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.