We wrote a letter to Yeltsin, and then we packed our bags

Irina Ratushinskaya survived life in the Gulag and then exile in the West. Now the poet who defied the Soviets is back in Moscow. Louise Jury hears why
The Russian poet Irina Ratushinskaya seems like a figure from another era - the pre-glasnost Soviet Union of Solzhenitsyn and other writer-dissidents. In the USSR, her verse was condemned as "anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda"; in 1982, she was sent to a labour camp for 12 years. But in the West, where she has lived in exile for the last 13 years, her poetry is acclaimed, and she has rebuilt her life.

And yet, last year, together with Igor Geraschenko, her husband of 20 years, Ratushinskaya decided to find out whether they might go home to Moscow. She had come to love Britain, she said; but she was never westernised. And she and her husband wanted to contribute to the changing society of post-Communist Russia, and to give their twin seven-year-old sons, Oleg and Sergei, a chance to learn something of their homeland.

The Russian embassy told them to write to Boris Yeltsin. "I don't think President Yeltsin cared about inviting us back," Ratushinskaya says. But the couple were deemed "rehabilitated" and "exonerated", and their citizenships, which had been cancelled in 1987, were restored. They packed their bags and left London.

Returning has not been easy. Ratushinskaya assumes that a Mr Hart in Cambridgeshire has many of their belongings, as her family have a container-crate of his. The winter in Moscow has been harsh. They have had a home to find and bureaucracy to overcome. Although she was at first determined that no one should know about her return, Ratushinskaya sometimes plays the publicity card: she carries with her a copy of her book about her time in the labour camp, Grey is the Colour of Hope. People know her name, which helps cut through the red tape involved in returning to a country where she was a non-person for so long.

And there are benefits. "It was December when we got back, so there was lots and lots of snow - I missed snow in England, but at last I got my white Christmas," says Ratushinskaya. Although Muscovites are "angry" - "people don't trust the government" - they are also very friendly. "It's always like that when there's something really serious happening - people start treating each other more kindly," she says. So she is delighted to be back, finally settling in to a comfortable apartment large enough to receive friends from the West.

"Now is a very important time in Russia," she says, on the telephone from Moscow. "It is a time for decision-making for all the people. I feel that as a writer I must be here, otherwise I will cease to be a Russian writer. I would stop understanding what is going on. A poet can write anywhere about whatever, but to be a Russian poet, I need to be together with my people." She compares it to trying to describe a flavour: "You can feel the flavour of the English language better than I do. I can understand the sense, I can learn the idioms, but I would never feel the flavour as deeply as an English person would. A language lives within the country, within the people. I feel it very strongly."

Irina Ratushinskaya was born in Odessa in 1954 to parents who were not at all literary: her mother was a teacher, her father an engineer. She graduated as a physicist from Odessa University at the age of 22, and taught physics and mathematics. But from her teens, she had published poetry in samizdat, the underground network of writing which existed independently from Soviet censorship and was, therefore, illegal.

"When I was very young, 16 or 17, I met one of the 'official writers', who was impressed by my poems. He started to instruct me how to be an official writer. First, you must write three poems, one about the Communist Party, one about Lenin and one about something neutral - about love or spring. Then you go to your local paper and try to publish these three poems. Then you write another three poems ... He explained quite philosophically that it was the only way - if you wanted to be a writer, you must write for the regime as well." Ratushinskaya decided that she couldn't do it. "I wanted to preserve my personality. I knew that the more you co-operate with something you don't like, the more fear you have."

It is that fear which forms the driving force in her new novel, Fictions and Lies, which is published in Britain this month. It is the story of writers living in the pre- Gorbachev world of official Soviet censorship, and Ratushinskaya writes sympathetically of those who, unlike herself, chose to co-operate with the system. People shouldn't be too harsh on them, she says.

"You mustn't judge these people because you must understand what they had to go through. It was hard for the official writers. They had some privileges, they were allowed to travel abroad, but they had to lie. They were watched and they knew they were watched. They had something to lose." She had nothing to lose, she says. Then she adds: "Except for my head - which I nearly lost in the labour camps."

These days Ratushinskaya does not dwell much on her time in the Gulag. In 1982, she was sentenced to 12 years for having poems published in the West without the permission of the Soviet authorities. The food - watery soup or porridge - was often so disgusting as to be inedible. There were no dairy products or fresh fruit or vegetables. In winter, when temperatures fell to minus 40C, the thin camp uniform was completely inadequate. Any breaking of the rules led to the punishment cells, which she came to know well. The impact was devastating. "Hair starts falling out, your skin gets loose. There are days and weeks when you can't stand up because of hunger. I was quite close to death."

After four years, Ratushinskaya was released, but the toll on her health was such that it was feared she would never be able to have children. Her twin boys were the welcome result of private English medical care. "We spent a fortune, my husband and I, getting me almost all right. There are some old wounds that will hurt for ever, but I can work and move around. I'll never be an Olympic champion, but I never had any ambitions to be," she says.

While she shies away from discussing her own experience, Ratushinskaya is adamant that the horrors of totalitarianism should not be forgotten. Fictions and Lies describes the sly methods of the KGB, while her next book, set in Odessa during the Second World War, will examine ethnic tensions between Jews and Russians and Poles. "I think it's good to remind people of these things," she says. She is both absorbed by the past and intent on putting it behind her. Though she is still active in human rights, she remembers the relief she felt when the last political prisoner was released in the former Soviet Union in 1991. "It was a sense of, So that's it. Now I can be only a writer. I can do this or that for Amnesty as a volunteer, but it's not my everyday headache. It's not the burden it was before."

Irina Ratushinskaya returns to England this month for the publication of her novel and two poetry readings. She says she intends to bring her family back to Britain as much as possible. There are no plans yet for the novel to be published in Russia, but she hopes it will be. "There's no censorship now," she says.

She is incorrigibly optimistic about the future, as perhaps only someone who has defied death can be. Living in Moscow may be difficult, she says, but the difficulties will be good for them all. "In a way, it's lucky to have a turbulent life. When everything is too easy, sometimes people lose their love of life, they lose enthusiasm. I don't know what will happen in the future; there are no guarantees. But, so far so good."

'Fictions and Lies' (John Murray, pounds 16.99) is published on 17 June. Poetry readings: Barbican, EC1 (0171 638 8891), 16 June; Lauderdale House, N6 (0181 348 8716), 17 June