Volume 10 Number 4
The Security of Having Nothing to Lose
01 October 1997

Six days of the summer at Caux were devoted to a conference on 'The life of faith', which was addressed by the Russian poet Irina Ratushinskaia. She told the conference why she had felt closer to God in a Soviet labour camp than she did in freedom in the West.

Those of us who have survived totalitarian prisons are endlessly asked, 'Why don't you sound bitter about the past?' When we try to explain that in a way it was a positive experience, people make strange faces and ask what is so positive about suffering. So I would like to share some of the lessons my friends and I learnt in custody.

The first lesson one learns immediately after being arrested is about hatred. Those who are not able to throw their anger away simply become insane. In everyday life if you are angry you can always think about something else. But the KGB did not allow this easy escape. The whole system was designed by psychologists in such a way that from the very beginning one had to cope with constant humiliation and blackmail. Problems usually started after a couple of days when one could not sleep.

Everyone feels the need to escape from this anger: all of us who survived learnt ways of doing this. Practical way number one is to find something funny in the situation-laughter kills anger. It always works like this. For instance, when my interrogator told me that if I didn't speak he would kill my husband, the only thing I could think of was that my interrogation could only last about a year, because I wasn't answering their questions. So in a year I would be out of prison-but my interrogator would be there forever.

Secondly, one can feel pity towards one's interrogator. One can think, 'Look what the devil is doing to this person: he is enjoying himself. This means that he is in real danger.' So I had to do something for him, not to let the devil snatch him.

It was a good dissident tradition not to answer the interrogator's questions. So all he heard from me was 'Good morning' and 'I will not answer your question'. I did it in a friendly way, but that was it. The rest of the time, I could just pray for him. In a couple of months he started sabotaging his work: he simply brought me magazines and newspapers and then filled in the interrogation form by himself-the question and then 'no answer followed'.

I didn't behave kindly, I ruined his career. He was punished because I didn't answer his questions.

Some of our Orthodox Church leaders say that during the Last Judgement those who have suffered will have the right to step forward and say, 'God, in your name and following your example, I have forgiven them. You cannot now condemn them. You gave me this right, you gave me this power, you taught me how to do it, I am doing it now.' That, some people think, is God's way to save everyone.

I have seen the power of forgiveness many times. We didn't hate our KGB officers, or defend them, and they started sabotaging their work. They didn't search us properly and we managed to smuggle out information. They couldn't bring themselves to break up our prayer sessions. During the period I was imprisoned, the authorities had to change the set of KGB officers who supervised our labour camp three times.

And how many times have I seen a KGB officer embark on an endless monologue which started with different threats but ended up in telling me his life story. I couldn't help sympathizing because usually it was a sad story.

A person who is deprived of everything, of family, of contact with friends, who is totally isolated, alone, without any property at all, not even a toothbrush, has nothing to lose. An enormous, powerful sense of security follows. Instead of panic one feels God's hand on one's shoulder. We all felt that nothing really bad could happen to us: we all thought, 'If they kill us today, tomorrow we will be in heaven.'

I wish I had the same feeling now, but I don't. Under such pressure God really feels close: it's easier to serve God when in trouble than on holiday. When I came to the West, I thought, 'Now I'm in a world of holidaymakers.'

In my country we make a distinction between the individual and the person. When we speak about the person, we mean the fully developed person which could emerge from ourselves to work together with God. St John said that in God's kingdom everyone will be given a white stone with his real name on it, known only to God and the one who receives it. Individuals are different; persons are unique; and there is a real gap between the two. A person is meant to shine like a light, with their own special colours. And the lights of different people don't compete, they blend and create new pictures.

On an individual level we all want our freedom, we are ready to fight for it. But in a way the individual has to die for the person to emerge. Becoming a person starts with love. A mother does not think about her own individual freedom from her baby: in the first year, at least, she has none. There is nothing a person wants to do more than serve God: he or she does not even think about their lost freedom as an individual.

The problem of our civilization is that the individual wants security. We want to secure our possessions, we take out insurance and we think we are safe. An individual's possessions may be things or people. One can suffocate another person with love, while they cry out for a breathing space. When Jesus came, he said, 'Leave everything you have.' That was a frightening demand. A person can only develop if he or she is able to let go.

It was easier for us to take risks back in the Russian labour camps because we had nothing to lose. Now, after spending ten years in the West, I do have something to lose.

When we listen to God, we may hear requests which frighten us. St Macari was born at the beginning of the 16th Century into a rich aristocratic family in Rome. It was at a time of crisis for the Catholic Church, the Reformation. He was praying, complaining about the sin of the world, and God told him to leave everything and go to Russia. It was the middle of winter, and, as he was leaving all his money behind, he had to walk. He walked from Rome to a monastery at Novgorod without knowing a word of Russian. He was converted into the Orthodox religion, learnt Russian and was a hermit for many years, fighting both mosquitos and bears. He performed miracles and he healed people.

More recently, Dorothy Kerin-who died in 1963-was healed after ten years' illness and heard the call, 'Rise up and work for me!' She was from a poor family, but she managed to raise the money to start Burrswood, a healing house in England which combines medicine and prayer. People still find healing in spirit and body there.

Up to the end of her life, she never knew how she would make ends meet. God always provided her with new people who would give her a hand or with some new donation.

I know it could be the highest honour for a human being to get the commandment to 'rise up and leave everything', but I fear it. The Prophet Isaiah said it is a terrifying thing to get into the hands of the living God. But, on the bright side, I have never met a person who complained that the problems God sent him or her were too much for them to solve. He knows our abilities.
Irina Ratushinskaia

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