The author and narrator. Ginzburg is a loyal Communist Party member, historian, writer, mother, and wife with a passion for poetry and a writer’s gift for observation and memorization. Her clearheaded perception of the atrocities of prison life is fuel for her strong moral imperative to survive the injustices she is forced to suffer.
Ginzburg’s husband and a leading member of the Tartar Province Committee. Aksyonov stands by his wife throughout the time leading to her arrest. Later, he, too, is arrested, as Ginzburg learns in prison.
Ginzburg’s elder son and one of the couple’s two children. Alyosha is nine years old in 1935, when the story begins. Ginzburg never sees him again after being taken to jail.
Ginzburg’s younger son. When the book begins in 1935, Vaska is two.
A friend and colleague of Ginzburg and a member of the party’s municipal committee. Before the start of Ginzburg’s memoir, Elvov writes a chapter of a book on the history of the Bolsheviks that Stalin later denounces as containing “Trotskyist ideas.” After Kirov’s death, Elvov is arrested on suspicion of being a Trotskyist. Ginzburg’s association with Elvov results in her arrest and trial.
The office typist at Red Tartary. Alexandrovna advises Ginzburg to admit her guilt, but Ginzburg does not listen.
Ginzburg’s first interrogator. Redheaded Comrade Beylin meets Ginzburg for the first time at Livadia, the regional committee’s country villa.
Another of Ginzburg’s interrogators. Malyuta works alongside Beylin, playing “bad cop” to Beylin’s “good cop.”
Ginzburg’s mother-in-law. Aksyonova is a simple peasant woman, but she seems to understand better than Ginzburg the dangers lying in wait. Ginzburg refers to her as “Grandmother.”
The editor of the History of the All-Union Communist Party, to which Elvov contributed his ill-fated article on the Bolsheviks. Yaroslavsky somehow escapes persecution himself and becomes one of Ginzburg’s tormentors.
Ginzburg’s companion on the train back to Moscow after her summons by Beylin. Makarova prevents Ginzburg from committing suicide by restraining Ginzburg when she is about to jump off the train.
A former student of Ginzburg’s. Biktashev serves as secretary of the Kazan committee, which expels his onetime teacher from the party.
The NKVD official who calls Ginzburg in after her expulsion from the party and pronounces her under arrest. Vevers has a chilling grimace, which, as Ginzburg later learns, all interrogators are forced to practice in the mirror.
Ginzburg’s cellmate in the cellars at Black Lake. Lyama, whose real name is Lydia, had worked for the Chinese–Far Eastern Railway, but, upon her return, she was arrested as a spy, like so many other CFER workers.
Ginzburg’s interrogator in the cellars at Black Lake. Livanov cheers Ginzburg briefly with his seemingly placid demeanor, his Kazan accent, and his old-fashioned speech patterns, but Ginzburg soon realizes how devoted Livanov is to his work.
The State Security Lieutenant. Like many other officials at Black Lake, Tsarevsky is maniacal and sadistic.
The deceptively kind-looking interrogator who asks Ginzburg to write out her confession. Later, Yelshin passes through Kolyma as a prisoner while Ginzburg is working in the kitchen.
A fellow prisoner at Black Lake. Sagidullin is a Leninist who was arrested in 1933 and occupies the cell next to Ginzburg’s, often tapping on their shared wall.
The third prisoner in Ginzburg’s jail cell, along with Lyama. Ira is a postgraduate student whom Ginzburg saw once or twice at the university.
Another interrogator at Black Lake.
A former writer on Ginzburg’s staff at Red Tartary. Dyakonovis brought in as a witness against Ginzburg while she is being held at Black Lake.
Another staff member of Red Tartary. Kozlova is also brought in as a witness against Ginzburg and calmly signs her statement.
A fellow prisoner whom Ginzburg speaks to on the Black Maria. Yefrem and Ginzburg first knew each other when he was a postgraduate student at the Marxist Institute.
A fellow inmate at the Krasin Street prison. Big Anna is in jail for telling political jokes.
Another inmate at the Krasin Street prison. Lydia is a seasoned prisoner, having been incarcerated many times.
A party activist and another inmate at Krasin Street.
Yet another inmate at Krasin Street. Nina is an honest working girl who is in jail for failing to report overhearing a joke about Stalin.
Another Krasin Street inmate, who was arrested along with her son.
The wife of the head of the Council of the People’s Commissars of the Tartar Republic. Zina, as she is known, seems bewildered by her first experience in prison and is convinced she is going to be released. Instead, the interrogators beat her.
A biologist and orthodox party member who shares the Black Maria with Ginzburg. In a twist of fate, Julia later becomes Ginzburg’s cellmate at Yaroslavl.
Another passenger in the Black Maria. Rimma caves and signs whatever the interrogators put before her.
Ginzburg’s roommate in the Pugachev Tower and a fellow historian. Anna has already spent time in the Lubyanka prison, and her outlook on her future is very grim.
A cheerful cellmate in the Pugachev Tower.
Ginzburg’s name for the sadistic senior warder in Yaroslavl prison.
A prison guard at Yaroslavl. Yaroslavsky brings Ginzburg and Julia their requested books and has a kindly, youthful appearance.
The new prison governor of Yaroslavl, whose real name Ginzburg never learns. Instead, she gives him the nickname “Vulturidze” after a vulturelike character in a film who kills the “dovelike” heroine.
A strong, articulate woman who is elected the starosta, or spokesperson, of Car 7.
One of the passengers in Car 7. Tanya suffers from pellagra, and the other women fear she will die before they reach Kolyma. Tanya resolves to make it to the destination alive, and she succeeds.
Another inmate of Car 7. Tamara demands increased water rations from the guards but in vain. She is later racked by guilt when two other inmates are punished as a result of her demands.
The officer in charge of the women in Car 7.
One of the Car 7 inmates from Suzdal prison, another solitary confinement facility for women. Lena recognizes Ginzburg as an old acquaintance from Moscow.
A prison trusty in the transit camp. Vasek alerts Ginzburg when she is about to be taken to Kolyma.
Ginzburg’s doctor in the Magadan camp infirmary. Dr. Klimenko is married to an NKVD investigator and has a very kindly disposition. She takes it upon herself to nurse Ginzburg back to health after a near-fatal bout with illness.
The team leader at Kolyma who is responsible for assigning the prisoners to work. Verka takes Ginzburg’s colorful jacket and, in return, assigns her to do comfortable, easy work in the guesthouse. Later, in response to a monetary bribe, she assigns Ginzburg to the kitchen in the male compound.
One of the men awaiting deportation from Kolyma in the guesthouse where Ginzburg works. Rudolf takes a liking to Ginzburg and, along with his friends, gives her money to bribe the prison guard into giving her light work.
A deaf Volga German man who works alongside Ginzburg in the prison kitchen. Helmut grows fond and protective of Ginzburg after she makes an effort to communicate with him by writing things down.
A doctor who performs medical inspections at Elgen. Dr. Petukhov recognizes Ginzburg as the relative of one of his good friends and arranges for her to become a medical attendant in the children’s home, despite her lack of medical training.