Judith Vidal-Hall pays tribute to a tireless campaigner for free expression in the former Soviet Union
Vera (born Faith Elizabeth) Rich, who died at home on 20 December 2009, was, quite simply, unique, her formidable intelligence matched only by her stubborn resistance to the cancer that plagued her latter years.
Vera’s association with Index on Censorship long predated my own and sprang out of her commitment to freedom of expression in the countries behind the “Iron Curtain”. When Index on Censorship was launched in 1972, she was already active in many of these countries. Not only did she bring out the samizdat literature of that time, she frequently made the first translations and, when necessary, so she told me, manned the barricades with the dissidents. She was deeply involved with human rights and pro-democracy movements in the USSR and elsewhere. She worked, for instance, with the campaign against the abuse of psychiatry for political purposes in Russia, with Polish Solidarity and its predecessor the Workers’ Defence Committee (KOR), the samizdat publication Beszelo and the Duna Kor environmental campaigning group, both in Hungary. All this inevitably led to brushes with security forces and she bore her banning from these countries as a badge of honour.
Vera was a gifted linguist, fluent in Russian, Polish, Ukrainian, Belarusian and other Slav languages. She translated from all these and more and, in 1997, was awarded the Ivan Franko Prize, the highest honour available to a non-Ukranian “in recognition of 40 years service to Ukrainian literature”. But her greatest commitment was to Belarus, a country for which she felt great compassion as it struggled, against a post-1991 dictator, for free expression, democracy and the right to use its own language, suppressed under the USSR and now the symbol of a long awaited freedom. Her first collected translations of Belarusian poetry, Like Water, Like Fire: an Anthology of Byelorussian Poetry from 1828 to the Present Day, appeared as early as 1971. It was published by UNESCO and banned by the Soviet censorship body Glavlit throughout the USSR.
Vera was prolific; many more translations of Belarusian literature followed, culminating in 2004 with a new poetry collection, Poems on liberty: reflections for Belarus. She also wrote extensively about the country in a number of publications, most notably Index. In 1996, we worked together on an issue of the magazine to mark the tenth anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster. The extent to which it had affected Belarus was then still not fully known. Vera was invaluable in seeking out original material from the country and translating it. What turned out to be a remarkable issue was very much her doing.
The esteem, not to say veneration, in which Vera was held by Belarusian intellectuals was extraordinary. I had personal experience of this in 1995 when we went together to Minsk. I was the invited keynote speaker, Vera along for the ride. But in our many wanderings through the megalopian streets of the capital or being entertained in the evenings, it was made quite clear that I was merely the royal bag handler and she the queen of all she surveyed.
Poetry was Vera’s first and abiding love: her first two collections, Outlines and Portents And Images were published in 1960 and 1963 respectively and in 1962 she launched the “magazine for new poetry” Manifold. In 1969 it went to earth and was not resurrected until 1998 when Vera re-launched it with huge enthusiasm to a receptive audience. It occupied a good deal of her time over the ensuing decade and was, maybe, a necessary distraction from the traumatic onset of cancer in 2006 and the subsequent treatment that took up so much of her time. Vera dealt with this, as she dealt with many of us, with her usual mixture of cussedness and defiance: she didn’t make it easy for her adversary.
But there was courage too; loyalty as well as determination. In many ways she had, more than many, outlived her Cold War era: she spent her youth battling the tyranny of the Soviet system; her maturity was spent caring for the victims of its residual legatees in Belarus. They will miss her, increasingly, for there will not be another like her. I shall miss her very particular brand of extreme eccentricity combined with humour and the touch of genius.
Vera Rich 24 April 1936-20 December 2009
For an appreciation of Vera and a full listing of her publications see here
Judith Vidal-Hall, editor Index 1993-2007