Behind-the-scenes accounts of the lives of normal people in Stalin’s Russia are few and far between, so it’s a privilege to have read Eugenia Ginzburg’s memoirs of life as a victim of the period. Into the Whirlwind is a sobering and harrowing testament of one woman’s experience in the prison camp system, and it fills a notable gap – studies of the Soviet Union too often focus around facts and figures, and it’s easy to overlook the individual lives that were affected and the stories they have to tell.
The first few chapters of the book set the scene of Eugenia Ginzburg’s seemingly idyllic lifestyle – she is a member of the communist party, an assistant professor at Kazan University, married to a party official and a mother of two young boys. Yet her respectable standing in society and affiliation to the communist party, far from protecting her from the mass-persecution surrounding Stalin’s 1937 ‘Year of Terror’, make her a prime target.
Her journey ‘into the whirlwind’ begins in December 1934 after the murder of Sergey Kirov, a high-ranking member of the politburo; Kirov’s death becomes a trigger for Stalin’s repression which sweeps across the country through the mid to late 1930s. For the next few years, Ginzburg lives life with bated breath – many of her colleagues and acquaintances are arrested and, following instances of summons and questioning, she knows it is only a matter of time until she too is taken from her family.
The arrest comes, finally, in February 1937 – a fact for which in retrospect she is strangely grateful: she knows the policies for arrest and interrogation became more and more violent as the year went on and that her early arrest spared her this. The reason for her arrest is, as with many of the policies and procedures of the time, entirely illogical and irrational. She is accused among other things of being a member of a terrorist group which she and the interrogators know is non-existent. The techniques of the interrogators are gruelling and sly – they question her about her association with people she knows and invent stories about their disloyalty to the party to convince her to speak against them. Throughout all the interrogations, wise to their plans, Ginzburg remains dignified and calm, admitting to none of the charges made against her or her acquaintances – despite the threats and in the knowledge that her refusal will drag her deeper ‘into the whirlwind’.
What follows is the irrational result of this strong woman’s display of unwavering loyalty and consistency in her values. Having been interrogated and tortured without succumbing, she is sentenced to 10 years in a prison camp. The most striking aspect of her account of the years she spent in prison is her creative techniques for emotional survival. Ripped from her comfortable family, she is desperate to maintain some contact with them – to achieve this and get past the censors, she and her mother write their letters in code, referring to Ginzburg herself as the third-person ‘Eva’, and to other members of her family in a similarly coded way. Their letters pass back and forth undetected and Jenny is able to stay in close contact with her family for some months. Later, in solitary confinement, Ginzburg and the prisoners in neighbouring cells invent a tapping code, to communicate through the walls without speaking or seeing each other. Through this, she comes to know the other prisoners as friends, even though some of them she never meets. These ingenious methods of communication are a lifeline, particularly during the earlier years of her imprisonment.
Throughout the account, poetry features heavily: Ginzburg often quotes from Russian poets to encompass her thoughts and feelings (when her life is spared and she is sentenced to 10 years in prison she feels at last she fully comprehends Pasternak’s line, ‘Penal servitude – what bliss!’). A compelling remark she makes in an earlier chapter highlights how, when the mind is deprived of all stimulations and distractions, memory and the ability to recollect become sharper and finer – after weeks and months in a prison cell, she finds herself able to recite whole verses and poems from books she had studied at school. When a prison guard, overhearing her recitations during the long train journey to the Far East, is convinced she has smuggled a book into the train wagon, he threatens the whole group of women jammed into the wagon with punishment cell conditions. Ginzburg responds by fluently reeling off pages and pages of ‘Evgeny Onegin’, until he is mollified. Her talent for memorising is of immense and deep comfort to her and her fellow-prisoners, demonstrating both the durability of verse and the fortitude of the human mind under pressure.
The essence of this book is one innocent woman’s story of life, freedom and affluence being stripped away from her, and replaced with a life where mere survival is the focus – a life where every scrap of bread, every half-cup of dirty water and every fishbone sewing needle is a means of simply carrying on. It is a story of what is left when all she knows and loves is snatched away – what of her remains, what she turns to, and who she becomes. Eugenia Ginzburg’s story is an incredible example of human stamina and perseverance, and as well as detailing the cruel and unspeakable political regime of the time, her account will challenge you – it offers a new outlook on life, a perspective most of us will never have explored and a simple appreciation of living in the real freedom we all too often take for granted.
Eugenia Ginzburg’s Into the Whirlwind is available from Persephone Books, priced £12.