Irina Ratushinskaya was born in Odessa, Ukraine. Her father was Boris Leonidovich, an engineer, and her mother was Irina Valentinovna Ratushinsky, a teacher of Russian literature. She has one sister.
Her mother's family originated from Poland, and her grandfather was deported to Siberia shortly after the January Uprising, a Polish uprising against forced conscription in the Russian Army in 1863.
Irina was educated at Odessa University and was graduated with a master's degree in physics in 1976. Before her graduation she taught at a primary school in Odessa from 1975–78. She was poet in residence at Northwestern University.
She lives in Moscow with her husband, human rights activist Igor Gerashchenko, and two sons.
On September 17, 1982, Irina was arrested for anti-Soviet agitation. In April 1983, she was convicted of "agitation carried on for the purpose of subverting or weakening the Soviet regime", sentenced to seven years in a labor camp followed by five years of internal exile. She was released on October 9, 1986, on the eve of the summit in Reykjavík, Iceland between President Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. It was seen as a possible concession by the Soviet government to the West.
While imprisoned, Irina continued to write poetry. Her previous works usually centered on love, Christian theology, and artistic creation, not on politics or policies as her accusers stated. Her new works that were written in prison, which were written on soap until memorized and then washed away, number some 250. They expressed an appreciation for human rights; liberty, freedom, and the beauty of life. Her memoir, Grey is the Colour of Hope, chronicles her prison experience. Her later poems recount her struggles to endure the hardships and horrors of prison life. Irina is a member of International PEN, who monitored her situation during her incarceration.
In 1987, Irina moved to the United States, where she received the Religious Freedom Award from the Institute on Religion and Democracy. In the same year she was deprived of Soviet citizenship by Politburo. She also was the Poet in Residence at Northwestern University from 1987–89. She lived in London, UK until December 1998, when she returned to Russia to educate her children in Russian school after a year of procedures to restore Russian citizenship.
- Poems/Cтихи/Poèmes. 1984, Hermitage. ISBN 0-938920-54-5
- A Tale of Three Heads/сказка о трех головах. 1986, Hermitage. ISBN 0-938920-83-9
- Beyond the Limit. trans. Frances Padorr Brent, Carol J. Avins and . 1987, Northwestern University Press. ISBN 0-8101-0748-1
- Grey Is the Color of Hope. 1989, Vintage. ISBN 0-679-72447-8
- In the Beginning. 1991, Sceptre. ISBN 0-340-55083-X
- Dance With a Shadow. trans. David McDuff. 1992, Bloodaxe Books Ltd. ISBN 1-85224-232-9
- The Odessans. 1996, Sceptre. ISBN 0-340-66563-7
- Pencil Letter. 1997, Bloodaxe Books Ltd. ISBN 1-85224-050-4
- Fictions and Lies. trans. Alyona Kojevnikova. 1999, John Murray. ISBN 0-7195-5685-6
- Wind of the Journey. 2000, Cornerstone Pr Chicago. ISBN 0-940895-44-7
Sally Beamish has set some of her poems into music (No, I'm not afraid, 1998).
- "Irina Ratushinskaya Papers, 1979–1997". Wheaton College Archives & Special Collections. Retrieved March 8, 2011.
- Ewa Kuryluk (May 7, 1987). "An Interview with Irina Ratushinskaya". New York Review of Books. Retrieved March 17, 2012.
- Associated Press (October 19, 1986). "Dissident poet Iryna Ratushynska unexpectedly released from prison".
- Zambrano, Mark (May 25, 1986). "Young Soviet Poet May Be Dying in Gulag, Emigres Report". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved March 17, 2012.
- "We wrote a letter to Yeltsin, and then we packed our bags". The Independent. June 6, 1999. Retrieved March 17, 2012.
- An Interview with Irina Ratushinskaya, The New York Review of Books
- In a Haunting New Memoir, Poet Irina Ratushinskaya Recalls the Agonies of a Soviet Labor Camp, People Magazine
- We wrote a letter to Yeltsin, and then we packed our bags, The Independent
- Life In The `Small Zone`, (1986) Chicago Tribune
- Archive of Irina Ratushinskaya details
- Interview by Oleg Kashin to the journal "Russian Life", April 30, 2007 (in Russian)