Grey Is the Color of Hope

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 7)

The concentration camp is one of the twentieth century’s contributions to the inventory of inhumanity. Citizens of nearly every country have experienced the concentration camp to some degree. No people have known it more intimately or more fatally than Russians.

In the 1920’s, Lenin and Leon Trotsky constructed numerous camps across the Soviet Union to hold—and perhaps reeducate—thousands of opponents of the October Revolution and the Bolshevik government. In the 1930’s, their successor, Joseph Stalin, committed the country to a rapid industrialization which it could not afford and then converted the camp populations into pools of slave labor. Working long hours and living under primitive conditions, inmates suffered high mortality rates. To keep the camps supplied with human fodder, Stalin’s secret police (NKVD) discovered that political criminals were easier to find and convict than ordinary felons. Millions who worried about socialism’s future, doubted their leader’s wisdom, worked with Westerners, read foreign books, or simply spent some time abroad received prison sentences of eight to twenty-five years. By the late 1940’s, as many as ten million citizens representing every Soviet republic inhabited this system of camps that stretched from Finland to Kamchatka but clustered in the remote regions of Siberia and Asia. So many dotted the landscape that they resembled an archipelago; the archipelago was called the gulag, an acronym of the state agency responsible for its administration. The Communist Party repressed all public discussion of the gulag’s existence.

After Stalin’s death in 1953, hundreds of thousands of survivors were declared rehabilitated and set free. The archipelago remained, though the number of islands was reduced. Throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s, the population of the gulag swelled or shrank depending upon the Communist Party’s toleration for dissent at any particular moment. As the story of the Stalin-era camps slowly became public, as the deaths of millions of innocent citizens were reluctantly admited, the Party leadership promised that such monstrous slaughter and widescale abuse would never occur again. The current state of the labor camps, no longer as widespread or as fatal, was not a topic for open debate and discussion. The outsider might well have believed that the gulag, like the state itself in Marxist theory, was withering away.

Grey Is the Color of Hope is a memoir of labor camp life in the 1980’s. Irina Ratushinskaya served three years for political “crimes.” Her labor was comparatively light—she made industrial gloves—and she spiritedly resisted her jailers’ intimidation. Yet the arbitrariness, hardship, and cruelty of her term show that Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms have yet to touch the gulag. Perestroika still has not restructured the treatment of inmates, nor has glasnost opened prison gates for political prisoners. Ratushinskaya’s book is a memorial for those who died in the camps, a reminder of those who still serve long, unjust sentences, and a plea to eradicate an evil from the soil of her country. Ratushinskaya assumes the traditional role of the Russian writer: to act as a second government when the first government abuses its own citizens.

The body of the memoir begins in March, 1983, with Ratushinskaya’s departure from a State Security Committee (KGB) prison in Kiev after six months of interrogation. She is transported westward to a remote camp in Mordovia and housed in a special camp-within-a-camp for female political prisoners. She is quickly assimilated into a tightly knit band of a dozen women; united as one, they resist their captors’ efforts to punish them physically or break them psychologically. For her resistance, Ratushinskaya serves several stints in solitary confinement; she preserves herself by writing and memorizing hundreds of poems. Some are smuggled out of prison and published in translation, prompting American and European writers to campaign publicly for her release. The memoir ends on the day before the Rekjavik summit in October, 1986. As a goodwill gesture toward the United States, Gorbachev orders her release.

The memoir limits itself to Ratushinskaya’s three years and seven months in Mordovia. As a result it is a claustrophobic book. It brings the reader into the camp world as the zeks (prisoners) experience it. Just as imprisonment cuts Ratushinskaya off from husband and friends, so her narrative cuts the reader off from reminders of the world outside. Nor does the narrative maintain a normal chronological sense of time. Instead, the reader learns the rhythm by which zeks live: time marked by restrictions imposed, hunger strikes undertaken, prisoners’ sentences begun, ended, or extended, semiannual visits by loved ones anticipated and remembered.

Grey Is the Color of...

(The entire section is 2005 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 7)

Boston Globe. October 9, 1988, p. 91.

The Christian Science Monitor. October 7, 1988, p. B1.

Kirkus Reviews. LVI, August 15, 1988, p. 1223.

Library Journal. CXIII, October 15, 1988, p. 87.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. October 23, 1988, p. 1.

The New Republic. CXCIX, December 5, 1988, p. 40.

New York. XXI, October 3, 1988, p. 69.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIII, October 30, 1988, p. 11.

The Observer. June 5, 1988, p. 43.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIV, August 26, 1988, p. 70.

The Spectator. CCLX, June 18, 1988, p. 31.