“The sneaked air” made it possible for us to breathe
Repressive psychiatry was one of the methods of repression employed against the political opponents in the former USSR. It was used also against people who were considered as a threat to social norms. It was based on a compulsory psychiatric treatment at a hospital-prison, commonly known as psychuschka.
On Sunday, 25 August 1968, she took her 3 month old son, left the house and headed towards the Red Square. She hid banners under the pram’s mattress; one of them read in Czech: “Long live free and independent Czechoslovakia,” the other: “For your freedom and ours.” The events was written down in history as the 1968 Red Square Demonstration. At high noon, together with the rest of participants of the manifestation, she sat at the embankment next to the execution site and unrolled her banners. The militia beat and arrested everybody except for her and the baby. They would come for her later.
Poet Natalia Gorbaniewska worked as an interpreter from Slavic languages. She translated, among others, Polish poets such as Zbigniew Herbert, Krzysztof Kamil Baczyński, Cyprian Kamil Norwid and Czesław Miłosz. She also intervened in the defence of those who were being persecuted. She was editor of Chronicles of Current Events, the first information bulletin in the Soviet Bloc that addressed social resistance and repressions. The editors aimed to present these events in the USSR in the course of which human rights were being violated, yet they did so in an objective way, without passing judgment.
Natalia’s poems had been distributed as samizdat since 1959. “Hundreds and thousands individual readers, […] suddenly wished to read whatever they wanted, and to offer this freedom of readership to others,” she used to say years later, while on emigration. “It was them who created this miracle known as ‘samizdat’. They unearthed long forgotten poems by banned poets and copied them either by hand, or with the use of old fashioned typewriters. It was not until much later that prose, documents, information, historical studies, philosophy and religious literature appeared in samizdat. […] Samizdat began with poetry, and poetry is – to quote the words of Osip Mandelstam, a great Jewish-Russian poet who perished in a Stalinist labour camp – ‘the sneaked air’. It is perfectly logical: it is not about poems being shorter and as such quicker to copy, it is about ‘the sneaked air’ which made it possible for us to breathe.”
She was repeatedly placed in a psychiatric hospital and diagnosed as non compos mentis. Despite the opinion of the chief Moscow psychiatrist who ascertained that she did not suffer from schizophrenia, she was sent to an almost two-year compulsory treatment.
She described her hospital experience in a piece titled Healthcare. Free of Charge. Her account At Noon. The Demonstrations on 25 August 1968 at the Red Square, which she managed to complete during the months preceding her arrest, was also circulating as a samizdat.
Natalia emigrated to France in 1975. After thirty years of being stateless, she was granted Polish citizenship. Soon after that, she was presented with the Jerzy Giedroyć Award for promoting friendship, trust and mutual understanding between the nations and states within Eastern Europe, and particularly between Russians and Poles.