In the Beginning

Irina Ratushinskaya’s earlier memoir, GREY IS THE COLOR OF HOPE (1988), chronicled her four years in a Soviet labor camp and was widely hailed as an eloquent affirmation of moral courage in the face of totalitarian repression. In her second autobiographical work, IN THE BEGINNING: A MEMOIR, she takes the reader back to her childhood.

Chapter 1 ends at bedtime, as Irina’s grandmother tells a Russian version of “The Tale of Peter Rabbit,” in which a disobedient little rabbit runs off, falls into a number of perils, and eventually returns safely to his mother and his more docile siblings. Small Irina muses drowsily, “But the two obedient ones didn’t have any fun at all. . . . They just sat around in their boring old burrow.”

It is a characteristic observation. Ratushinskaya grew up unwilling to accept statements or to obey commands simply because they accorded with conventional wisdom. She remembers the first time she told a lie: One of her parents’ friends asked, “ Whom do you love best, Mummy or Daddy?” and, having learned that it was unacceptable to say “None of your business!” to an adult, Irina mumbled that she loved them equally. She became adept at lying to escape adult wrath. In fifth grade, however, she was humbled by the quiet courage of a classmate who refused either to lie or to betray his friends under pressure from a teacher. From then on, young “Irka” began, each evening, to examine her own behavior in...

(The entire section is 482 words.)