Into the Whirlwind – Eugenia Ginzberg

This is one of those books that I find more horrifying than the scariest fiction. The word Kafkaesque describes Into the Whirlwind perfectly. It’s the story of a woman’s physical & mental endurance in circumstances that would & did crush many people.

Eugenia Ginzburg (known as Jenny) lived a comfortable life in the Soviet Union in the 1930s. She was a member of the Communist Party, married to the Mayor of Kazan. She had two children & was a teacher & writer, working on the journal, Red Tartary. When she is arrested, she assumes it’s a mistake. Her belief in the Party is absolute & she can’t believe that she can be arrested for something she hasn’t done. She’s accused of not reporting the seditious actions of a colleague & her interrogators refuse to believe that she didn’t know of his activities or recognize that they were seditious. This is the beginning of her personal nightmare & the beginning of the purge of intellectuals that was undertaken by Stalin in the 1930s. She was interrogated, imprisoned, thrown out of the Party, & spent the next seventeen years in jail or in prison camps in Siberia, separated from her family & reliant on her own strength to survive.

Her interrogations are almost surreal as she refuses to admit anything & refuses to sign the fabricated confessions she is offered. She has no idea what has become of her family &, as time goes on, she can only be grateful for the fact that her arrest came before the order allowing the torture of suspects was passed. Even so, at one stage she is sentenced to five days in complete darkness in a filthy cell far underground where she can hear rats.Her initial stint of solitary confinement is eased when overcrowding means that she shares her cell with Julia, a woman she knew from the outside. This companionship & the tapping code that enables the women to communicate with the prisoners in nearby cells alleviates the mental torment but the physical privations – lack of exercise, poor food & the heat or cold in inadequate clothing –  are difficult to bear.

Almost worse than all these is the lack of books. Eventually they’re allowed to borrow books from the prison library but then have to contrive to stay awake all night to read them. There’s not enough light in the cell to read during the day but the guards leave the lights on all night as an additional torture. Jenny & Julia manage to sleep during the day by pretending to be reading & read at night by hiding the books under their blankets. All these contrivances are fascinating to read about & the triumph for the prisoners of outwitting the guards keeps their spirits up.

Nothing is simpler to explain the profound effect of books on a prisoner’s mind by the absence of outward stimulants. But this is not quite all there is to it. Isolation from everyday life and from its rat-race favours a kind of spiritual lucidity. Sitting in a cell, you don’t chase after the phantom of worldly success, you don’t play the diplomat or the hypocrite, you don’t compromise with your conscience. You can be wholly concerned with the highest problems of existence, and you approach them with a mind purified by suffering.

From Yaroslavl, Jenny is transferred to Kolyma & from there to the prison camps of the far east in Siberia where she is sent on to the camp at Kolyma where she almost died felling trees on a work gang. Each stage of the journey is worse than the one before & Jenny looks back to the previous stage almost with nostalgia as the conditions get worse with every change. As a political prisoner, charged with failing to disclose terrorist activities, she is very low in the hierarchy, looked down upon by other prisoners & derided for her bourgeois attitudes. Many times I wondered how Jenny kept going. The interminable train journey east to the camp in an overcrowded truck; the many times she almost died from exhaustion or disease but survived due to luck or the kindness of a stranger; the sheer inhumanity of the system that had imprisoned her in the first place which is outside the comprehension of any sane person. It’s a humbling experience to read a testimony like this & amazing to think that Jenny had the almost total recall she displays in setting down her experiences.

The Afterword to the Persephone edition is interesting in the perspective it brings to the book. Rodric Braithwaite is a former British ambassador to Moscow & he saw a play based on the book while he was in Russia. There have been those who disputed some of the details of Jenny’s account but I think it would be unbelievable if she didn’t get details wrong. A memoir like this is naturally subjective & others have thought that she had just too much good luck in the people she knew & the comparatively easy time she had. If Jenny’s imprisonment was easy, I would hate to read about a harsh imprisonment. Her incredible mental strength & her inner resources kept her going through the worst mental agony of not knowing the fate of her family. She was at least able to write to her mother some of the time & they worked out a code that would get past the censors so she did know a little about her children but her imprisonment & exile lasted for seventeen years & she never saw her eldest son, Alyosha, after her arrest. He died in the siege of Leningrad in 1941. Even after her initial sentence was over, she had to stay in Siberian exile for a further five years & wasn’t finally rehabilitated until 1955, after Stalin’s death. Into the Whirlwind is about the first few years of her sentence. Ginzburg wrote a sequel, Within the Whirlwind, which continues the story of her exile & was published after her death.

While I was reading Into the Whirlwind I was reminded of an extract from a book I read in a Reader’s Digest anthology over 30 years ago. My Dad collected the Reader’s Digest condensed books but this was slightly different, an anthology of short extracts from many books. It was bound in white with gold lettering & I only remember one piece, just a few pages long, which I must have read hundreds of times. It was the story of a woman (Edith?), imprisoned in Eastern Europe. She was in solitary confinement & passed the time by reciting all the poetry she could remember & by walking through Europe in her mind while pacing her cell to keep herself fit. She had worked out how many circuits of her cell added up to a mile & she recreated the journeys she had made when she was free. I would love to know what this book was if anyone can tell me.

10 thoughts on “Into the Whirlwind – Eugenia Ginzberg

  1. Thank you for eviewing this book, Lynn. I am terrified by these camps after having seen one – a Nazi one – when I was seven. But people must know about them. This is a beautiful account of the book. I read it in French and did not know it had been translated in English.
    I remember my father, when we visited this Nazi camp, telling me about the way culture helped the prisoners survive as the one you mention in the last paragraph. I don't know this book and cannot tell you the title, but I know several prisoners did the same or almost the same. Chilling and uplifting at the same time: the power of culture over barbary.
    Thank you.

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  2. Yes, I think keeping the mind active was essential in such dehumanizing conditions. I don't know how anyone survived such places let alone being able to write so eloquently about it.

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  3. I've heard of Grossman's book but haven't read it. I think the insanity of the system would have been the hardest thing to accept. How could you be imprisoned for something you hadn't done & wasn't illegal the day before anyway?

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  4. Oh dear, you're a very bad influence! I was one click away from buying this but I've put it in my wishlist (as I'm not supposed to be buying books at the moment) & compromised by ordering the BBC Radio version for my library's eAudiobook collection instead. Did you listen to this? Was it any good? Excellent cast – Kenneth Branagh, David Tennant. I've just listened to the sample & was not happy when it ended!

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  5. Sorry! I didn't think of that! If I were you, I would read it first. I think the audio will be very good, but so much is what is going on in people's heads – you'd miss that.It would be better not to know what is going to happen when you read the book.

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  6. I did think it would be better to read the book first, it usually is. So, I'll buy the book (when I start buying again) & listen to the radio version later.

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  7. I have long heard of Ginzberg but have yet to read anything by her. These stories of imprisonment in the Soviet Union are terrifying, but I do feel I must read her, especially after your review.

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