Journey into the Whirlwind – Eugenia Semyonovna Ginzburg

Eugenia Semyonovna Ginzburg, born in 1896, is not quite thirty when her
narrative begins in December 1934. She is the wife of a high-ranking member of
the Communist Party’s Tartar Province Committee, as well as a mother to two
young sons. She has a teaching position at a Communist university in Kazan and
works for the local Communist newspaper, Red Tartary. She is,
by all accounts, an extremely loyal party member, and she admits she would have
been willing “to die for the Party” before she was expelled from it. Even after
her eighteen-year imprisonment, she says she remains an ordinary Communist woman
at heart, and she still takes pride at being called a comrade. Her unjust
incarceration poisons her only against the sadistic prison warden and the
barbarians who serve as interrogators. From the first page of the memoir,
however, Ginzburg reveals her secret dislike of Stalin, calling it a “vague
disquiet.” Publicizing such an opinion would have been impossible for Ginzburg
in those dangerous years leading up the Great Purge of 1937, and we must wonder
whether it is Ginzburg the reflective narrator or Ginzburg the woman of not yet
thirty who senses in Stalin something less than the hero he was to become in
Russia.
In stark contrast to the questionable ethics of those around her,
Ginzburg’s own moral core seems unassailable. Her reasons for not confessing to
a crime she did not commit are poignant, and they seem even more remarkable as
so many people around her weaken and confess. She carefully withholds judgment
for those who, under torture, can no longer hold out. Ginzburg is also honest in
admitting she was fortunate to miss the worst of Stalin’s terrors. She escaped
many of the painful physical tortures the interrogators later devised for
prisoners, suffering “only” a rash of psychological tortures. Still, even the
most standard and commonplace torments of a Soviet-era prison were soul shaking,
and Ginzburg’s steadfastness in the face of constant pressure is inspiring.
Ginzburg constantly exudes a solidity of presence and a grounded nature that
emphasizes the unscrupulousness of her captors.
Ginzburg possesses not just the moral imperative to tell her story but
also a passion for language, a writer’s gift for observation, and an astonishing
memory. She turns her clearheaded perceptions of the atrocities of prison life
into riveting and vivid imagery. Despite her gift for painfully beautiful
phrasing and the occasional rhetorical flourish, she is never so sentimental or
subjective as to seem dishonest, and the narrative is generally very
straightforward. Ginzburg tells her story with a rawness that is not at all
dated. She employs her warm sense of humor, investing even the dreariest and
most inhumane scenarios with a lighthearted human touch, such as when she laughs
over her cellmate’s paranoia that a crevice in the wall is really a secret spy
hole. Ginzburg’s genial and evenhanded prose suggests that her survival secret
was not just to preserve her body but also to safeguard the kernel of humanity
implicit in humor, puns, artistic allusions, and compassion even for one’s
enemies.
Though she is a real historical figure, Ginzburg has all the trappings of
a classic literary heroine, and her narration is as rich and engaging as any
classic work of fiction. Ginzburg is communicative, compassionate, and genuinely
concerned for those around her. She is also intelligent, well read, and loyal to
those who are loyal to her. It’s easy to see why Ginzburg, fluent in several
languages, was able to make so many friends in such a short time, and how she
was able to parlay those associations into so many turns of good fortune. Like
any good literary heroine, Ginzburg is no self-contained protagonist but rather
exists to reflect upon the lives of those around her. Her awareness of
everything around her is one aspect of Ginzburg’s personality that makes her
memoir so compelling as well as such a damning account of Stalin’s prison era.
Ginzburg is constantly looking around, observing her surroundings, even feeling
the walls and floors in the dark when she is thrown into a pitch-black
punishment cell. She strives deliberately to commit verses and lines of dialogue
to memory so that she can later draw upon a mental reservoir of facts. Ginzburg
is, as she presents herself in this memoir, the perfect narrator for an account
of a prison system that, because so many of its victims disappeared, needed one
witness who was able to speak eloquently and knowledgably on behalf of so
many.