Journey into the Whirlwind – Plot Overview

Journey into the Whirlwind,Eugenia Ginzburg’s
memoir of her imprisonment during the era of Stalin’s purges, is divided into two
parts. Part One details her arrest, trial, and two years of solitary confinement.
Part Two deals with her reassignment to Kolyma, a group of Gulag prison camps deep
in Siberia, at the easternmost edge of the country.
Part One begins with a phone call. It is December 1, 1934, and the voice on
the phone tells Ginzburg that someone has assassinated Kirov, the secretary of the
Communist Party’s General Committee. His murder generates paranoia about the
dissident political elements within the party, and the government tightens its grip
on society. Ginzburg is personally drawn into the fray when her old friend,
Professor Elvov, is arrested in 1935, for having written a chapter of a history book
with so-called Trotskyist undertones. Her association with Elvov places her under
intense suspicion. The party officials in Kazan, her hometown, are quick to accuse
her of failing to condemn Elvov’s disloyalty to the party. Ginzburg refuses to admit
her guilt and is called in for questioning by Comrade Beylin. Beylin and his
colleague Malyuta initially let Ginzburg off with a lesser charge of “insufficient
vigilance,” but soon Ginzburg finds herself facing a number of increasingly cruel
In 1936, Ginzburg, a fiercely devoted Communist, sees Stalin, the Communist
leader, for the first and only time in her life. Instead of idolizing Stalin,
however, she sees him as “ugly” and has a vision of his evil. Ginzburg then travels
to Moscow to appeal her case to the court at Ilyinka Street, where many other
accused people are waiting in line. Sidorov, a political commissar, is sympathetic
to Ginzburg’s plight, but in the end Ginzburg must turn in her party card, and,
eight days later, she is arrested by the sadistic Captain Vevers.
Ginzburg is incarcerated in the prison cellars at Black Lake Street, along
with a pretty young woman named Lyama. Ginzburg cannot stomach the foul-smelling
fish that is served as prison food, so Lyama eats both of their portions. Lyama
explains that it is important to find ways of communicating with the other
prisoners. The interrogators call Ginzburg in for continued questioning, using
techniques ranging from sleep deprivation to starvation, but Ginzburg continues to
refuse to admit guilt or to turn others in.
Ginzburg hears other prisoners knocking on the walls, and she remembers a page
from a book that explains the prison alphabet, a series of tapping noises. By
tapping and translating others’ taps, Ginzburg learns about the prison and its
inmates. She and Lyama get a new cellmate, Ira.
As part of the ongoing interrogation, Ginzburg’s former colleagues from the
magazine Red Tartary are called in to confront her. Ginzburg is
dismayed to learn that both Volodya Dyakonov and Nalya Kozlova have agreed to sign
the interrogators’ documents. Soon after, Ginzburg is taken to another prison, which
is dirtier but less strict. Ginzburg meets her new cellmates and a new system of
communication—spreading news throughout the prison by setting it to opera melodies
and singing. Before long, Ginzburg moves again, this time to Moscow. She and her
fellow inmates travel in coaches, like “human freight.” At the new prison, Butkryki,
Ginzburg hears the screams of prisoners being tortured.
Ginzburg appears before the military tribunal, fully expecting to receive the
death sentence. Instead, she is given ten years’ imprisonment. She is momentarily
After a brief stay at the Pugachev Tower, a facility for prisoners about to be
deported, Ginzburg is taken by train to Yaroslavl. There she serves two years, along
with her cellmate, Julia. At the end of the two years, Ginzburg’s prison sentence is
revised and she is reassigned, along with the other inmates, to a corrective labor
Part Two begins with a group of seventy-six female prisoners boarding Car
Number 7, a train compartment labeled “special equipment.” After a harrowing
monthlong journey in what is essentially a cattle car, the prisoners arrive at a
transit camp near Vladivostok. Here the women mingle, through barbed wire, with male
prisoners, gorging themselves on romantic emotion and searching for familiar faces.
Ginzburg spends a month at this camp before being taken by ship to Kolyma, deep in
the northeast region of Siberia.
Life aboard the SS Dzhurma is even more wretched than life in
Car 7 and Yaroslavl. Ginzburg falls deathly ill and is taken to the sick ward, where
ailing men and women are grouped together in very tight quarters. She goes in and
out of consciousness during the trip and comes to on land, in a warm pine bath
prescribed by a doctor. She is in the infirmary at Magadan camp and under the care
of a nurse who helps Ginzburg regain her health. When Ginzburg is well
again, she rejoins the other prisoners and is put to work.
Ginzburg bribes the team leader, who assigns the prisoners to various work
locations, and lands in the cozy environment of a guesthouse, where she does
housework. Later she works in the kitchen of the men’s quarters. Soon, her luck runs
out, however, and she is sent off with the convoy to the camp at Elgen, where she
must fell trees in frigid temperatures. During this time, death keeps knocking. But
she has another lucky break when a doctor performing a routine medical inspection on
Ginzburg recognizes her and says he knows her son. The doctor gets Ginzburg
reassigned as a medical attendant in a children’s home, rescuing her from the
often-fatal conditions of the camp at Elgen.
In a brief epilogue, Ginzburg writes that hers is merely “the story of an
ordinary Communist woman.” However, she also notes that during her imprisonment she
tried her best to observe and commit her observations to memory so that she
could one day tell of “the things that have been and shall be no