened’; but they do not say what the person was like to whom it happened. And the events mean very little unless we know first to whom they happened” (Virginia Woolf. Moments of Being: Autobiographical Writing. New edition edited by Jeanne Schulkind. (London, 2003; YC.2003.a.4621), p. 79).

And the person “whom events happened to” is very vividly portrayed in the diaries of another woman – Ekaterina Nikolaevna Razumovskaia (née Sain-Vitgenshtein or in the German version: Katherina Sayn-Wittgenstein) (1895-1983), one of six children born into the old noble family of Prince Nikolai Sain-Vitgenshtein.

She was 19 when the war began and 23 when the family left Russia for good. Until 1973 the diaries were completely forgotten and kept among other old papers in sealed boxes.  Only after Alexandr Solzhenitsyn  had appealed to Russians abroad to send him their documents, memoirs and diaries to facilitate his work on the novel Avgust 1914 (‘August 1914’) did Ekaterina Razumovskaia remember about her diaries. They were published first in German and then in Russian (1986) shortly after her death.  Her diary is not only a document of wartime life (in many ways her ‘experience’ was  common to thousands of people and her ‘analysis’ of the events was entirely based on newspapers and the opinions of her family members), but it is also a coming-of-age narrative with the major events of the 20th century in the background.  And because of that, a hundred years later we still can feel her fear and anxiety when reading: “What is the year 1915 preparing for us? How much sorrow, how much joy? Never before has the burning question about the future arisen so acutely as on this first night of the New Year. Never before have we felt such a sharp fear in front of the black abyss of unknown. I’m peeking into this abyss and my head is spinning and darkness arises in front of my eyes. Everything is in Lord’s hands, come what may!” (, p. 41).

To learn more about responses to the Great War join us at the event in the British Library on 19th September: Britain and Russia in the Great War: Centenary Reflections.

Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Eastern European Curator (Russian Studies)

Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead East European Curator (Russian) - See more at:
Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead East European Curator (Russian) - See more at: