Part 1, Chapter 1 Summary

A Telephone Call at Dawn

The year 1937 actually begins on December 1, 1934, when, at four o’clock in the morning, the telephone rings. Eugenia Semyonovna Ginzburg answers it. Her husband, Pavel Vasilyevich Aksyonov (a prominent leader of the Tartar Province Committee of the Party), is away on business and her children are sleeping peacefully in the next room.

The voice on the other end of the line summons her, as a member of the Party, to appear at the regional committee office at in two hours. She asks a question but the line is already dead; it is obvious that there is “some sort of serious trouble.”

Ginzburg leaves without waking anyone and walks through the dark, snow-covered streets. She reflects on her loyalty to the Party and her willingness to die for it, “not once but three times.” The only point on which she defers from the current, fashionable Party thinking is its reverence for Stalin; however, she keeps her “vague disquiet about him” to herself.

About forty of her fellow teachers, all Communists, have arrived before her. Lepa, the regional committee secretary, solemnly announces that Sergey Mironovich Kirov, a high-ranking Communist official, has been murdered. Lepa assigns the gathered members to address the workers at various factories, delivering the available news, which is not much.

Ginzburg conscientiously does what she is asked and speaks to workers at a textile mill, but her mind is full of thoughts. Back at the committee building, she sips tea in silence with Yestafyev, a fellow Party member. After a time, Yestafyev glances over his shoulder before leaning toward Ginzburg and, in a strange voice, tells her that Kirov’s murderer was a Communist. The words fill her with a “terrible foreboding of misfortune.”

Part 1, Chapter 2 Summary

The Red-Haired Professor

The long indictments against the men responsible for Kirov’s murder—Nikolayev, Rumyantsev, and Katalynov—are chilling, but no one has cause to doubt them because they are printed in Pravda and “it must therefore be true.” Soon, however, the repercussions begin to ripple like a stone in a pool.

In February 1935, Eugenia Semyonovna Ginzburg is visited by Professor Elvov. Elvov has been a teacher at Kazan University since a four-volume book, History of the All-Union Communist Party (Bolshevik), was published. Some “errors in its treatment of the theory of permanent revolution” in the chapter Elvov contributed, about the events in 1905, were discovered and publicly condemned by Stalin in a letter to the editor of a prominent publication. The letter characterized Elvov’s errors as devious attempts to impart “Trotskyist ideas.” Before Kirov’s assassination, such things were not treated as seriously as they are now, and Evlov was allowed to continue his teaching career and eventually become a Party leader.

Evlov is a striking man with curly red hair; his imposing figure is a sharp, surprising contrast to his intellectual capabilities. His brilliant lectures and speeches have made him “one of the most hated men in town” at the age of thirty-three. Today he sits in Ginzburg’s office, with his two-year-old son in his lap, and he is visibly shaken. (Ginzburg will later think she must look like Evlov did that day, full of “pain, anxiety, the weariness of a hunted animal, and… a half-crazy glint of hope.”)

Evlov wants Ginzburg to know that everything she will soon hear is lies; he did nothing against the Party. Ginzburg’s comfort is insipid because she does not understand the depth of this man’s trouble. She is startled when he tells her how sorry he is that her association with him may also get her in trouble....

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Part 1, Chapter 3 Summary


The next two years, 1935 to 1937, are a kind of prelude to the “symphony of madness and terror” which begin for Eugenia Ginzburg in 1937. Several days after Elvov’s arrest, she is at an editorial meeting at the offices of the Red Tartary and is accused of not doing something.

Ginzburg is accused of not denouncing Elvov’s dissemination of Trotskyist thinking, of not writing a scathing review of the book on Tartar history which he edited (in fact, she had contributed to it), and not openly criticized him at a public gathering. She tries to appeal to common sense, reminding her accusers that no one in the Party or the regional committee ever attacked him either, but her argument is disregarded.

When Ginzburg says that everyone trusted him enough to elect him to leadership, her accusers say she must answer only for herself. She is an educated woman and should have pointed out that Elvov’s Trotskyist thinking was wrong. When she asks if there is any actual proof that Elvov is a Trotskyist, the room erupts in righteous indignation and everyone points out that Elvov has been arrested so obviously he is.

Ginzburg will always remember this meeting, as it is the first time she encounters such unbelievable “reversal of logic and common sense,” something which will continue to amaze her over the next twenty years. During a break in the meeting, Ginzburg goes to the editorial office to be alone and determine her next moves and how to behave with dignity as a “Communist and a human being.” The unjust accusations are painful and she is distraught. Alexandra Alexandrovna, the other typist in the office, is an elderly woman who has survived some hardships in her life; she is devoted to Ginzburg.

Alexandrovna advises Ginzburg just to admit she is guilty and apologize, since she will be reprimanded anyway. A political reprimand is a...

(The entire section is 501 words.)

Part 1, Chapter 4 Summary

The Snowball

Livadia, the regional committee’s country villa, is located outside of town. The former regional committee secretary and builder, Mikhail Razumov, is a close friend of the Ginzburgs, so the couple saw him often. Razumov is a contradiction: while he is unequivocally loyal to the Party, he is also “inclined to the cult of his own personality.” The Ginzburgs often tease him about his self-promotion.

Leaders of the regional committee and their families regularly spend their summer holidays at Livadia and often gather there on their days off. One spring day in 1935, Ginzburg notices someone new at the villa; she learns it is Comrade Beylin, the “new chairman of the bureau of Party political control.” He is a small-town tailor with a cheerful demeanor, and Ginzburg is surprised to learn that he is her first inquisitor.

When she and Beylin are introduced, she sees an excitement in his eyes which he quickly hides. (Later she will discover that her file was on his desk even then.) Several days later, Ginzburg is in Beylin’s office, “under his burning, fanatical, and sadistic eyes” as he recounts her alleged crimes, all stemming from her association with Elvov and his apparent Trotskyist leanings.

Beylin’s language is confusing, designed to trap her, but Ginzburg continues to maintain both her innocence and her loyalty to the Party. Beylin continues to ignore her replies and follows his devious, premeditated plan to entrap her. Soon these interrogations are more public. One of Beylin’s colleagues from Moscow joins him and takes a more sadistic approach to questioning Ginzburg.

For two months Beylin quietly questions and accuses her while his colleague screams attacks at her. Ginzburg is “on the verge of a nervous breakdown” and suffers a malaria attack. These interrogations are more devastating to her than any of the later, more serious things that will...

(The entire section is 501 words.)

Part 1, Chapter 5 Summary

There’s No One so Silly as a Clever Man

Avdotya Vasilyevna Aksyonova, Ginzburg’s mother-in-law, is a simple, illiterate peasant woman who comes immediately to the heart of things when she examines problems. Her response to most crises is the calm belief that such things have happened before and are therefore not unlikely to happen again. Despite that, the Ginzburgs are surprised that, when they tell her about Kirov’s murder, she claims “it’s happened before.”

She explains that Tsar Alexander II was murdered when she was a little girl; this time, though, it seems to her that someone shot the wrong man. It is Stalin who should have been shot, not Kirov.

On September 1,...

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Part 1, Chapter 6 Summary

My Last Year

Ginzburg’s last year of her “former existence,” which ends in February of 1937, is full of confusion; she is quite aware that she is headed for a disaster. The term “enemy of the people” becomes popular, and every region is looking for its own particular enemies in order to keep pace with the others.

Ginzburg is inescapably marked as an enemy and spends most of this year in Moscow, which is where she must make her appeal. Paradoxically, despite her shameful status, she has a comfortable room and preferred treatment because of her husband’s position in the Central Executive Committee of the USSR.

This summer, for the first time, Ginzburg sees Stalin in...

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Part 1, Chapter 7 Summary

Life Counted in Minutes

Ginzburg spends several months following the new accusations against her in a “tormented conflict between reason and ‘prophetic anguish.’” Her mind is certain that there is nothing whatsoever for which she can be arrested. Though daily newspaper accounts of “enemies of the people” seem at least somewhat exaggerated, she assumes that there must certainly be some truth, “however little,” to the accusations and crimes. Ginzburg, however, has never been involved with the opposition nor has she ever doubted the “rightness of the Party line.”

Despite her husband’s support, Ginzburg still has a feeling of impending disaster and is afraid she will be...

(The entire section is 503 words.)

Part 1, Chapter 8 Summary

The Year 1937 Begins

1937 is a cursed year that impacts the lives of millions of people. Ginzburg sees in the New Year—the last New Year’s celebration of her “old life”—at the Central Executive Committee of the USSR’s estate near Moscow.

Ginzburg returns from Moscow and discovers her oldest son, Alyosha, has malaria and is gravely ill. The doctors suggest a “change of air” and, since his school holidays are near, the family goes to Astafyevo. Her husband arranges the fortunate accommodations and is glad to have his wife away from Kazan, at least for a time. He, too, lives in constant anxiety.

Arrests are happening everywhere, and many people they know well have...

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Part 1, Chapter 9 Summary

Expelled at the Party

The Ginzburgs return to Kazan at the beginning of February and she is immediately summoned to the district committee. Her case is now being dealt with locally, perhaps because Yaroslavsky prefers not to see her again or perhaps because his committee already has more work than it can keep up with.

The secretary of the committee is Biktashev, a young man Ginzburg once taught at the Tartar Communist University. Ten years ago she had tutored him as a half-literate boy from the village; she is, in large part, responsible for his being in this position now. The misery on his face and his inability to meet her eyes tell Ginzburg that he also remembers and is mortified by what...

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Part 1, Chapter 10 Summary

That Day

Eight days after Ginzburg relinquishes her Party card, she is arrested. During those eight days, she and her family wait and hope and make plans to appeal the charges against her, though the Ginzburgs know her arrest is imminent. The couple purges their books, burning any questionable or potentially incriminating volumes.

A few days before Ginzburg’s arrest, the second secretary of the Party municipal committee, Biktagirov, is unexpectedly removed during a meeting over which he was presiding and arrested as an enemy of the people. Ginzburg’s husband keeps hoping this is all some kind of a joke, but of course it is not.

Night is the worst time for the Ginzburgs as...

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Part 1, Chapter 11 Summary

Captain Vevers

Ginzburg quickly opens the door to the office building, as it is best to do such things quickly and without looking back. She has some hope when the person doing the paperwork for her arrival works at a leisurely pace and actually leaves a blank on the forms for the time she will leave the interview. Perhaps, she thinks, this really is just another round of questioning about Elvov.

She walks to the second floor, and the building seems like any other office building on any other day. By the time she reaches the third floor, she is composed—until she looks directly into Vevers’ eyes. There she sees undisguised “cynicism, cruelty, and anticipation of the pleasure of...

(The entire section is 415 words.)

Part 1, Chapter 12 Summary

The Cellars at “Black Lake”

“Black Lake” is the name of one of Kazan’s city parks and was once a place for festivals and other joyful events; however, since the NKVD moved its offices into the area, “Black Lake” is associated with evil and suspicion. Even the mention of the cellars at Black Lake arouses terror, and now Ginzburg is on her way to be imprisoned there.

Each downward step Ginzburg makes causes her heart to sink lower, and she thinks perhaps this is what sinners must feel like as they are descending into hell. After relinquishing her watch (no one wants the prisoners to be able to tell time) and submitting to more paperwork, Ginzburg is taken to her cell. On her way,...

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Part 1, Chapter 13 Summary

The Investigators Have Conclusive Evidence

Ginzburg thinks often about those who carried out the “purge of 1937.” They all must have been sadists. Only a few committed suicide; the rest had to live with the knowledge of their heinous acts. Each day these Party agents did what they were asked, following their “routine directives” as they gradually transformed from human beings into beasts, their inhumanity eventually etched indescribably into their faces.

On her first night in prison, Ginzburg is taken for questioning by Interrogator Livanov, a typical-looking man from Kazan. He seems so normal, in fact, that she hopes her “madness might be over” soon. When she looks outside the...

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Part 1, Chapter 14 Summary

Stick and Carrot

The interrogation process becomes so familiar to Ginzburg that she automatically goes to Livanov’s office whenever she is summoned. Today, though, she is commanded to go to a different office. Inside, the curtains have been drawn back and Ginzburg gasps as she sees the Black Lake Park’s skating rink like a spectacular movie playing outside the window. For a moment she does not move, amazed that such normal things still exist in the world.

A short man in military uniform finally speaks, telling her this is Red Army Day and there is a skating competition outside; he adds that her children must surely be at the competition. Despite her resolution never to let her accusers...

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Part 1, Chapter 15 Summary

The Walls Come to Life

The interrogators seem to have forgotten about Ginzburg, and she settles into the routine of prison life. Her cell mate, Lyama, says this is part of their strategy; they hope the prisoners will be desperate enough to confess if they are forced to live in prison without reprieve. Ginzburg is grateful for the “unexpected respite.”

Ginzburg and Lyama use this time to learn everything they can about their surroundings and determine how to contact their fellow prisoners. Their neighbor to the left taps a message every night after dinner, but Lyama is unable to figure out the code and Ginzburg has been too exhausted to really listen. They do know that this neighbor...

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Part 1, Chapter 16 Summary

“Can You Forgive Me?”

After more than a month in prison, Ginzburg is no longer interrogated and actually receives subtle indications that her situation might be improving. Unfortunately, her captors have misunderstood their instructions and, instead of things improving, everything gets significantly worse for everyone. More arrests are made and the interrogations are more brutal.

One evening after dinner, Ginzburg and Lyama get a third cell mate, Ira Yegereva. She is a postgraduate student and the spoiled daughter of a university professor, and she is obviously terrified. Four years ago Yegereva attended a seminar taught by Slepkov, even flirted with him a bit, and now she is charged...

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Part 1, Chapter 17 Summary

The “Conveyor Belt”

Ginzburg is being interrogated again. She is put on the conveyor belt, “uninterrupted questioning by a changing team of examiners.” She spends seven days, under constant questioning, without food or sleep, while the interrogators remain fresh and relaxed. The object of this exercise is to break her resistance. Her suffering during this time seems beyond measure to her, but later she will learn that her treatment was quite humane compared to those questioned after 1937.

For the first few days, she is able to distinguish the individual characteristics of each of her interrogators, enduring their taunting, lecturing, and conniving and refusing to sign any false...

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Part 1, Chapter 18 Summary


Ginzburg’s second conveyor belt session lasts just five days and she is allowed to return to her cell for three hours each day. Even though she can only sit on a stool, she feels restored by the short respite. Her second round of questioning is no more productive for the interrogators than the first; she signs nothing.

Ginzburg does not see herself as a “heroine or a martyr,” claiming no extraordinary courage or endurance; and she does not condemn any who, “tortured beyond endurance,” sign whatever false document they are forced to sign. Ginzburg is lucky because she is interrogated before torture is allowed and her stubbornness does not impact her ultimate sentence:...

(The entire section is 505 words.)

Part 1, Chapter 19 Summary


It is a typical morning in the prison but better than most because Lyama has stolen a needle from the guard who routinely comes to inspect their cell. Prisoners are allowed to use a needle only five minutes once a week, so this is a wonderful treat for these female prisoners. The women thread the needle with thread from Ginzburg’s bathrobe and are quietly mending their stockings when someone opens their cell door.

Ginzburg is commanded to gather her things, and the women are excited, thinking Ginzburg is being released and will be going home. Lyama and Ira each give her instructions when she contacts their families, but Lyama suddenly grows pale and wonders if Ginzburg is being...

(The entire section is 285 words.)

Part 1, Chapter 20 Summary

New Encounters

The truck used to transport prisoners is called the Black Maria; it is filled with “two rows of tiny, pitch-black, airless cages.” Ginzburg immediately begins to make contact with her fellow prisoners. On her left is Yefrem Medvedyev, a postgraduate student she knows; he was only recently arrested and can tell her the most current news.

Medvedyev just saw her husband in Moscow, petitioning for her release; her children miss her but are well. Nearly all of her former friends have been arrested. Ginzburg does not know the prisoner on her right. At the new prison, the routine is the same as at Black Lake. As she is walked to her cell, Ginzburg sees several people she knows....

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Part 1, Chapter 21 Summary

Orphans Twice Over

The Krasin Street prison has not been used for political prisoners in twenty years; until 1937, Black Lake prison was large enough to accommodate them. The conditions are poor and the guards are lax. Because of this, prisoners can regularly contact virtually anyone in the old building. It is dangerous to speak too openly, however, so the prisoners invent another method of communication.

The “operatic” method was developed by a rural committee member named Sasha and uses songs to gather and exchange information while the guards are too distracted to listen closely. In this way, news is plentiful and relatively current. Every day new arrivals, along with their charges,...

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Part 1, Chapter 22 Summary

Tukhachevsky and Others

The prisoners have discovered that, on very clear days early in the morning, they can hear parts of broadcasts being made over loudspeakers somewhere nearby. One day that summer they hear “Red Army,” “armed forces,” and “enemies of the people” and deduce that “something’s up again.” The prisoners fear that the government has now begun to identify traitors in the army.

That afternoon, another woman is ushered into Ginzburg’s cell, the eighth person in a cell designed for three. The newcomer is Zinaida Abramova, the wife of the head of the Council of People’s Commissars of the Tartar Republic (and a member of the Party’s Central Committee and of...

(The entire section is 503 words.)

Part 1, Chapter 23 Summary

To Moscow

The prison is buzzing with the news that many members of the Party leadership in Kazan have been arrested and the interrogators have now been authorized to use physical torture to get the confessions they want. The prisoners hear it is the same in Irkutsk, and this is of special interest to Ginzburg because the Party leader there had been transferred from Kazan and was offended when Ginzburg’s husband refused his offer to transfer with him. Before Ginzburg was arrested, he gloated that if she had been under his leadership, none of her troubles would have happened.

It has been two months since Ginzburg has been interrogated, and she is quite alarmed when she is called for...

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Part 1, Chapter 24 Summary


Ginzburg and her cell mate Ira are both ordered to pack their things before they are transferred to Moscow. At the gate, they see two women, with their belongings, waiting to travel with them to Moscow. Ginzburg knows both of them well from her time at the university and wonders if their being here together is some kind of mistake. It is not.

Julia Karepova is a biologist and is accused of attending the same seminar as Ira, which is why they are being tried in Moscow as part of the same case. Ginzburg assumes the other woman, historian Rimma Faridova, is somehow paired with her; however, Faridova cheerfully announces that has been charged as a nationalist. Although she was...

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Part 1, Chapter 25 Summary

Introduction to Butyrki

In Moscow, Ginzburg discovers how large the prison and trial operations are; everyone is overworked and facilities are inadequate in every way. All of the other prisoners in the Black Maria are men, also from Kazan, including several high-ranking regional Party officials. Ginzburg is able to say a final farewell to Abdullin, who is soon executed. The prisoners are finally driven to the Butyrki prison but faint from the heat and have to be revived when they arrive. The women are taken into a large room with other female prisoners and have to strip for an invasive inspection.

An eighteen-year-old girl asks Ginzburg if she should tell on another woman who has hidden some...

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Part 1, Chapter 26 Summary

The Whole of the Comintern

The wardress stops Ginzburg from returning to the cell and, before she can even say good-bye to anyone, leads her down the hall to an open door and into a cell just like the last one, only empty. She is thrilled to discover books, something she has sorely missed, piled on each of the bunks. They are all written in foreign languages. The door opens again, and thirty-five women speaking a variety of languages enter the cell. They surround her and ask her questions about herself and the outside.

Finally Ginzburg has a chance to ask them questions and learns that they are all members of various Communist parties; they are excited to learn that she is a member of the...

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Part 1, Chapter 27 Summary

Butyrki Nights

Rather than counting every inmate every night, the guards count everyone’s tin mugs, which each inmate is supposed to place on the table before inspection. After a cursory count, the guards typically give some parting instructions before sending them off to their cells; however, the guard who counts tonight is “exceptionally, unbelievably stupid.”

After miscounting several times, he rearranges the mugs and again loses count. His actions are so comical that several inmates start to giggle. It is a common phenomenon for prisoners to break into disproportionate fits of laughter over inconsequential things, and this is one of those times. Suddenly Julia Annenkova screams...

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Part 1, Chapter 28 Summary

In Accordance With the Law of December 1st

The isolation is much more stringent in the Butyrki prison than in the prisons in Kazan. Here prisoners are grouped and housed according to the status of their interrogation process so no one gets news from the outside from incoming prisoners. Despite that, the prisoners establish a routine which does not include much free time, as they are busy working, cleaning, or waiting in lines all day.

Several days after Ginzburg arrives, the prison warden, Popov, is infuriated that the women are feeding the pigeons outside their window and enjoying the spectacle; he reminds them that they are prisoners and this is Butyrki prison, where such things do not...

(The entire section is 493 words.)

Part 1, Chapter 29 Summary

A Fair and Speedy Trial

Ginzburg is taken to the Lefortovo prison and placed in a solitary cell to await her trial; it is as clean as a hospital room and the wardress seems more like the head maid in a holiday home. Unfortunately, she has learned something about prisons: “the cleaner and more polite, the nearer to death.”

Ginzburg tends to her own appearance, in order to make the best impression, just as other famous women have done before they were executed. Her efforts change her outward appearance, but they have no effect on the fear in her heart.

The military tribunal, comprised of three officers and a secretary, sit across the table from her; a guard sits on either side...

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Part 1, Chapter 30 Summary

Penal Servitude—What Bliss!

After the tribunal, Ginzburg eats the fine food she is given (undoubtedly prepared as a last meal for prisoners about to be executed), looks forward to being moved back to a prison where she will be with people, and is determined to take care of herself and stay alive “just to spite them.” She is convinced that the Party will not be completely destroyed because people will stop them; she intends to stay alive to see that happen.

Poetry has the power to speak people’s feelings in such times, and Ginzburg remembers some lines from a Pasternak poem: “We greet our sentence with a smile—/It’s penal servitude! What bliss!” It is quite dark and Ginzburg...

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Part 1, Chapter 31 Summary

The Pugachev Tower

Because Ginzburg is now a deportee in transit, she is taken to a different cell at the Butyrki prison. She is put in the Pugachev Tower, where those who rebelled against Catherine the Great had once been placed. The cell is “twice as full as it should have been” and women are forced to sleep in shifts or on the floor or table. It is an unbearably hot August and new prisoners keep arriving. No one in authority is too worried since the women are all waiting to be deported.

Most of the other prisoners have been convicted of spreading anti-Soviet propaganda and will spend only a few years in prison. Ginzburg is “something of a sensation” because she was tried in a...

(The entire section is 503 words.)

Part 1, Chapter 32 Summary

The Stolypin Coach

The Soviet railroad coaches are still named for Tsar Nicholas II’s Minister Stolypin. The coaches are “gloomy but clean,” much better than the wooden freight car in which Ginzburg will ride several years later. This convoy is going to Yaroslavl, the worst of their three possible destinations.

One of the women is Carola Heintschke, the German film star who had once hidden gold earrings in her hair. She is much changed, lusterless and wrinkled, but Ginzburg finds her even more fascinating now. Heintschke’s sentence is the same as Ginzburg’s but it will be much worse for her because she knows no Russian and hardly anyone speaks German. Despite Ginzburg’s poor...

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Part 1, Chapter 33 Summary

Five Steps by Three

Even now, Ginzburg can visualize “every bump and scratch” on the walls of her cell in the Yaroslavl prison, and sometimes her feet still feel the occasional crack in the stone floor of her cell. She was in cell number three, on the north side of the second floor. She also remembers the “physical anguish, the despair of [her] muscles,” as she paced her cell.

Her cell measures three paces across and five paces long. It has an iron door with a peephole and a flap-window. Her iron bunk is screwed into the wall and she has an iron table with a folding chair. None of it is comfortable, but it is well positioned to be seen from the peephole. The window is high and...

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Part 1, Chapter 34 Summary

Major Weinstock’s Twenty-Two Commandments

The only printed words Ginzburg has access to for the first month she is in isolation are Major Weinstock’s twenty-two commandments hanging just above her bunk. They are divided into three unequal parts: “prisoners must,” “prisoners are obliged,” and “prisoners are forbidden.”

Prisoners are obliged to obey the rules without questioning, clean their cells on the appointed day, and carry out their slops twice each day. Prisoners are allowed (but only with permission) to exchange two letters each month, only with their closest relatives. Prisoners may receive as many as fifty rubles a month to spend in the prison store, are allowed to...

(The entire section is 301 words.)

Part 1, Chapter 35 Summary

Bright Nights and Dark Days

Ginzburg and her new cell mate, Julia Karepova, spend twenty hours a day talking until they are too hoarse to talk. They are relieved and proud to discover that they are still “human beings, capable of articulate speech.” In addition to exchanging gossip, Ginzburg learns Karepova’s family history for generations, and Ginzburg recites poetry for six hours a day.

Once they wear themselves out with their talking, the women become introspective and silent, wondering what their futures might hold. Their brooding leads them to the depressing conclusion that they are not likely to get out of prison alive. Just as they begin to lose hope, one of the guards thrusts a...

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Part 1, Chapter 36 Summary

Captain Glan’s Dog

The prison language the women use is full of allegory, fable, and double-talk which allow them to communicate with each other and their relatives in the outside world. They refer to it as “Glan’s dog,” based on a literary character. Writing such letters is a weighty matter, and Ginzburg writes each letter in her mind long before she actually writes them each fortnight. The challenge is to write an informative and accurate letter without capturing the attention of the prison censor, who immediately returns any letter he finds suspect.

Ginzburg writes in third person, referring to herself as Eva, and is therefore able to say more about her life and ask more about her...

(The entire section is 500 words.)

Part 1, Chapter 37 Summary

The Underground Punishment Cell

On December 1, Ginzburg and Karepova are “feeling particularly cheerful.” They have just received some supplies, including some rather shriveled cucumbers, from the prison store, and Karepova develops an ingenious plan to pickle them. This amuses Ginzburg, and she immediately composes a poem about it. Both women are “bubbling with suppressed laughter” when they are interrupted by a guard at their cell door.

He orders Ginzburg to come with him, and it is an unusual enough occurrence that both women are alarmed. Ginzburg hopes this is something simple, but when they keep walking down, past the first floor, she knows this is a serious matter. After...

(The entire section is 496 words.)

Part 1, Chapter 38 Summary

Communista Italiana

Ginzburg has been offered and refused bread four times, which means she has been confined underground for four days. There are at least five other cells like hers in this dungeon. The prison governor comes to see her and calmly tells her hunger strikes are not allowed in this prison. Ginzburg refuses to talk to him even when she is in her own cell, so of course she refuses to speak to him here.

He says hunger strikes are seen as evidence of continuing counter-revolutionary activity, but Ginzburg still says nothing—not even when he tells her he can report her behavior to the judicial authorities. Even that is not enough to prompt her to speak, knowing she has nothing to...

(The entire section is 502 words.)

Part 1, Chapter 39 Summary

Next Year in Jerusalem

December is nearly over and 1937 is coming to an end. Ginzburg is suffering because of her frostbitten feet and Karepova’s lungs are even unhealthier after her time in the punishment cell. The newspapers are full of news about the first elections since Stalin’s constitution was enacted in 1936. The women constantly wonder whether anyone knows or cares that they have disappeared; they also wonder if, even now, they would vote for anything other than the Soviet system with which they are so familiar. Everything Ginzburg ever had, including her books and education, were due to the Soviet system and the revolution which transformed the country when she was young. Everything had...

(The entire section is 435 words.)

Part 1, Chapter 40 Summary

Day After Day, Month After Month

The new year does not bring the hoped-for miracle; it is much like 1937 and in some ways it is even worse. Ginzburg and Karepova spend every day of this year in solitary confinement; their days are “unendurably long,” though the weeks and months pass quickly. They do their best to maintain a sense of humor, making jokes about their appearance and clothing to “keep up [their] courage and hide [their] morning despair” from one another.

As they wait for their turn in the washroom, Ginzburg and Karepova surreptitiously (because it is against the rules) do exercises to warm themselves. The women are able to tell who their guards are by the sound of their...

(The entire section is 439 words.)

Part 1, Chapter 41 Summary

A Breath of Oxygen

One day Ginzburg and Karepova are alarmed to hear banging in the hallways; it is the sound of cell doors being opened and shut, one after the other. They are already in an “uneasy mood” because they were not allowed their newspapers for the past month because of some “fancied infringement of the rules.” When they did get their privilege back, the Northern Worker was full of news about the Bukharin-Rykov trial which is just beginning. The speeches from the trial are so outrageous they make Ginzburg wonder if the roles of these two prominent men are being played by actors.

Another reason Ginzburg and Karepova are already depressed is that they are...

(The entire section is 484 words.)

Part 1, Chapter 42 Summary

A Fire in the Prison

Both Ginzburg and Karepova are coughing and a burning smell is growing stronger in their cell. Ginzburg is concerned but does not want to worry Karepova, who has not been well since she returned from the punishment cell. Soon, however, they are coughing more and they hear people running on the roof and “water gushing out of hoses.” Their neighbor, Olga Orlovskaya, taps a word which neither Ginzburg nor Karepova wants to hear: F-I-R-E.

Ginzburg is certain the guards will have to release the prisoners so they will not suffocate in their cells. When black smoke fills the room, Karepova pushes the silent alarm, which is only allowed to be used in emergencies. After a...

(The entire section is 299 words.)

Part 1, Chapter 43 Summary

Punishment Cell for the Second Time

Ginzburg learns, in a letter from her mother at the end of June 1938, that her father died. Despite his productive, active life, only two people attended his funeral. Exactly thirty minutes later a guard once again takes Ginzburg to the prison dungeon. This time she is numb and indifferent to her fate, understanding it is possible for someone in this mental state to face a firing squad.

She is placed in the same cell with the same bed and the same ragged clothes as last time, but now Ginsburg is not afraid and does not try to cry out or resist. She hears the guard read her crime and punishment: for singing in her cell, she will be confined for three days....

(The entire section is 499 words.)

Part 1, Chapter 44 Summary

Memories of Giordano Bruno

It is fearfully hot in Yaroslavl in the summer of 1938, according to the daily reports about the weather in the Northern Worker. Detailed descriptions of melting asphalt and comparisons to other summers prove that this summer is the “hottest ever.” Despite that, the prison cell windows remain locked shut and the prisoners’ belongings are musty from the damp, stale air.

After their second confinements in the punishment cells, both Ginzburg and Karepova are seriously ill. They are unable to swallow their bread or the thin prison soup, and Ginzburg has to alter her prison skirt three times so it will stay on her. Karepova is also gravely ill, and...

(The entire section is 421 words.)

Part 1, Chapter 45 Summary

The End of the “Monstrous Dwarf”

From the summer of 1938 to the spring of 1939, nothing much changes for the prisoners at Yaroslavl. They endure “acute physical sufferings” and constantly struggle for every breath of air, but time passes and the outside world, which they read voraciously about in the Northern Worker, still seems unreal to them. They read about Hitler in Czechoslovakia, the Spanish war, and the assembling of the Seventeenth Party Congress, but it is difficult for the prisoners to believe that everyone is not as “broken in spirit” as they are. They have even ceased to hate or protest, as it takes too much energy.

For New Year’s Eve in 1939, Ginzburg...

(The entire section is 503 words.)

Part 1, Chapter 46 Summary

Great Expectations

The prison windows are now open, and Ginzburg’s and Karepova’s appetites return. Ginzburg secretly begins to do her exercises, but neither woman reads much anymore. They are too busy talking, speculating about what their future might hold. Of course Karepova is the eternal optimist and Ginzburg is the pessimist. Karepova believes they will be released and free to join their husbands, encouraged to do the work they were trained to do and able to rejoin the Party. Ginzburg assumes their husbands have probably been shot.

The reality is that the prisoners around the country are nearly all between the ages of twenty-five and fifty, the prime ages for working people; the...

(The entire section is 486 words.)

Part 1, Chapter 47 Summary

A Bathhouse! Just an Ordinary Bathhouse!

The prisoners are ordered to the bathhouse, something they usually do twice a week. This time, however, they are not allowed to take their “quilted robes.” The women theorize that their robes are being sanitized as one of the last acts before the prisoners are moved out of the Yaroslavl prison, and they are correct.

All the women from their hallway are allowed to see one another as they are gathered in the corridor. The other women’s “emaciated bodies [have] lost their feminine roundness, and their eyes [have] an expression” Ginzburg and Karepova know quite well. Looking at these pitiful women, “exhausted and soured by grief,” is like...

(The entire section is 478 words.)

Part 1, Chapter 48 Summary

The Ruins of Schlüsselburg

In modern times, things must move quickly. Keeping “such multitudes” in prison for decades is impractical and inconsistent with “tempo of the age and with its economy.” Things are moving more quickly now than in the “old days,” and Ginzburg only serves two of her ten years in solitary confinement. Everything has changed.

There is a “qualitative leap” in the treatment prisoners receive. Once the most important rule was to avoid contact with other prisoners at any cost, and the punishment for breaking this rule was severe. Now they are forced to do everything together: work, sleep, eat, bath, and go to the bathroom. For many years, prisoners cannot...

(The entire section is 480 words.)

Part 2, Chapter 1 Summary

Car Number 7

Before getting into the freight car, Ginzburg notices the words “special equipment” on one of the cars and assumes this is a remnant from a previous journey; however, once the officer in charge recites the rules, Ginzburg and others begin to realize they are the special equipment. Although they can talk any other time, they are to remain absolutely silent when the train is at a station.

Car number seven holds at least seventy-six women wearing the same dirty brown uniforms as Ginzburg, all talking and being jostled by the movement of the train. Each woman speaks, “rejoicing in the sound of her own voice” and not listening to anyone else doing the same thing....

(The entire section is 493 words.)

Part 2, Chapter 2 Summary

The Transit Camp

The women trudge their way to the transit camp at dawn on July 7, 1939; it is as if the world has ended and they are the “only survivors…living out the last days of an unbearable life.” Ginzburg walks the endless road as if she were asleep until the prisoners reach the “barbed-wire entanglement” guarding the camp’s gate. These prisoners join hundreds of others who look like defeated refugees. Ginzburg and her companions look like “figures from a nightmare.” Many of the other women weep when they see the newcomers arrive. Eventually Ginzburg learns that “people from prisons,” of which she is one, are the worst off in the camps.


(The entire section is 492 words.)

Part 2, Chapter 3, Pages 279-296 Summary

All Sorts to Make a World

The women in the freight car rise early, although they do not have to; they begin to form a routine. In yesterday’s excitement of being on the move, no one noticed the train is moving agonizingly slowly. The women take turns looking out the window. There are a few scientists in the car, but most of the women have an arts background. The average age of the women is thirty, and they all share the common bond of poetry.

Ginzburg is shocked to hear Olga Orlovskaya, her former prison neighbor, recite a poem praising Stalin. An argument erupts, and at least twenty women defend Stalin, claiming he knows nothing of the atrocities being conducted; it is...

(The entire section is 500 words.)

Part 2, Chapter 3, Pages 297-313 Summary

All Sorts to Make a World (Continued)

The women on the train know they are going to Vladivostok, but the Socialist women assure everyone that there is a transit camp there from which they will probably be sent to Kolyma. It is difficult for the women to thinks past just getting out of Car Number Seven and getting a drink of fresh water, though they have calculated that they will not arrive at Vladivostok for another month, at this rate.

The women suffer from “dust, sweat, and lack of air, but most of all from thirst.” Most do not eat the salty soup they are given. The starosta requests that the water used for the soup be given to them instead, which enrages the...

(The entire section is 502 words.)

Part 2, Chapter 3, Pages 314-331 Summary

All Sorts to Make a World (Continued)

The train stops and the woman are ordered to “form up in fives” as the guards and German shepherd dogs keep order. The “wavy gray-brown line “ of women stretches for seventy yards; a few faint, unaccustomed to the fresh air. They march to the disinfection center at Sverdlovsk, a spacious, clean facility with mirrors covering the walls. The several hundred naked women jostle to look at their reflections.

Ginzburg only recognizes herself because of her resemblance to her mother. One of the women thinks she looks like her beloved brother; she is the only one of the women who will be fortunate enough to see her loved one at...

(The entire section is 499 words.)

Part 2, Chapter 4 Summary

The S.S. Dzhurma

The S.S. Dzhurma is an old steamship which has “seen better days” and is used almost exclusively now to transport prisoners. There is a rumor that anyone who dies on board this ship is immediately thrown to the sharks. Before boarding, Ginzburg and the others spend several hours in small wooden boats waiting in the pitching waves to be allowed to board. The sky is gray and foreboding, increasing the prisoners’ anxiety. Despite that, Ginzburg has never been on a sea voyage and is curious.

Waiting in the cramped boats, getting dizzy, is not as bad as the impromptu singing by some of the women. They sing about freedom, which could be “interpreted as...

(The entire section is 494 words.)

Part 2, Chapter 5 Summary

No Luck Today, My Lady Death!

Ginzburg is sitting in a bath prescribed by the doctor; it feels like a dream, but it is not. Her emaciated body seems unreal to her, but it is not. She has spent the past two weeks in the Magadan camp infirmary with others who are “being treated, fed, and saved from death.” It is a change for Ginzburg, who has always been surrounded by authorities whose sole aim is to wound and kill.

Ginzburg spends her first few days after landing in a whirlwind of pain and confusion; however, one day she wakes up and sees the face of an angel in the form of Doctor Angelina Klimenko, head of the women’s ward in the infirmary. She encourages Ginzburg to eat as much as she...

(The entire section is 499 words.)

Part 2, Chapter 6 Summary

Light Work

New prisoners arrive at camp; one of them, a doctor, befriends Ginzburg and gives her a “pretty knitted jacket” which is immediately taken from her by Ginzburg’s team leader, Verka. Because of this “gift,” Verka puts Ginzburg on light duty in the guest house the next morning.

The guest house is a large barrack housing many different types of people. Her job is to clean the building, along with five criminals, until three o’clock. After that time, they are free to do whatever they wish until lights out, though if they get caught no one will help them. They wash the floors, and one of the criminals kindly gives Ginzburg her own pair of “down-at-the-heel” men’s...

(The entire section is 502 words.)

Part 2, Chapter 7 Summary

Elgen Is the Yakut Word for “Dead”

Whenever she writes to her mother, Ginzburg makes her ordeal sound like a kind of grand adventure to nowhere. As she travels as part of a convoy from Magadan to Elgen, Ginzburg stands freezing in the packed, open trucks (“like sheep to the slaughter”), riding across endless “icy wastes.” After eight months at Magadan, this is the women’s worst fear, and they are full of dread.

There is a forty-degree frost and a brisk wind, even though it is April 4 (1940). Nothing looks like spring except for the pureness of the snow, but it is so blinding that many of the women suffer eye trouble from it. They feel isolated from the rest of the world, and...

(The entire section is 498 words.)

Part 2, Chapter 8 Summary

Tree Felling

The overseer of Ginzburg’s crew is a criminal named Kostik; he is nicknamed the Actor and is a “man of some education.” His language is sprinkled with obscure theatrical terms and vile obscenities. He sees Ginzburg and the other women as an “absolutely hopeless lot.” He is not attracted to these political prisoners because they no longer even look like women.

The only tools the women have are rusty, blunted saws and axes, and it does not seem likely they will be very effective at felling trees. Despite that, Kostik gives them their instructions. They are to stamp down the snow at the base of a tree (an easy task for him in his felt boots while the women’s pitiful...

(The entire section is 465 words.)

Part 2, Chapter 9 Summary

Salvation From Heaven

Kostik tries to help Ginzburg and the others save themselves. He advises them of their three options: “swearing, thieving, and window dressing.” They learn one trick from a fellow prisoner who always meets her quota, even working alone. She brings piles of timber cut by previous work crews and claims it as her own, sawing off the dry ends so the cuts look fresh; she is able to do this quickly and for the rest of the day she rests.

Ginzburg and Galya call this “freshening up the sandwiches,” and it saves their lives for a time. This is the window dressing to which Kostik referred. Soon, however, tractors come and take all the cut wood away; output drops once...

(The entire section is 451 words.)