An understanding of Eugenia Ginzburg’s memoir, Journey into the Whirlwind, begins with an understanding of the fallout from the Russian Revolution of 1917. After the revolution, the Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin spoke up about the presence of “enemies of the people” within the government. These class enemies, he said, were no better than criminals and therefore must be imprisoned. Thousands of state officials were accused of corruption, and both political dissidents and innocent people were carted off to labor camps and prisons. By 1930, this system of labor camps was known as the Gulag, a name that has since sent chills up and down the spines of millions of people in Russia and beyond. The Gulag was both the government’s answer to the question of how to punish its political criminals and a solution to the nation’s growing need for cheap labor. Prisoners of the Gulag were sent into exile in Siberia and put to work, toiling in backbreaking and often fatal conditions. Meanwhile, the rest of the population lived in a state of terror, afraid to make the slightest criticism of a government that was perpetuating such atrocities.
The Gulag peaked in intensity during the late 1930s, when Journey into the Whirlwind is set. During this time, the Soviet Union, under the rule of the Communist leader Joseph Stalin, underwent a period of intense repression, mass imprisonment, and penal executions known as the Great Purge. By 1938, after the Great Purge was over, almost two million people had been incarcerated. The Communist Party leadership visited horrifying punishment on these individuals in order to prevent government opposition from rising. Anyone who was seen as a potential threat to the party, even if the charges could not be proved, was arrested, thrown in prison, sent off to remote areas to work in a labor camp, or executed.
Journey into the Whirlwind, published in 1967, is the first of Ginzburg’s two books detailing her eighteen years in the prison system following her arrest during the Great Purge. It begins with a few ominous pages describing the air of fear in late 1934, then recounts her arrest, interrogation, trial, incarceration, and subsequent movement from prison to prison, ending with her time in the Kolyma camps at the easternmost edge of Siberia. There, the guards subjected Ginzburg and her fellow prisoners to barbaric tortures, forcing them to fell trees in frigid temperatures and on empty stomachs and to live in the most primitive and unsanitary of conditions. Historians believe approximately five million people were forced to work in Kolyma during the height of the Gulag’s existence, most of them “political criminals” like Ginzburg. Only an incredibly small number of them, perhaps as low as 2 or 3 percent, survived the experience. In the second installment of her memoir, Within the Whirlwind, Ginzburg picks up where she leaves off in the first book, when she becomes a medical attendant at a prison facility. This reassignment is a “lucky break,” saving her from the hell of Kolyma and imminent death.
Ginzburg narrates her story with heartbreaking emotion as well as the perfectly framed observations of a seasoned writer and intellectual. Prior to her arrest, Ginzburg was a professor specializing in Communism at a top Soviet university, as well as a published author with connections to the local party paper, Red Tartary. Her considerable mental power and strength of character are evident everywhere in the book, from her poetry recitations to her sly plots to trick the guards to her unshakable moral compass. Ginzburg herself is an inspiring character, a longtime Communist with devout party loyalties who refuses to give in to the interrogators’ soul-shaking tortures. Having been unfairly accused, she clings to her innocence and does not let even the terror of the prison system diminish her joy at being called “comrade.” But Ginzburg’s own inspirational narrative is set against the backdrop of the stories of less scrupulous characters, including fellow purge victims-turned-informants and “real” (not political) criminals. The real villains of the book, of course, are the interrogators and vicious guards, many of whom later fall prey to the purge themselves. Ginzburg’s memoir is astonishing for its clear-eyed vision of the cruelties man is capable of visiting upon his fellow man.
Journey into the Whirlwind is also striking in its conclusion that, while man can sink to incredible moral lows, he can also become transcendent in the medium of art. During her eighteen years in the worst of prisons, Ginzburg revels in the fast friendships she is able to cultivate even in the darkest circumstances, and poetry is a tie that binds her strongly to her fellow inmates. Ginzburg is a fierce lover of poetry, and words and poems are her prison saviors. Russian culture is famous for prizing its poets and artists, who have for centuries sung beautifully about the horrors of war, hate, death, and other grim realities. Ginzburg’s own memoir falls in neatly with that tradition, even referencing several famous Russian poets. Though its subject is a truth so appalling it can sometimes seem unbelievable, the prose in which that truth is rendered makes for a uniquely compelling read.
The ability to communicate is the last and most valuable quality one can possess, a truth made even more poignant by the fact that Ginzburg, who died in Moscow in 1977, did not live to see her memoirs published in her native country. However, her words have lived on. In Journey into the Whirlwind, Ginzburg insists that the lives of the millions killed by Stalin and his henchmen must not be forgotten but instead should be retold and remembered. By telling her own story, she effectively enters those millions of other stories into the annals of history. Her book is a document testifying to the incredible tenacity of the human spirit. It evidences the sheer force of the human will to survive even the most degrading and abysmal conditions—and to emerge all the stronger for it.