Natalya Gorbanevskaya’s “This, From The Diagnosis”

Moscow's Red Square
Moscow’s Red Square

Born in Moscow in 1936, Natalya Gorbanevskaya was a Russian poet famous for her political dissidence. She received international fame and attention after she and seven others protested peacefully in Moscow’s Red Square after the forceful Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia and the reformist Prague Spring in 1968. Gorbanevskaya was not immediately arrested, as she had just given birth, but went on to publish reports of the ensuing trial in the Chronicle of Current Events, a periodical she created and continued to write into the 1980’s. Arrested in 1969 for her dissidence, she was confined to a Soviet psychiatric prison until 1972. Gorbanevskaya, with her two sons in tow, emigrated to Paris in 1975, where French psychiatrists reversed her fabricated diagnosis of “continuous, sluggish schizophrenia.” Gorbanevskaya wrote and translated poetry until her death on November 29, 2013.

At first, it might be easy to see Gorbanevskaya’s poem, “This, From The Diagnosis,” as a personal response to her political “diagnosis” by the Serbsky Institute in 1970. Indeed, it is a response to the false claims made against her. In another way, however, her poem is more broadly accusatory, sweeping broad strokes at the century’s evils and the difficulty of speech and dissecting reality from truth.

This, From The Diagnosis


“The children’s fate doesn’t bother her.”

This, from the diagnosis,
rings out like a silvery clarinet,
has lost the colour of danger,
but my memory’s not been wiped clean of it.

It’s good when the breathing in the next room
is my sons’ and not a cell-mate’s;
it’s good to wake up, not groaning
at an envenomed reality.

It’s good not to feel the brain’s convolutions –
has there been a change? – is it yourself, isn’t it? –
not settling down to breathe in, from underneath the rubble
the dust of what, please God, is irrecoverable.

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