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 interrogators.
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 elated.
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 camp.
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 more.”