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Journey into the Whirlwind

Eugenia Ginzburg

Important Quotations Explained

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Key Facts

1. Don’t you know he’s been arrested? Can you imagine anyone’s being arrested unless there’s something definite against him?

These words, from Part One, Section 3, are spoken by a nameless speaker at a party meeting at the Red Tartary office just after Elvov’s arrest. When Ginzburg finds herself accused of not doing enough to condemn Elvov in the first place, her protests are met with indignation and anger. Again and again, the other party members ask her why she did nothing to indicate that Elvov was not to be trusted. When Ginzburg tries to use common sense, explaining that no one else had criticized Elvov prior to his arrest and that he was even an elected municipal leader, the party officials refuse to listen to reason. Finally, Ginzburg asks them how they even know, for certain, that Elvov is guilty. That’s when they explode, asking, “Can you imagine anyone’s being arrested unless there’s something definite against him?” This question epitomizes the atmosphere at the time, in which anyone accused was considered guilty beyond question. A trial was a mere formality, as in Ginzburg’s own case. The accusers would not listen to reason and would not even consider the possibility of innocence. Once someone was accused, he or she was tainted, and the stain of that person’s possible offense could never be washed off.

This quote is part of a series of questions and answers. Ginzburg presents much of her confrontation with the party leaders in detail, providing a sort of transcript of the meeting. One of the effects of doing so is to elicit a feeling of outrage. The party’s answers are so clearly inane that no reasonable person today could find them adequate. No one could find their reasoning sufficient justification for imprisoning a person, let alone sentencing him or her to prison for years or possibly executing him. Ginzburg’s method of quoting the party leader’s responses is an effective rhetorical device as well as a clever means of letting the facts speak for themselves.

2. There are no more fervent friendships than those made in prison.

This statement from Part One, Section 19, comes just after Ginzburg is taken to interrogation and separated from Lyama and Garey and underscores one of the book’s central themes: it is human nature to reach out for companionship and communication. Again and again, Ginzburg pays homage to those with whom she endured the horrors of prison and with whom, as a result, she became friends. She writes effusively, almost sentimentally, about the people who affected her during her incarceration. We get to know characters such as Lyama and Julia very well, and their personalities and experiences reflect Ginzburg’s own. Prison cells have no mirrors, but cellmates can function as both friend and reflection. Julia and Ginzburg often remark on each other’s wasted appearance, and Ginzburg’s frequent descriptions of other women’s dirty hair, misaligned teeth, peeling skin, and emaciated bodies reveals her own probable physical condition. Ginzburg also reserves a tone of awe for the women who, despite their imprisonment, manage to retain their outward femininity, letting their hair grow long or flashing their eyes “like diamonds.”

Given this intensive scrutiny of cellmates, intense relationships are inevitable. Ginzburg grows to call Lyama her “sister,” and there is an overwhelming sense that many of the other female inmates become like a family to Ginzburg, standing in for the real family she has lost. When the male prisoners arrive at the transit camp, the women inevitably fall passionately in love with many of them, seeing in them traces of their absent lovers, fathers, and sons. Ginzburg herself admits that she sees her husband in many of their faces. It is human nature to desire connections with others, and nowhere is that desire more insistent than in prison, where it is so often thwarted.

3. As I lay awake on my plank bed, the most unorthodox thoughts passed through my mind—about how thin the line is between high principles and blinkered intolerance, and also how relative are all human systems and ideologies and how absolute the tortures which human beings inflict on one another.

This passage comes in Part One, Section 20, as Ginzburg lies on her plank bed at the Krasin Street prison. She has recently been transported from the hellish cellars at Black Lake and has just received a box of cigarettes in a package from her mother. Because she does not smoke, she offers them to a fellow inmate who is a Social Revolutionary. The woman thanks Ginzburg but then asks a fellow Social Revolutionary if she should accept cigarettes from a Communist. The answer she receives is “No,” and so she refuses Ginzburg’s offer. Later, as Ginzburg drifts off to sleep, she considers the steadfastness, even the stupidity, with which some people hold to their ideals. Her cellmate, a desperate cigarette smoker, will suffer through her withdrawal in order to avoid something as benign as taking cigarettes from an enemy. Ginzburg, however, has no qualms about offering a source of comfort to a fellow prisoner, even one whose political views she disagrees with. She sees no reason for the prisoners to erect artificial walls of prejudice when so many real walls already exist around them. Her cellmate’s “blinkered intolerance” is little more than bias, an unwillingness to separate a person’s compassion from his or her political ideologies.

When Ginzburg speaks of “the tortures which human beings inflict on one another,” she is speaking not just of the physical tortures visited upon the inmates by the interrogators or the prison guards. She is also speaking of the hurts and discriminations prisoners visit on fellow prisoners. People of varying cultures, backgrounds, ideologies, and religions fill the prisons, and Ginzburg accurately describes the multiplicity and relativity of belief systems. She makes clear that in addition to the diversity of ethnic backgrounds and languages being spoken, there is the attendant diversity of political ideologies. People do not separate themselves solely on the basis of cultural affiliations, religion, or ancestry but also on the basis of moral doctrines and ideologies. Yet as Ginzburg points out, at least one universal constant exists: the willingness of men and women from all walks of life to use those differences as justification for bullying others.

4. I intended to survive. Just to spite them.

This remark appears in Part One, Section 30, just after Ginzburg receives her ten-year prison sentence. The judges’ decision turns out to be, contrary to all expectations, a reprieve from the death sentence Ginzburg has been dreading. She is, at least for the moment, overjoyed, and she wants to do everything in her power to outlive the judges who have put her in prison. Ginzburg believes there is no way there can be ten more years of the same repression. She is certain some of the party leadership will come together and rise up against the injustices being committed on so many of the party’s members. Now that she has avoided death, she wants to endure prison long enough to see the day when she and other innocent victims are liberated.

This quote reveals Ginzburg’s fierce determination to endure the torments of prison life as well as her sense of humor even in the darkest moments. There is an impertinent, almost mischievous tone to the statement, “Just to spite them,” and Ginzburg describes herself earlier in this passage as being “cheerful,” much to the amazement of the wardens and the wardress setting out Ginzburg’s dinner. Ginzburg is deeply serious about her conviction, but she also has the strength, creativity, and wit necessary to endure her hellish circumstances. The idea of survival is at the heart of Journey into the Whirlwind. Throughout the memoir are many examples of prisoners who succumb to the horrors of confinement and die, but there are also many brave inmates who, despite being ferociously ill, survive by sheer force of will. Tanya, for instance, survives the long train journey into eastern Russia despite appearing to be close to death. Although everyone else in Car 7 believes she’ll die, Tanya assures them she’ll make it to the end of the line—and she does. Intoning a statement such as “I intended to survive” seems to be almost enough to make it true.

5. It’s penal servitude—what bliss!

This exclamation appears in Part One, Section 30, and is one of the most important phrases in the book. Ginzburg borrows the line from a poem by Boris Pasternak called “Lieutenant Schmidt.” The entire passage, which Ginzburg includes, reads: “The indictment stretched, mile on mile, / Pit-shafts mark our weary way. / We greet out sentence with a smile— / It’s penal servitude! What bliss!”

Pasternak’s poem is understandably appealing to Ginzburg after her own experience before the military tribunal and her ten-year prison sentence. Because she was anticipating a death sentence, she does indeed feel that a term of penal servitude is “bliss” in comparison. Ginzburg, like Pasternak, smiles when she hears her sentence. Moreover, her own text, in the wake of her sentence, is punctuated with exclamation points. Ginzburg even takes Pasternak’s line as the title of a subsection because she feels so closely allied to him and his own experience of sentencing.

After the initial appearance of the quotation, Ginzburg takes up Pasternak’s quotation as a refrain. She uses it again most notably at the start of her train journey to Kolyma. Her reassignment to the labor camp is, at least while it is still in the future, an antidote to the stifling inactivity of solitary confinement. One of the horrors of the prison enclosure at Yaroslavl is that is restricts the inmates’ access to fresh air and sunlight, so much so that Ginzburg starts to fantasize about being outside in the open air. Thus there is at least some earnestness to her quotation, “Penal servitude—what bliss!” Of course, through the lens of history, and through Ginzburg’s own knowledge of what actually happened, the quotation is also dripping with irony. There is certainly nothing blissful about the work Ginzburg does in the prison camps. In fact, while serving out the rest of her sentence, Ginzburg thinks back to her days in solitary confinement with “affection.” In that respect, Pasternak’s quote, as used by Ginzburg, symbolizes the ignorance that is bliss to the prisoner who does not know what is coming.

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