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Journey into the Whirlwind

Eugenia Ginzburg


Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols


The Will to Survive

In Journey into the Whirlwind, the will to survive perseveres despite all odds, even when those odds reduce the chance of survival nearly to zero. Many characters who seem close to death are able to battle, by sheer will, either to regain their strength or to hang on to life longer than anyone might have reasonably thought possible. Tanya, for example, seems about to expire at any moment during the train journey eastward, but she tells Ginzburg she’ll make it to the end of the journey—and she does. By actually giving voice to her determination, Tanya is able to make it a reality. Ginzburg, too, comes close to death several times, and each time there is an implicit echo of an early declaration: “I intended to survive. Just to spite them.” Having been spared the death sentence, Ginzburg makes it her goal simply to stay alive, and this fortitude drives her story forward.

The Desire for Companionship

Though at first it might seem ironic for a memoir that details the life of a woman in solitary confinement to be concerned with companionship, Ginzburg’s narrative testifies to the deep longing for connection between human beings. At the most fundamental level, Ginzburg’s memoir is about being thrown in prison, cut off from family, and separated in almost every way from society. As deprivation induces a desire to fill the void, a prisoner such as Ginzburg, particularly a prisoner in solitary confinement, naturally desires companionship. Such is the case whenever Ginzburg finds herself in a cell with another prisoner, both of them inevitably talking each other hoarse. Ginzburg also finds a great deal of comfort in reciting and reading poetry, which gives her the sense of communing with the outside world. Moreover, the crux of the Communist system, to which Ginzburg adheres even after her arrest, is communality. A real sense of companionship exists among the party members toward the beginning of the memoir, and real emotion fills Ginzburg’s tone whenever she writes the word comrade.

The Need for Communication

The fact that Ginzburg relates her experience to others in the form of a written narrative speaks to the intrinsic human desire to share significant experiences. Storytelling is a fundamental form of communication, and a published book is communication in a print medium, not so different from the tapping on the prison walls or singing news set to opera melodies, as Ginzburg does in prison. No matter how fierce the oppressors in any of the Soviet prisons, the prisoners still manage to find a way to communicate. Just as the poetry of great Russian writers inspires Ginzburg throughout her ordeal because they show her she is not alone, so is Ginzburg’s own memoir both a testimony to her experience and a sort of message in a bottle to future generations. On the levels of political ideology, storytelling, characterization, and historical reportage, communication between writer and sympathetic listener is at the heart of the memoir.



Russian poetry occupies a special place in Journey into the Whirlwind. Lines from a single poem recur throughout the text (“penal servitude—what bliss!”), and authors are cited or quoted from at length. Both Ginzburg and her fellow prisoners, from Garey in the cellars at Black Lake to the women on the train car, engage in the recitations. Russian culture is known for its brilliant literature, particularly when the subject is bleakness or gloominess, and it is fitting that Ginzburg should find at her mental disposal such a wealth of appropriate poems and texts. The countless poetic allusions show art to be an effective antidote to the depressing monotony of prison life. These allusions appeal to the private inner core, shielded from all else and unreachable even by the government’s long arm.

Motion and Stasis

Prison itself implies a literal stillness, an inability to move freely, and for much of the narrative, the concept of stasis is at the forefront. Even when Ginzburg is under suspicion of arrest but has not yet been arrested, she is confined to her house in Kazan or takes brief walks in circles around her neighborhood. This inability to move freely—or, more accurately, the mundane repetition of daily activities—contrasts the eastward, almost linear movement of the train carrying its special cargo. The competing concepts of movement and immobility characterize the life of a prisoner in Stalin’s Gulag. Prisoners must wait and wait in the prison cell until it is time to move, and they then move either to another cell, to trial, or to await an even worse fate.


Throughout Journey into the Whirlwind, Ginzburg uses food to emphasize narrative points and highlight moral themes. Ginzburg refuses the food her interrogators offer her under duress and refuses bread when she is locked in the punishment cell, demonstrating to her captors that the loss of her freedom does not mean she is without self-control. Elsewhere, Ginzburg uses gifts of food to depict generosity, such as when the merchants outside the train car thrust water, spring onions, and other foods into the prisoners’ hands. Perhaps the most notable appearance of food is near the book’s conclusion, when Ginzburg, having been subjected to bouts of forced as well as self-imposed starvation, finds herself working in the kitchen of the men’s camp at Kolyma. Now that she has a hand in food distribution, she is able to demonstrate her considerable compassion by sending a piece of bread out to the prisoner Yelshin, who, as her interrogator much earlier in the narrative, had taunted Ginzburg by offering a plate of ham and cheese sandwiches in exchange for her signed confession.


Phone Calls

Throughout Journey into the Whirlwind, phones and phone calls are emblematic of authority, the intrusion of the public into the private sphere, and the connectedness of the domestic and the official. Journey begins with a phone call that informs Ginzburg of Kirov’s death. Shortly thereafter, Ginzburg and her family wait anxiously for the phone call that will signal her imminent arrest. The shrill sound of the phone is also a perfect representation of the nervousness generated by the calls, combined with a sense of strident, piercing authority.


Two notable watches appear in Journey into the Whirlwind, and both suggest in some way that familiar time has come to an end. The first watch is a gift from Aksyonov to Ginzburg, and it falls into a snowbank as the husband and wife are taking a walk near their home. This occurs shortly before Ginzburg’s arrest and foreshadows the cessation of her life as she knows it. The loss of the watch augurs the period of Ginzburg’s life in which time passes not in minutes or hours but in the interminability of the prison cell. The second watch is confiscated from Ginzburg upon her arrival at the cellars at Black Lake, just after her arrest. When she receives the watch back later, before being transferred to the Krasin Street prison, she notices that it stopped the day of her arrest. The symbolic implication is, of course, that time stopped that day.

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