Part 1, Chapter 1 Summary

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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...

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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

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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. Ginzburg is stunned with disbelief at such nonsense.

The two met in 1932 at the Teachers Training Institute; he was an assistant professor of Russian history and Ginzburg was working at the university. Over the years, Ginzburg worked with Evlov on several writing projects. When the regional Party wanted some intellectuals for its leadership, Evlov was appointed assistant head of the department of foreign news and Ginzburg was named assistant head of the cultural department. Ginzburg cannot believe this relationship is anything which might get her in any kind of trouble.

Evlov knows Ginzburg is a successful Party member, writer, and historian; however, she is politically naïve and her lack of understanding about what is happening will probably make things even more difficult for her than they are for him.

As Evlov leaves, Ginzburg’s nine-year-old son, Alyosha, (she also has a four-year-old son, Sergey) tells his mother he does not much like the man but is sorry for him because he is obviously in serious trouble. When Ginzburg arrives to deliver a lecture the next morning, the old porter who has known her for years tells her that Evlov has been arrested.

Part 1, Chapter 3 Summary

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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 “very bad thing,” and being unrepentant will only make things worse for her. Ginzburg righteously maintains her innocence, and the older woman says the same thing Elvov said to her: she is naïve and heading for serious trouble. If this happened to her today, Ginzburg would recant, for she is not the same “proud, incorruptible, inflexible” woman she was then. Now, though, there is nothing which can make her do so.

The “orgy of breast-beating and self-criticism” in the country begins, and “lecture halls [are] turned into public confessionals.” Most of the confessions are deemed insufficient; each meeting has a different theme for confession, most of which deal with failure to recognize and condemn liberalism. Publications are full of articles in which Party thinkers express contrite fear.

Ginzburg is accused of “slackening of political vigilance,” primarily by the new editor of the Red Tartary, Kogan. (Later it is revealed that Kogan and his wife were oppositionists and Kogan commits suicide.)

The regional committee secretary canceled Ginzburg’s reprimand since everyone had trusted Elvov and gave her only a mild reproof for “insufficient vigilance.”  

Part 1, Chapter 4 Summary

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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 happen to her. She is still living in her apartment with her husband and children, sleeping in a clean bed, eating well, and doing intellectual work. This interrogation is worse than the time she will spend in solitary confinement or laboring at a work camp.

Perhaps waiting for the inevitable is worse than the actual crisis or perhaps a person eventually gets used to anything; in any case, 1935 is a horrific year for Ginzburg and she contemplates suicide many times.

Pitkovskaya, a hardworking, selfless regional office worker, is arrested because her husband joined the opposition. Though she condemns him in the strongest terms, she loses her job and works in a factory until she hurts her hand. In desperation, Pitkovskaya appeals to the Ginzburgs who do help, but Ginzburg is tormented because helping a friend adds to the suspicions about her. Pitkovskaya commits suicide and leaves a note which begs everyone to remember her as a loyal Communist. Ginzburg determines that, though her accusers might kill her, she will fight.

The eventual verdict is a severe reprimand for having “compromised with hostile elements” and a withdrawal of her teaching certificate. 

Part 1, Chapter 5 Summary

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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, 1935, Ginzburg isolates herself in her room, bemoaning the loss of her teaching credentials. She has been a student or a teacher all her life, and now she will never experience the academic life again. At dinnertime, Aksyonova summons Ginzburg to the door to meet a delivery boy; he has flowers for her from her students from last year. Ginzburg sobs in grief until her mother-in-law suddenly whispers to her that her students will undoubtedly get in trouble for their gesture.

Aksyonova is certain a trap is being set for her daughter-in-law and suggests that Ginzburg should escape to their home village where teachers are needed and their family home is empty and waiting. Ginzburg’s first concern is her children (they will be fine here with their grandmother); her second concern is proving her innocence to the Party (something she assumes will happen). Her mother-in-law gently chides her for not seeing the obvious: the Party will not find her to be innocent because it does not want to see her as anything but guilty. Aksyonova quotes an old proverb which says, “There’s no one so silly as a clever man.”

Ginzburg’s husband discounts his mother’s advice as coming from a mere peasant woman, but his wife hears a similar suggestion when she goes to Moscow to plead her case along with others, “the first victims of the witch hunt.” She meets an old acquaintance, a young doctor accused of the same kinds of things of which Ginzburg is accused. He was born a Gipsy and suggests they should “drop out of circulation for a bit” and go live with his nomadic people for a year or two until the trouble has subsided. Though it is a sensible solution, Ginzburg sees it as a crazy, improbable necessity.

Later she will be shocked to learn how many people saved themselves by this kind of disappearing. Some women got pregnant, hoping this would save them, but left their children orphaned, instead. While some did escape, Ginzburg’s plan to fervently defend herself and loudly proclaim her loyalty to the Party was in vain, as the officials themselves were bewildered by the “fantastic course of events” and terrified for their own lives. Her plan was absurd, and she later realized her “stupidity certainly exceeded all bounds.”

Part 1, Chapter 6 Summary

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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 person at a funeral. Because she does not suffer from the common condition of “hero worship,” she is able to look at him rather objectively and is struck by the ugliness of the man’s face. This is a stark contrast to the “majestic countenance” depicted in the millions of portraits of him; she feels an instinctual “suppressed hostility” toward him.

The writers on either side of her at the funeral gaze at Stalin with a kind of “religious fervor,” awe, and ecstasy. Ginzburg clearly senses that Stalin is going to be an “evil genius” in her life. Later, when she is offered an opportunity by a friend to present her case directly to Stalin, she is appalled at the idea that he might know of her personally. She does not believe, as most do, that Stalin is a benign ruler, “ignorant of the abuses perpetrated by his officials.”

The accused, like Ginzburg, discuss the ways they use to forget their woes. One smokes, one goes to the theater, but another is in distress. The distraught man is here because he was caring for his ill wife and his children and unable to attend the meetings which explained the new Party doctrines. When he was asked a question he could not answer, someone whispered a prompt to him; however, he misheard and was kicked out of the Party for being “contaminated” by the apparent anti-Party dissident he inadvertently named. The man is afraid his wife is going to die while he is here.

Ginzburg gets a small reprieve when a commissar hears her case and claims Beylin overstepped by forbidding her to conduct Marxist propaganda—something every good Communist must be allowed to do. Her reprimand and warning are reduced, and she is naively assured that in a year or so she might get the charges removed altogether.  

Ginzburg goes home. She is not finished unpacking when she is summoned back to Moscow. Beylin has made a complaint against the new decision and added several new charges to the complaint.

Again Ginzburg’s mother-in-law warns her not to go back, but Ginzburg does not understand how a Communist can run away from the Party. In Moscow, she was accused of not denouncing Elvov’s article by the same man who published the article in his four-volume book.

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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 crushed by something beyond her control.

After she has been summoned, she travels back to Moscow. In the first-class compartment with her is a children’s doctor she knows from the university. Makarova is a gentle, attentive, thoughtful, reticent woman. Ginzburg tries to hide her troubles by talking about inconsequential things and feels as if she is succeeding until Makarova suddenly takes her hand and quietly says she is sorry for the Communists because “anyone can be accused.” That night Ginzburg is so miserable that she sneaks out of her compartment and stands on the platform in the dark, contemplating a quick death. Just then Makarova places a gentle hand on her, leads her back to their compartment, and soothes her, reminding Ginzburg that “this will be over one day” and she only has one life.

Yaroslavsky is known as the “conscience of the Party,” but it is he who explains to Ginzburg that committing a crime and inadvertently helping a criminal commit a criminal act are the same, even if she were absolutely unaware of any criminality. Because Elvov’s article contained errors and she worked with him and knew he had written the article but failed to denounce him, she is guilty of “collusion with the enemy.” The official charges against Ginzburg now include “collaborating with the enemy,” a “specific, punishable, criminal offense.”

Ginzburg loses her composure and rages at her condemners, asking common-sense questions which show the ridiculousness of their reasoning, but no one is moved by her outrage or answers her questions. Finally she shouts at Yaroslavsky that he not only failed to denounce the article, but he edited and published it in his book. She asks why a young (thirty-year-old) member of the Party is being held responsible while he, the sixty-year-old conscience of the Party, is untouched.

She sees a flicker of fear in his eyes (he undoubtedly thinks she is a madwoman), but it is quickly replaced with arrogance as he admits to knowing his own mistakes. Ginzburg is too smart to ask why she and her family must pay for her mistakes while he pays nothing for his, but she refrains. Now she is horrified at her boldness and understands nothing she says will make a difference.

Ginzburg is ordered back to Kazan to wait, and she hurries back to her children, wondering what will become of them.

Part 1, Chapter 8 Summary

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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 simply disappeared, including prominent, loyal members of the Party and of their communities. Ginzburg’s husband begins to spend more time at home, exhausted by the constant meetings at which he has to hear the intricacies of the Elvov case, as well as discussion about his wife and her role in it.

Though he now pays more attention to their children, he does not like discussing Party matters with Ginzburg. While he trusts her implicitly, he is a loyal committee member and presumes that a mistake has been made particular to her case. He is chivalrous toward Ginzburg at meetings where he is continuously called upon to “dissociate” himself from his wife, insisting she is a loyal Communist.

At home, however, the couple argues when they discuss the Party and her situation. He encourages her to “forget [her] own wrongs” and quit holding a grudge against the Party. Sometimes the quarrels are more serious, such as the one they have during an evening stroll. Ginzburg makes a mocking remark about Yaroslavsky and he explodes, saying she is going to send them both to prison with such talk. It is a frightening revelation for both of them, and Ginzburg inadvertently drops her watch in a snow bank.

They spend hours looking for the lost watch, but they both understand the quarrel is unimportant and what they are really searching for is the normal lives which they have now lost.

Astafyevo, a former prince’s estate, is full of rich Moscovites who are quite aware of the class and wealth distinctions of everyone on the estate. They criticize everyone and are dissatisfied with everything. Soon, nearly all of them will have new homes at the Butyrki prison, and their snobbish, haughty children will be “packed into special children’s homes.” Even their chauffeurs will be accused of complicity in some form.

On New Year’s Eve, Ginzburg plans to usher in the New Year with Alyosha. She is called to the telephone at the last moment, assuming it is her husband calling to wish her a happy New Year; however, it is just a random friend. Midnight has struck by the time she gets back to her son. Two minutes of 1937 are gone, and it is the last New Year’s Eve she will ever spend with Alyosha.

Part 1, Chapter 9 Summary

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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 he must do now.

He asks Ginzburg if she has anything to say, clearly hoping she will remain silent for both their sakes. She knows there is nothing she can say and prepares to leave, telling them to settle the matter themselves. It is against Party policy to settle a matter without the member being present, so Biktashev quickly does what he must do: he asks her, with a trembling voice, to return her Party card “for the time being.” This is the only sympathy he can offer, though neither of them really believes she will ever get it back.

Ginsburg feels worse for the boy than for herself; at least she is able to follow her conscience, though the cost is high. Outside, she tells her husband that she had to leave her Party card, and his sigh tells her he knows how close they are to disaster. 

Part 1, Chapter 10 Summary

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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 they “listen in fear and trembling” any time a car seems to be approaching their home. Even her husband loses his optimism at night; it is replaced with the same great terror that is gripping the entire country “by the throat.” The couple finally sleeps for a few hours, but when they wake up they learn about more of their friends and colleagues who have been arrested overnight.

The nights are frightening, but Ginzburg’s arrest comes during the day. The family is doing their ordinary activities (Ginzburg is ironing) when the telephone rings. For a few minutes no one answers. It is Vevers, head of the NKVD department for special political affairs, and he is charming as he asks Ginzburg if she has time to come see him, as he needs some additional information about Elvov. The meeting should take less than an hour, he says, and she can come now or this afternoon.

Her husband tells her to go now so it will be over with sooner. Her son Alyosha leaves for the skating rink, without saying good-bye, and she never sees him again. Vasya, her younger son, insists on knowing where his mother is going and says he does not want her to go. Ginzburg, in order to maintain her composure, cannot kiss her sons or even look at them. The door slams behind her when she leaves, and that is the last time she will ever enter that house in which she and her family have lived for many years.

An intuitive neighbor child, judging by the horror on her face as Ginzburg walks by, seems to know what is ahead for Ginzburg. The same is true of the Ginzburg family’s old nurse. Ginzburg and her husband (who still believes his wife is merely wanted for some innocent questioning) walk in silence for a time before they speak. Neither can believe what has happened to their Party. When it is time for her husband to leave her, he says he will see her at home for lunch; she tells him they have “had a good life together.”

The last look she sees on his face is one she will see often in the future, the “haunted look of a baited animal, of a harried and exhausted human being.”

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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 torturing a victim.” Even so, Ginzburg does not give up, making it clear that she is a human being, a woman, and a Communist.

Ginzburg learns later that the grimace Vevers gives her, “a mixture of hatred, scorn, and mockery,” is one all interrogators have been trained to practice; however, seeing this look for the first time is intimidating and feels intensely personal. After a few minutes of silence, the interrogation begins.

Vevers accuses her of being a traitor, a turncoat, and an “agent of international imperialism.” Ginzburg thinks he must be joking, but Vevers gets more incensed as he continues his tirade of invective. He ends his diatribe by thumping his fist on the desk and announcing that Ginzburg is under arrest. Ginzburg feels the room start to spin and insists that her arrest is illegal; when she asks to call her family, Vevers laughs derisively and denies her request.

Vevers asks her some questions for the official record, and of course Ginzburg denies belonging to a “secret terrorist organization” as part of the editorial staff of the Red Tartary. Vevers bangs his desk again and insists she quit using what he calls a “snooty tone” as she denies the charges against her and asks to see his supervisor. He tells her she is no longer a lady but a prisoner, in no position to make demands.

A prison wardress enters the room and shamelessly searches Ginzburg’s clothing and body; her only “terrorist equipment” is a small pair of fingernail scissors found in one pocket. Now a male warder enters the room to take her away; before she goes, Vevers stares at Ginzburg with “leaden eyes full of hatred and contempt” and says she will rot in prison until she signs a confession. 

Part 1, Chapter 12 Summary

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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, she sees a long hallway of closed doors and knows behind them must be many of her friends and colleagues who have been arrested as enemies of the state. It is hard for her to believe that this dark, damp cellar is in the same building where Vevers has his “well-appointed office.”

Ginzburg has prepared herself for a solitary confinement and is overjoyed to learn that she has a cell mate. For Ginzburg, not being alone is a blessing, but the other woman, wearing an expensive sealskin coat, is apprehensive. She asks about the family Ginzburg has left behind and then comes to look directly into Ginzburg’s eyes. She is relieved and admits her fear that the Party planted a spy in her cell, to question her and make her say damaging things about her father and herself. The woman’s father and brother have also been arrested; her mother is an invalid and remains home alone.

Twenty-two-year-old Lyama Shepel is from the CFR (Chinese-Far Eastern Railway), a group of skilled Russian workers who worked hard to develop the railway, sold it to the Manchurians, and came home “full of patriotism,… eager to work hard for their country.” Now they have been arrested as traitors, spies against their country. When Ginzburg tries to explain why she is here, Lyama cannot understand because the accusations are so far from any reality.

Lyama explains the intricacies of life as a prisoner here. Their iron beds can be unhooked from the wall at eleven o’clock at night and must be re-hooked at six o’clock in the morning. In between they must stand or sit on stools. The food they are served is awful, so Ginzburg gives hers to Lyama (who gladly eats it, knowing Ginzburg will soon be hungry enough to eat what she is given).

Lyama shows Ginzburg secret ways of communicating with other prisoners. They are not allowed any reading materials, but there is a tiny crack in the boards over the window through which they might glimpse other prisoners during the exercise period. Lyama seems almost like a sister to her after just a few hours. Ginzburg is exhausted but sleeps restlessly until a bored guard wakes her for an interrogation.

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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 window of his office, without boards or bars, everything seems normal again. Livanov’s questions are easy and harmless; he writes her answers as she speaks and then asks her to sign the first page.

He asked her how long she has known Elvov; she said she has known him since 1932. The document she is supposed to sign says “How long have you known the Trotskyist Elvov” and her answer also refers to Elvov as a Trotskyist. When Ginzburg protests that this is not what she said, Livanov looks genuinely startled and says it is clear the man is a Trotskyist. Ginzburg refuses to sign what she does not know, despite the man’s insistence that investigators have determined Elvov’s guilt.

When Ginzburg insists that her interrogator write her words exactly as she speaks them, Livanov laughs at her naivety and soon they are joined by State Security Lieutenant Tsarevsky. The interrogation and accusations continue, and it becomes clear to Ginzburg that each man is playing the role he has been trained to perform. Tsarevsky is manic and feral, as Vevers had been, and he blatantly lies to Ginzburg. He tells her that Elvov has told them everything about her complicity with him and is being kept in the cell next to hers. He also claims her husband has admitted that he is a Trotskyist and has also been arrested.

Ginzburg sees through the lies and demands to face Elvov if he is, indeed, her accuser; of course her request is derisively denied. Soon Tsarevsky is screaming at her and pounding on the desk exactly as Vevers had; Livanov sits placidly, unmoved by the histrionics. He has obviously been an actor in this play before and knows his role well.

The final threat against her in this interrogation session is familiar: if she signs a confession and admits to being part of the secret counter-revolutionary activity Elvov was involved with, she will be “treated decently.” She will even, they insist, be able to receive packages and see her husband and children. She refuses, and after three or four hours Ginzburg’s first interrogation is finished. She is sent away with the familiar threat that she will remain in prison until she signs a confession.

Ginzburg hurries back to her cell, knowing she is better off there than with such “demented…un-men.”

Part 1, Chapter 14 Summary

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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 see her cry, Ginzburg loses control at this unexpected reminder of home and normalcy, and she cries.

This interrogator, Major Yelshin, is not like the others; he ushers her to a comfortable chair and talks to her kindly. He compliments her writing, and for a time Ginzburg is not sure where this session is heading. Soon, though, Yelshin says he can understand how a woman with her “impulsive, emotional nature” could be “taken in by the bogus romanticism” of Elvov’s “wretched underground.”

Ginzburg has learned plenty in the past few weeks and knows her best defense is silence; she remains silent now and Yelshin begins to display his literary knowledge in a ten-minute monologue about how acceptable it would be for her to remain silent if she were in the hands of an enemy. Since she is still a Communist, however, and despite her “serious errors,” she should just sign her confession so she can return to her family. Her husband and children send her their love, by the way; just yesterday her husband expressed to Yelshin his distress over his wife’s “un-Soviet behavior.” Ginzburg does not believe him.

When she continues her silence, Yelshin tries to tempt her with food. Though she is desperately hungry, she refuses his offer. Next he hands her some blank paper and a pen, asking her to write everything in as much detail as possible. Ginzburg simply tells Yelshin that, though she is a writer, she does not write fiction. She takes advantage of Yelshin’s unwillingness to fight with her and asks about her university colleagues; she is convinced she has nothing to lose and even makes an “occasional quip.”

Ginzburg decides not to waste the paper and writes a long statement to the NKVD, delineating all the illegal interrogations and poor treatment she has endured. She demands to face her accusers and see her husband. She ends with a declaration that she will never lie to the Party or confess to invented crimes. Tsarevsky relieves Yelshin, and Ginzburg hands him her statement. He raves like a lunatic, even reaching for his gun (which he is not allowed to use on her), but she remains impassively silent.

Ginzburg is lucky. Months later, interrogators are allowed to physically torture their victims. 

Part 1, Chapter 15 Summary

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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 regularly leaves them a message, “Greetings,” written in tooth powder on the bathroom shelf and then taps a short message to them. Ginzburg finally discovers that this is the key to understanding the tapping alphabet.

During her long years in many prisons, Ginzburg observes the ability of prisoners, trapped in loneliness and isolation, to remember acutely everything they have ever read. Now Ginzburg recalls with perfect clarity a book she once read about the prison alphabet; she and Lyama are able to communicate with the prisoner next door.

His name is Garey Sagidullin, a famous and unquestionably loyal Party member. Ginzburg is shocked to learn he has been imprisoned. He knows Ginzburg is here before she tells him, having seen her outside through the cracks between the boards in his window. Ginzburg spends her days in anticipation of her nightly chats with Sagidullin in which she learns about a “world of prison camps, deportations, prisons, tragic twists of fate—a world in which either the spirit was broken and degraded or true courage was born.”

She learns that those arrested years earlier are being re-examined, only to replace short sentences with longer ones to suit the changing times and try to force the supposed oppositionists to sign “monstrous” confessions. Sagidullin despises Stalin and blames him for the country’s current situation; he believes Stalin is establishing a dictatorship by eliminating all possible opposition.

For the first time, Ginzburg must analyze what she knows, sees, and hears. If she had been in a different environment, she would know how to act, but she is confounded by being a prisoner in her own country. She asks Sagidullin about these things, but his advice confuses her. He insists she denounce everything about Stalin at every opportunity, claiming the entire Party cannot be arrested and it may one day have a chance to overthrow Stalin if enough people speak out against him. Though she believes Stalin probably is behind all of this trouble, Ginzburg cannot follow this advice because, even now, she believes in the policies of the Party.

Ginzburg never meets Sagidullin; he was imprisoned seven times and finally shot. Though she does not agree with some of his views, she believes he was a strong man “in the truest sense of the word."

Part 1, Chapter 16 Summary

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“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 with being involved in a right-wing group. Yegereva knows nothing about politics.

Garey Sagidullin also has a new cell mate, Bari Abdullin, second secretary of the Party regional committee. He was a family friend, so Ginzburg went to see him when the Party refused to accept her dues (because she was under some suspicion); she asked him for advice and, without even looking at her, he said the Party distrusts her because she refuses to admit her mistakes. Now he is here, sharing the cell next to hers with a man he had once claimed was the worst kind of traitor. Ginzburg begins to wonder if Sagidullin is right and Stalin is trying to “exterminate the whole Party elite.”

A few days later, Sagidullin taps out the news that Abdullin was interrogated for forty-eight straight hours and, when he refused to sign a false confession, was placed in the standing cell (a black cell so narrow in which a person can only stand with his hands at his sides). For two days, the mood in the prison is somber and the prisoners are silent; not even a package from home containing a bathrobe, soap, and other items is enough to lift Ginzburg’s spirits.

Finally Abdullin is brought back, unconscious. Soon he recovers and asks for cigarettes. Ginzburg does not smoke but received two packs in her package from home. She agrees to give Abdullin one pack of cigarettes, a bar of soap, and a small tin of butter; the dilemma is how to get the items from her cell to his. The women ingeniously and heroically manage to tie up the parcel (possessing even a scrap of paper is a crime) and leave it unnoticed in the bathroom where the men successfully retrieve it. That evening, a shaken but thankful Abdullin taps a message to Ginzburg asking her forgiveness and thanking her for taking such a risk after the way he once treated her. She tells him she can take such risks because she knows how to avoid getting caught.

Part 1, Chapter 17 Summary

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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 document intended to incriminate other writers. She is occasionally allowed to sit and take a sip of water, but the interrogations get worse.

On the fifth or sixth night, Ginzburg is nearly delirious when Vevers begins shouting questions at her from across the room. He wants to know when she first met certain people who have been identified as being part of the Trotsky opposition. Ginzburg calmly and stubbornly answers the questions and maintains her innocence, which outrages her interrogator.

First Vevers (whom she suspects is high on drugs) throws a heavy marble paperweight at her, narrowly missing her head. Vevers is so shaken at what he nearly did that he actually brings her, with shaking hands, a glass of water. Killing prisoners is not yet condoned by the Party during interrogations.

On the seventh day, Ginzburg is questioned by someone whose name she does not remember and forced to stand up during the entire interrogation. She keeps falling asleep, and the guards standing on either side of her have to keep shaking her awake. When she is lucid, Ginzburg notes that the entire scenario is similar to a scene from a movie, but she has no idea what answers she gives the questioning colonel. Mostly she is silent, consistently refusing to sign whatever document she is given and ignoring any false promises she is made.

Ginzburg must finally have been unconscious more often than she was alert, for her inquisitors finally stopped the “conveyor belt.” She wakes up in her cell, lying on her bunk with a tearful Lyama feeding her drops of orange juice from a package Ira received from her family. The men in the next cell are also concerned and thankful that she has finally regained consciousness. At mealtime, Ginzburg hungrily eats two portions of the “disgusting slop that pass[es] for fish stew” and ends her meal with two small squares of chocolate from Ira’s package.

Just as Ginzburg is reflecting on the kindness of others, she is taken away for another round of questioning on the conveyor belt. 

Part 1, Chapter 18 Summary

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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: she gets ten years in prison, the same as those who were tricked into signing false confessions. What she does have is the “blessing of a clear conscience” during her ordeal and the assurance that she has not compromised anyone through any “fault or weakness” of hers.

Now Ginzburg is questioned by just one man, Lieutenant Bikchentayev, who only questions her during the day and now brings in witnesses to testify against her. Her first “accuser” is Volodya Dyakonov, a dear friend and colleague. Dyakonov is sick and stammering, reluctantly bullied into accusing Ginzburg of subversive activity while working on the Red Tartary. As he is about to sign a document falsely condemning hundreds of his comrades to prison, Ginzburg warns him what he is about to do and Bikchentayev is livid, threatening to arrest him. Dyakonov tearfully asks Ginzburg’s forgiveness, explaining that he has a baby daughter and has to stay alive for her.

Ginzburg’s next accuser is a dear, longtime friend, Nalya Kozlova. Ginzburg got Kozlova her job at the Red Tartary. Seeing her friend here, in this setting and prepared to make accusations against her, makes Ginzburg feel as if everything has been destroyed. There can be no more freedom or happiness in the world when such things have come to pass. Ginzburg tries to catch her friend’s eye, but Kozlova looks away.

Kozlova swiftly and articulately, without tears or hesitation, condemns the imaginary subversive terrorist group in the editorial office; she readily claims that Ginzburg was responsible for political indoctrination. While Bikchentayev is on the telephone, Ginzburg speaks French and satirically praises her friend for such a fine performance. Kozlova, also speaking French, tells her to quit insulting her or she will name another of Ginzburg’s closest friends in her testimony.

Ginzburg loses her temper and threatens to sign her own false confession and name Kozlova in it. Kozlova is appalled that Ginzburg has had no news from the outside and tells her that two prominent Party men are dead. Ginzburg says she will be dead soon, too, thanks to Dyakonov’s and Kozlova’s testimonies, and Kozlova is horrified.

Bikchentayev is pleased with the session but Ginzburg is so shaken she cannot speak to her cell mates. She suffers from prison insomnia and cannot sleep. It is April, the spring of 1937. 

Part 1, Chapter 19 Summary

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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 taken to the punishment cell, especially after such grueling—and unproductive—interrogation sessions. Sagidullin knows she is being taken to the Krasin Street prison due to overcrowding.

This is Ginzburg’s first experience with the “pain of prison partings.” The “fervent friendships” made here are stronger than family, and leaving these friends is torturous. Lyama and Ginzburg, knowing they will probably not escape execution, exchange scarves before embracing and crying. Ginzburg never sees Lyama again and does not know what eventually happened to her; however, she will never forget her. Sagidullin taps a message to Ginzburg, wishing her “courage and pride” and claiming that he will always remember her because the “ties of prison kinship are indestructible.”

Ginzburg is surprised that her watch is returned to her. It has not been wound since the day she came here, the fifteenth of February, the day her life ended. Since then, she has been wandering through hell, or perhaps purgatory. Without “tenacious hope,” she might have crumbled. 

Part 1, Chapter 20 Summary

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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. The nurse assigned to search her is kind and surreptitiously asks her why she foolishly rebelled against the government, why she risked such treachery just to get more things. They are interrupted, but Ginzburg finds it interesting to learn that average citizens are searching for rational explanations for what is happening to their country.

This prison is more decrepit than Black Lake, but the discipline is less strict. (Later she will realize that the worse the prison setting, the less dangerous the facility is; the cleaner the prison, the closer the inmates are to death.) Ginzburg is taken to her cell and is the sixth woman in the cell designed for three. Ira Yegereva arrives shortly after Ginzburg.

One of the women, called Big Anna, is here because she told two political jokes seven years ago at dinner in her own home; she is serving a seven-year sentence. She is an easy-going woman who sings to raise her cell mates’ spirits. Fifty-seven-year-old Lydia Mentzinger is in prison for the third time. It is a common belief among Ginzburg’s companions over the years that what is happening is “too absurd to go on for long” and they would all soon be released. Mentzinger does not believe this.

Little Ann is a Party activist for women’s welfare, a plain, simple, and forgetful woman married to a handsome man. Her interrogators use that against her, insisting such a man would never marry her unless it were part of a political scheme. Nina Yeremenko is guilty of nothing except being an innocent, and she spends her days rocking back and forth, asking when this will all end.

Nadezhda Derkovskaya is a Socialist Revolutionary; she and her husband have been imprisoned for most of their son’s life, and he is finally arrested, too; his only crime is being connected to his parents. (All the Socialist Revolutionaries Ginzburg will meet have nothing to offer but condemnation of the current Communist Party.) When Ginzburg offers cigarettes from her package to a desperate-to-smoke Derkovskaya, the woman asks a colleague in the next cell if she should accept cigarettes from a Communist (without knowing that Ginzburg knows the prison alphabet). The answer is unequivocally no, and Ginzburg ponders the absolutes and intolerance with which humans torture one another. 

Part 1, Chapter 21 Summary

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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, are announced.

Sasha is certain the current troubles in the country are just a “slight misunderstanding” which will soon be over; he even sings his encouragement to others, assuring them they will all be free soon. Despite occasional interrogation incidents, the mood of the prison is lighthearted much of the time. It is during one of these times when Ginzburg receives word that her husband was arrested a week ago and is now imprisoned here.

It is crushing news for her. From the moment she was arrested, she has studiously avoided all thoughts of her children because doing so drains all her courage. The worst for her is thinking about the small details of their lives without her. Until now she has been able to silence these thoughts, reassuring herself that her children are with their father. It was foolish of her to think that the rest of her family would be spared.

Ginzburg had already learned that her husband had been removed from his position as chairman of the town council, but he still had his party membership and was even in charge of building the new opera house, all of which seemed like good omens to her. However, she was looking at things rationally in a distinctly irrational world, and her false hope was an absurdity.

Tonight Ginzburg can think only of her family, especially her children. Despair overcomes her and she no longer struggles against it. She remembers a small incident, shortly before she was arrested, when her youngest son, Vasya, broke a bottle of her expensive perfume and then lied about it. She scolded him and called him a “nasty child,” and this memory weighs on her conscience, torturing her with the reality that she cannot “put it right.” Twenty years later, this pain haunts her as she writes it, but she knows she must write it.

Ginzburg’s suffering, as well as the others’, would have been less if they had been fighting for a cause; these prisoners do not have even that small consolation. Ginzburg feels as if she is surrounded by grotesque, evil creatures and is comforted by Lydia Mentzinger who strokes her head and speaks some words from the book of Job. Ginzburg is finally able to cry and is comforted by Mentzinger. 

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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 presidium of the Central Executive Committee of the USSR). Abramova is part of the next wave of prisoners, high-ranking members of the Party government. Yesterday she was presiding as “Mrs. Prime Minister,” and today she is in a smelly, overcrowded prison cell. She is terrified and in denial.

Though Ginzburg does not particularly like the woman because, although she came from rustic beginnings she acts haughty and superior; however, Ginzburg immediately tries to soothe and comfort her. Abramova surprisingly reacts as if Ginzburg were a serpent which bit her, screaming that there is a peephole in the door and she does not want the guards to know that she even knows Ginzburg after what has been written about Ginzburg in the newspapers.

The other women defend Ginzburg, explaining all the lies printed about them, too, but Abramova is unmoved. Finally the guard comes for her and she is convinced that this is good news; however, she returns from her interrogation beaten, bloody, and nearly unconscious. This is the first time the women learn that interrogation procedures now permit violence.

In the morning, Ginzburg demands that Abramova tell her what has been happening in order to determine how life might change for the prisoners. Abramova is still full of pride and refuses to talk except to insult and demean her cell mates. Though they were willing to help her as a sister at the beginning, now they are impatient with her haughtiness and speak harshly to her when she is still unwilling to tell them what is happening outside the prison walls.

Ginzburg finally discovers the right way to approach Abramova and is able to soothe her enough that Abramova finally whispers everything to her. Abramova understands that the newspapers lied about Ginzburg because her interrogators have created the same kinds of lies about her. Nearly every member in Party leadership of the regional committee, including Tukhachevsky, were arrested and taken away that morning. This tells Ginzburg everything she needs to know about what lies ahead for all of them.

Abramova is horrified at the squalor around her, and Ginzburg does not believe Abramova deserves these surroundings any more than she deserved her former royal accommodations. One day they will all be known as the “and others” in a list of important people who have been arrested.

Part 1, Chapter 23 Summary

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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 questioning the day after Abram ova’s arrival and brutal interrogation. One of her cell mates reassures her that it is afternoon and torture is reserved for night interrogations; in addition, Ginzburg’s “case is closed” and she is probably going to receive word that she is going home.

Ginzburg’s cell mate was correct. Bikchentayev gives her the news that the investigation against her is closed, her crimes are delineated according to the legal code, and her case has been referred to the military tribunal of the Supreme Court. With a satisfied flourish, he gives her a document to sign and announces that she will be sent to Moscow where the military tribunal meets. He cannot understand why Ginzburg is not thrilled with the news, but the document he is requiring her to sign is still full of lies.

It is ironic that the Party leaders her interrogators had once accused her of discrediting are also in prison. So many of those who have already been imprisoned for some time are serving punishments for plotting against regional Party members who have been prisoners themselves.

Back in her cell, Ginzburg’s cell mates are concerned about her transfer to Moscow, explaining that sections eight and eleven, which are the crimes she is accused of, are dangerous; she is being charged with terrorism as part of a terrorist group, the worst possible charge. The women around her probably think Ginzburg is being courageous, but the truth is that she is unable to believe that she is in any real danger of being sentenced to death. She either did not hear or failed to register the explanation she was given: the minimum penalty for her crimes is ten years of hard labor. She should have realized the maximum penalty is death. She will not realize the horror of her situation until much later; for now, she still has hope that the Party will rise up and end the madness.

Ginzburg’s cell mates lovingly prepare to send her off, and she is hopeful about seeing her family even for a short time before she is transferred to Moscow. In fact, she is not allowed to see anyone, and she never again sees her son Alyosha or her mother.

Part 1, Chapter 24 Summary

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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 originally charged as a Trotskyist, the quota for Trotskyists has been exceeded; the interrogators are behind on nationalists, thus her charge.

Ginzburg is astonished at how easily this information and these terms come from Faridova’s mouth and how healthy the woman looks, compared to the rest of them. Later she learns that, in order to make her own interrogation and imprisonment easier, Faridova signed anything she was given, condemning dozens of the intellectuals and activists the interrogators were so desperate to arrest—including her own husband, who was eventually killed based on testimony she signed. In exchange she was given some gold coins and promises that she would never be sent to prison or labor camps, just exiled for three years, at the most.

Faridova is here now because another political criminal, Slepkov, “fully co-operated” with interrogators to confront and accuse more than a hundred and fifty of his “recruits,” including her. Faridova denied the charges he leveled against her, but it seems to Ginzburg that Slepkov insured that there would be plenty of evidence to convict Faridova, and certainly more evidence than there is against Ginzburg. Ginzburg is stunned at the revelations because Slepkov has always seemed to be a brilliant scholar and a kind man. He may have been trying to spare his own life, or he may have been trying to help display the absurdity of so many complaints against loyal Partyists, but in either case he caused much damage.

All four women must appear before a military tribunal on the charge of political terrorism. Each one is hopeful based on some aspect of her own case; their reasoning is simple, but they should have been concerned about dying. They are transported in the Black Maria to a train station where Vevers herds them into an “ordinary third-class coach” with guards stationed at each compartment door. Tsarevsky gives the prisoners their instructions and Ginzburg sees fear in his eyes. Later she will learn that the interrogators were starting to be arrested. Bikchentayev got a fifteen-year sentence. Before Tsarevsky hanged himself, he tapped a message to his prison neighbors, warning them to “sign nothing.”

Tsarevsky helps the women buy two small boxes of raspberries, the “last morsel from the banquet of life” they will ever enjoy. 

Part 1, Chapter 25 Summary

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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 gold earrings in her hair; it is difficult for her to know who the real criminals are here, she says. The woman is a famous German film actress, but Ginzburg appeals to the girl’s conscience as she would have done for any woman. The earrings are saved, for now.

In their shared indignity, the forty women immediately grow close. Soon Ginzburg is taken to the “special block” and a large cell already crowded with women. It seems quite luxurious to her, compared with the last two prisons she was in, but everyone is sleeping and there are no free beds. She prepares to sleep on the floor but a guard tells her she is not allowed to sleep on the floor and should just sit up until morning when she will be taken to another cell.

A woman volunteers to give Ginzburg her bed since she cannot sleep anyway. The woman is Nushik, a fellow postgraduate student, and the two women laugh and reminisce over some pleasant memories. Soon Nushik whispers in Ginzburg’s ear that the person responsible for everything awful happening in Russia is Stalin.

Ginzburg finally sleeps and wakes to a woman anxiously questioning her, hoping Ginzburg has news from the outside about her husband. Ginzburg explains that she has been in prison for six months in another town and knows nothing about the woman’s husband, but the woman does not believe her. Ginzburg realizes later that many prisoners, not knowing who they can trust, adamantly and clearly (in hopes of being overheard) claim not to have any knowledge of the world outside of the prison. Ginzburg hates that some might think that is what she is doing.

The women get ready to go to the washroom. Ginzburg looks at the bedraggled group and wonders who they are and how they got here. As they dress, the women share their dreams with one another. Nushik tells Ginzburg who some of the women, aged sixteen to seventy-four, are before they are herded into the bathroom so they can clean themselves for the day

Ginzburg is thankful she has her own teeth, does not need glasses (which would have been confiscated), and is in good health. Though she feels outraged and humiliated, she will not easily break like so many others. 

Part 1, Chapter 26 Summary

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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 Communist Party of the USSR and ask her many questions. She has to explain to them that she has been in prison longer than they have and does not know much of anything about the events happening outside the prison walls.

Finally only two German women, Klara and Greta, stay to talk with Ginzburg; their Russian is as flawed as her German, but they are able to converse with great animation. Greta is charged with espionage but has not been treated inhumanely; however, Klara’s legs, calves, and buttocks are horribly scarred because of the Gestapo. Her hands are mangled and blue, the result of NKVD torture during interrogation.

One Russian woman, Julia Annenkova, takes Ginzburg aside and tells her she is wise not to have answered any of the foreign women’s questions, as it is impossible to know which of the women are true enemies and which of them are the “victims of a mistake,” like the two of them. It is best to say nothing. Ginzburg assures the woman she told them nothing because she knows nothing; the other woman knows that treason has infiltrated “every branch of the government” as well as the entire Party organization. Ginzburg wonders why everyone assumes so many men have betrayed one man rather than assuming one man betrayed all the others, which is easier to believe. Annenkova is horrified at the thought and says she was obviously mistaken about Ginzburg.

A twenty-two-year-old Russian woman, Natasha Stolyarova, immigrated to France with her parents but came back to Russia and became an interpreter. She warns Ginzburg not to be too trusting, as a woman like Annenkova might be a “stool pigeon,” reporting everything she learns to the authorities. The “Caucasian usurper is even worse than his French predecessors,” as he indiscriminately kills everyone. Ginzburg wonders why he would deliberately destroy his staunchest Party members.

Prisoners are routinely tortured until three o’clock in the morning. Ginzburg will hear it tonight. The women talk of past parties and do exercises, trying to counteract the effect of inactivity and prison food. The evening is soon gone and the women lie in their beds, waiting for the inevitable. 

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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 shrilly, scolding the others for laughing at a man who is just trying to do his duty. The women stop laughing and try to explain that it is the man’s actions, not the man himself, which they find comical. Annenkova suddenly tears off her clothes, throws herself to the ground, and pulls her blanket over her head, detaching herself from the laughing prisoners. Everyone else quickly gets ready for bed.

Others plug their ears, but Ginzburg is determined not to “play the ostrich” and to learn what is happening to her fellow prisoners. The “multitude of screams and groans from tortured human beings” begins quietly, but soon they pierce through the windows. Butyrki is equipped with the “latest refinements of the torture chamber.” In addition to the moans and screams of the victims, she can hear the shouts and curses of the interrogators as they throw chairs, bang on tables, and do other unthinkable things.

It is just sounds, but the images the sounds evoke are real to Ginzburg. Years later, she is able to recognize a certain haunted look in the eyes of those who were once tortured by such interrogations. She wonders how anyone could endure such torture for one hour, let alone the four long hours it continues. Only a few of the more recent prisoners, like Ginzburg, are disturbed by the sounds. She hopes she will never get used to such things, as her cell mates have done.

Occasionally a guard comes to the door and reminds everyone it is against the rules to sit up after the lights are out. Suddenly a particularly painful shriek pierces the night, and a young woman in Ginzburg’s cell rushes to the window, tormented because she is certain it was her husband’s voice and she would rather be killed than to hear him being tortured. Guards rush in and pour something down her throat which knocks her out instantly. Someone explains to Ginzburg that the woman is Polish and cannot bear it that her husband is being punished because he is connected to a foreigner.

Although tonight’s torture session is over, Ginzburg plugs her ears with cotton and recites to herself some apt poetic lines from Michelangelo many times before she can sleep.  

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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 happen. Within three months, Popov is removed as prison governor and becomes a prisoner himself.

Occasionally a woman is told to gather her things and is taken away from the cell to be sentenced. No one left behind knows yet what the sentences are; some of the women speculate, but the others disregard those theories. When a woman is called away from the cell “without her things,” the remaining prisoners begin to gossip out of fear, afraid those women are somehow betraying them by sharing information with the interrogators. The paranoia and distrust is short-lived, and the women usually feel ashamed of their “fits of distrust and suspicion.”

When Ginzburg is summoned without being asked to gather her things, she is immediately embarrassed, wondering what her cell mates must think of her instead of worrying about the significance of having to meet with an interrogator. She is placed in a “kennel” (small holding room) until someone hands her a paper listing all the charges against her signed by Vyshinsky, someone she once met at a summer resort.

The charges are nothing new, claiming Ginzburg was part of a Trotskyist terrorist group and listing many accomplices, many of whom never even worked on the newspaper with her. Others had moved away before the alleged crime ever happened (and were therefore never arrested). The most frightening item on the charge list is that Ginzburg will be sentenced according to the law of December 1, 1934.

When the young officer returns and asks if she understands the charges against her, Ginzburg asks what the December 1 law says. He tells her that her sentence must be carried out within twenty-four hours after it has been pronounced. She expects her trial to be held tomorrow, which means her sentence will be determined within forty-eight hours. Ginzburg may only have that long to live.

Ginzburg is the first from her cell to be called before the military tribunal, and her cell mates do what they can to show her kindness before she leaves. Ginzburg’s thoughts are scattered and she tries to pass the time thinking about places other than Moscow, regretting that she will never see them. At dawn, some sparrows land on the windowsill and usher in the morning. It is August 1, 1937. 

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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 of her. Every Soviet citizen has the right to a public trial, and this is what a public trial has become. The members of the tribunal look alike to Ginzburg because they all have the “empty look of a mummy.” Their “glazed expressions” are evidence of the detachment they need in order to accomplish their awful task.

Ginzburg appreciates the freshness of her surroundings, feeling a breeze and the sounds of nature outside the open window; she is glad to learn that such normal things still exist. The entire proceeding, a “tragicomedy,” lasts only seven minutes. Her interrogators had been animated and full of energy; these judges are just the opposite. In a voice filled with “unutterable boredom,” the president of the court asks Ginzburg if she has read the indictment and is surprised when she pleads not guilty despite the evidence against her.

Ginzburg dismisses all her accusers as liars, but the judge is unmoved. He asks Ginzburg if she has any questions for the court, and she does. Since she is charged with terrorism, she asks which political leader she is accused of plotting against. The tribunal is stunned by the “preposterous question” and look scornfully at the woman for wasting their valuable time. They name a man, Comrade Kirov, who was murdered in Leningrad. Ginzburg assures them she has never been in Leningrad and Kirov’s murderer has been named; however, the court claims that her accomplices killed him, making her “morally and criminally responsible.”

The tribunal “withdraws for consultation” and return less than two minutes later. The lengthy document in the head judge’s hand is Ginzburg’s sentence and had obviously been prepared ahead of time. Instead of “accused,” the statement now reads “convicted,” and the judge reads it maddeningly slowly. Ginzburg waits to hear “supreme penalty,” and the two guards subtly move behind her in case she faints. She is stunned to hear that she must serve ten years in solitary confinement, lose her civil rights for five years, and have her possessions confiscated. She has never cared for possessions and she resolves to live, but the judges do not see her resolve because they do not even look up at her. The guards are astonished when Ginzburg looks at them with uncontainable joy.

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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 is anxious to return to the Butyrki prison; when she is finally given the familiar command to gather her things. She has a moment of panic when she wonders if she will be taken to the infamous Lefortovo cellars instead; but her terror subsides when she is again placed in the Black Maria.

Now she begins to sob her grief and anger at those who have stolen her life without cause. She is angry that a loyal Communist could be so unjustly treated and begins to bang her fists and head against the bars of her cage in the vehicle. A friendly soldier opens the door and teases good-naturedly with her. This small act of normalcy calms her down until she realizes this kindness means she is out of the shadow of Lefortovo; then she sobs even more desperately, hoping to be further comforted by the kind, young man.

The guard leaves the door open so Ginzburg can get some fresh air and offers her some laverian drops which will immediately make her sleepy. He assures Ginzburg she is not guilty or she would not have been sentenced to ten years in prison; he tells her the tribunals are executing seventy people a day now, a sobering fact for Ginzburg to hear. She takes the drops he gives her and immediately begins to feel drowsy.

As she is about to sleep, she hears the guard whisper words of encouragement to her. He tells her she will only have to serve one or two years at most before she invents something which will get her released to go home to her children. It is an unrealistic hope, based on the on the “old tales of scientists released early as a reward for making an invention,” but Ginzburg wants to believe the man is right. 

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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 military tribunal and will serve ten years in solitary confinement. The women all assume, because of her significant sentence, that she is a high-society woman; it is difficult for her to convince them otherwise.

The only other prisoner sentenced to such a long term is sixty-five-year-old Grandma Nastya, a peasant woman from a collective farm who was inexplicably convicted of Trotskyist terrorism as a “tractorist.” When Grandma Nastya asks her, Ginzburg explains that she is a teacher and a mother with children but is not a terrorist. Both women have been falsely accused and Ginzburg is ashamed that her Party has done such awful things to innocent people.

Ginzburg thinks of her mother as she talks to Grandma Nastya; she does not know that her parents have been arrested. Though they are released after two months, Ginzburg’s father dies soon after their release and her mother gets sick with diabetes and will eventually die from it.

The only pastime in the tower is conversation, but Ginzburg finds it difficult not to worry about her future. One day a new group of deportees is stuffed into the cell; when the prisoners protest, they are told that a large convoy of them will be leaving soon. One of the new arrivals tells the others that a mandate has been given which orders prisons to be more stringent; it is easy for the women to imagine the ways in which wardens might ensure greater discipline.

Tanya Andreyeva has been sentenced to eight years in camp but is optimistic, confident she will find favor in her new environment. Anna Zhilinskaya is just the opposite, “full of fear and gloomy prophecies.” Zhilinskaya made a promise to a former cellmate to forward a message to the woman’s daughter. She tells Ginzburg the story of an innocent, selfless woman who was duped into signing countless false accusations as a witness; when she was no longer a useful witness, she was scorned as a “stool pigeon” and bravely committed suicide. Ginzburg agrees to tell her story to the woman’s daughter but is unable to keep her promise years later.

Ginzburg spends two weeks in the Tower, plagued by nightmares and insomnia. Finally the big convoy arrives to take her and many others. 

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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 German, Heintschke is thrilled to speak with her.

Another woman in their compartment tells them to stop speaking German or they might be labeled as fascists. The fourth woman is Julia Karepova, with whom Ginzburg also traveled from Kazan to Moscow. When their car is pulled off the main line, the women are fascinated to watch happy families returning from their holidays pouring out of the passenger car on the main line. The people on the platform notice the women staring at them; one girl is wide-eyed as she tells her companion that this is the first time she has seen “real live Trotskyists.” Ginzburg is envious that there are still women who are”allowed to hold their children’s hands.”

The train finally begins to move, and Ginzburg greedily watches Moscow until it is out of sight. The train moves rapidly through the countryside, and Ginzburg remembers being in Yaroslavl with her husband in 1934. It was a beautiful place but she is certain its beauty is now gone; she dreads the thought of being here for ten Augusts as her children grow up and she forgets what it is like to be free.

The convoy arrives at dusk. There is no platform and the Black Maria is not here to meet them; the guards are fidgety and nervous but the prisoners are happy to sit in the fresh air. Ten minutes later their transportation arrives; it is an “ordinary open truck.” The women are stunned that, after being kept so zealously locked up and isolated from the world, they will get to see at least glimpses of city streets with free people walking them.

Karepova is the first to express optimism that, since they are traveling in an open truck, the prison might not be so bad and the rumors of tightened discipline must not be true. Ginzburg sees the building in which she and her husband once stayed; all the women appreciate seeing the Volga and experiencing fresh air, something which will have to last them a long time. Passersby look at the prisoners with curiosity and a few even smile and acknowledge them.

At the Yaroslavl prison, the women (“state criminals of special importance”) are escorted directly to the isolation block where they will be “buried alive” for more than two years.

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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 covered not only with iron bars but with a “high, solid wooden screen” which creates perpetual dusk in the cell. The tiny strip of blue (from the sky outside) at the top of her window is marred by the presence of crows which routinely hover around the prison looking for prey.

She is taken out of her cell three times each day, twice to go to the washroom and once to get exercise. The hallway between her cell and the washroom is long, and Ginzburg always walks as slowly as possible, savoring the thick carpet and everything she sees along the way. Though the corridor is sparse, it is much more interesting than her spartan cell.

Guards toss the crusts of bread the prisoners do not eat into a bin under the hallway window. Ginzburg notices entire pieces of bread and wonders if any prisoners are on a hunger strike. Once she looks through an open cell door and notices that it is much nicer than hers. It gets some sunlight and is therefore not as dark, and it does not have any mold along the bottom of the walls, like hers has.

She is passed off by five different guards (obviously they are quite concerned about their “dangerous political prisoner”) before she reaches the ground floor and is taken into the small exercise yard, which is essentially a roofless cell. After she paces for ten or fifteen minutes, the process is reversed.

Though it is repulsive food, Ginzburg eats what she is given, enough to keep her from starving. The library is not available for the first month she is imprisoned, so she has sixteen hours to fill every day. Ginzburg maintains her sanity by establishing a routine. Virtually everything is forbidden, so she recites poetry, her “own and other people’s,” as she paces. Because she still suffers prison insomnia, nights are the worst; she spends them writing or reciting poetry.

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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 exercise in the prison yard, and may borrow two books from the library every ten days.

The list of prohibitions is much more detailed, thoroughly outlining everything prisoners must never do, such as going near a window, marking in a borrowed book, or tapping messages on the walls. Even talking or singing is forbidden. The penalty for breaking these rules is the removal of privileges and, if the behavior persists, a court trial.

Despite the rigid rules, the prisoners are content that they remain unchanged; their worst fear is that things will get worse. They see subtle signs that things are becoming more restrictive, but the worst event is when the prison governor is replaced.

When Ginzburg first arrived, the old prison governor, a typical pre-1937 political prison governor, came to see her. He was a gentleman. Several days later his brash replacement barged into her cell and was so dismissive that Ginzburg does not try to talk to him.

What changes the rules for everyone is the constant influx of prisoners from Moscow. Many cells must now hold two people. Miraculously, Ginzburg’s new cell mate is her friend, Julia Karepova. 

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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 library catalogue through the window-flap of their cell. The book choices are excellent, and their ability to get books marks the end of their loneliness: tomorrow they will have the company of friends such as Balzac and Tolstoy.

The women order their books and are thankful that they will have four books to devour in the ten days before they can order again. When the books arrive, Karepova allows Ginzburg to choose first; she chooses Tolstoy’s Resurrection and gives Karepova a book of Nekrasov’s poetry.

Ginzburg has always been a “passionate and indefatigable bookworm,” but now she explores everything she reads more deeply, a habit she will take with her when she leaves prison. Being isolated from everything outside, she “achieves a kind of spiritual serenity” when she reads. Though being isolated is a punishment, it allows prisoners to develop other sides of their personalities. Ginzburg is kinder and more perceptive during this time than at any other point in her life.

Despite the changes happening around them, the prisoners remain joyful as long as they are allowed to read. Now the prisoners’ clothes are replaced with brown prison uniforms; the only thing Ginzburg is allowed to keep is her scarf and red slippers. She is thankful for these limited patches of color. Upset by the uniforms at first, the women soon spend their time worrying about how to keep a brassiere because the underclothes they are issued are insufficient. Everyone manages to keep one.

Within a week of getting their books, both Ginzburg and Karepova suffer from eyestrain because their cell is so dark. Their guards are rotated, but the women learn which of them might be fooled by a plan they devise. When certain guards are on duty, the women learn to sleep during the day as they sit in their chairs with open books in front of them; then, at night when the electric lights are on in their cell, they appear to be sleeping but actually are reading surreptitiously all night.

Soon the skies grow grayer and autumn arrives. 

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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 own family. Her mother quickly understands the code and is able to tell her many things. Ginzburg learns that her husband is still in prison but has not yet been tried or sentenced. Her sister’s husband has been “disgraced and arrested,” expelled from the Party and in prison.

For two years, Ginzburg and her mother exchange these kinds of letters, and her mother’s accounts of the children give her the “strength to endure everything.” Later she will learn that Vasya was put in a home for prisoner’s children but was listed with the wrong surname and was lost to his family until 1938. Ginzburg is thankful she did not know of this until much later.

The women are allowed to buy two notebooks a month from the prison store, and they also use Glan’s dog language because the censor reads them as soon as the books are full. Like Robinson Crusoe, the women develop more and more advanced methods and systems of doing everything, including writing and wall-tapping—a dangerous endeavor in this silent prison.

The authorities want each prisoner to feel as if she is the only inmate. With the exception of her cell mate, Ginzburg knows little about her fellow prisoners. A woman on one side of them refuses to have any contact with Ginzburg once she learns that Ginzburg is a Communist. The neighbor on the other side, Olga Orlovskaya, eagerly communicates with Ginzburg. Orlovskaya is a journalist and the ex-wife of a Trotskyist. They “speak” during mealtimes, the noisiest time in the prison, and they talk mostly about the news as reported in the Northern Worker, to which inmates are allowed to purchase a subscription.

The newspaper is full of Soviet propaganda. Although Orlovskaya recognizes the blatant lies and subversions in the newspaper articles, she is still a loyal follower of Stalin. Over the years, Ginzburg meets many people who are able to dissociate Stalin from the evilness plaguing their country.

Karepova’s secret language becomes almost too complicated to interpret (and quite comical) after she convinces herself that there is a microphone hidden in the wall near her bed. Despite their elaborate precautions, on December 1 (and the third anniversary of Kirov’s murder) Ginzburg and Karepova are in trouble with the prison authorities. 

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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 traversing several sets of underground stairs, they stop in front of a kind of narrow dungeon where they are met by the senior guard.

The guard reads an accusation: Ginzburg is charged with “continuing counter-revolutionary activity in prison by writing her name on the washroom wall” and is sentenced to five days of confinement in an underground punishment cell. The accusation is a lie, as every prisoner knows not to do something so foolish, and she tries to explain that to the guard. He ignores her and orders her to write her name in the book to say that she was informed of the prison governor’s instructions. She refuses, realizing her signature would have given authorities the right to re-try her and probably sentence her to death.

When she is told to strip and change into the “special clothes” required by this punishment, Ginzburg refuses. This enrages the guard, but Ginzburg is enraged, as well, when he grabs her and tries to forcibly strip her. She fights back, hitting the guard in a mindless rage. The guard twists her arms behind her and ties her hands together with a towel; the pain is excruciating. A female guard comes and dresses her in the “greasy remnant of a soldier’s overcoat, and enormous bast sandals.”

Ginzburg faints and then wakes up in the tiny, black cell. Her bed is a plank raised several inches from the ground, and her cell is terribly cold. She suffers second-degree frostbite and, years later, her foot still “swells and aches every winter.” Her hands are unbound now, but she is nearly naked except for the grimy jacket she uses as a blanket. The rats rush around in the utter darkness, and she brushes them away from her face.

A guard brings her some oily water in a rusty cup; she takes a few sips and washes herself with the rest of it. She refuses the bread he offers her because it is “too filthy to eat here.” She begins to keep track of the days by how often she is offered bread and composes a poem entitled “The Punishment Cell” to keep her mind occupied. Poetry is one thing no one has the power to take from her, and she will use it to help her survive even this dungeon imprisonment. 

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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 lose by remaining silent.

After the prison governor leaves, a friendly guard named Yaroslavsky whispers through the grate, urging her to take the bread or “they’ll do [her] in, they really will.” He is about to say something more but someone is coming down the corridor. Ginzburg hears a shuffling noise, as if a body is being dragged across the floor; soon she hears shrill cries. It is evident that someone is being taken to a punishment cell but is putting up resistance. The cries stop abruptly and Ginzburg assumes the prisoner has been stifled.

She fears this prisoner is on the verge of madness when she releases a prolonged scream just to give her mind something to do. The sound, a “penetrating, scarcely human cry” which seems to come from the depths of the woman’s soul, echoes, and her anguish and despair reverberate through the dungeon. Ginzburg recites poetry, her own and others’, over and over, but the scream penetrates her mind; for the first time, she fears she might also begin screaming and begin her descent into madness.

Suddenly the howling turns into words, and Ginzburg tries to distinguish them. She hears Yaroslavsky check on the woman and then hears words spoken in a foreign language. The kindly young guard seems upset, and Ginzburg is certain he would help both prisoners if he were not afraid of the head guard. He whispers to Ginzburg that she will be returned to her cell tomorrow and again urges her to take the bread. Ginzburg wants to thank him but instead asks about the screaming woman. He does not say much, but suddenly Ginzburg hears the woman say “Communista Italiana” and realizes she must have fled from Mussolini as others had from Hitler.

The Italian woman’s door opens. She is hosed down with freezing water and beaten before she is returned to her cell. Before Ginzburg is released, she imagines how like a “hunted animal” she must look. A wardress named Dumpling kindly helps her dress and tells her she will be able to shower tomorrow. Ginzburg is confused and unable to make it back up the stairs to her cell before fainting. The last sound she hears in her head is the Italian woman’s cry. 

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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 begun so gloriously, and she wonders what has happened to create the current chaos. Ginzburg thinks “he” (Stalin) has gone mad, since “megalomania and persecution mania go together.”

In preparation for the New Year, Karepova has been setting aside one of the two lumps of sugar they are given every day in addition to some of the butter that are allowed to purchase. She insists that the way a new year begins will determine how the entire year will go, and she wants Ginzburg to write a special poem for the occasion. Ginzburg tries to be a realist and suggests the new Soviet way of celebrating might include inventing a “special kind of punishment cell for the occasion.”

Despite these thoughts, both women impatiently anticipate the holiday, hoping the fresh air of 1938 will “blow away the nightmares of 1937.” Before any important national holidays, prison life becomes more restricted and severe. Ginzburg and Karepova are thankful for their books, which they have almost memorized. Ginzburg reads every line of these books as if they were messages sent to her from her former life, the real world where people are still free. Even a “frosty night” is made bearable by the images invoked through poetry.

After reading about the ancient Jewish greeting “next year in Jerusalem,” Ginzburg writes the New Year’s poem Karepova requested and uses this saying as her theme. The New Year finally arrives. If the women had known then that they would spend at least seventeen more years in prison and could have seen the horrors they would have to endure in those years, Ginzburg and Karepova would not have greeted the year with such hopeful confidence.

The two women clink their mugs in a toast at the moment they figure to be midnight and eat their buttered bread without interruption. Ginzburg reads her poem and they both fall asleep, “dreaming sweetly” about “next year in Jerusalem.”

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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 breathing, and they know by now what they can and cannot get away with when each guard is on duty. In the washroom, the women often glean bits of information from newspaper besides the Northern Worker; back in their cell they wash and eat their breakfast.

The rest of their day is spent “reading and writing, writing and reading.” Unfortunately, the library is often closed and they are forced to re-read the same books over and over; they also have to make sure to erase (with breadcrumbs) everything important they write because the prison censor will read their notebooks. The women reminisce about many wonderful things they did in their lives, regretting they did not do more. If they could go back now, they would have “worked harder and left something to be remembered by.” Ginzburg would have had more children.

After they have dinner, they are taken to the exercise yard where they pace and try to “get a glimpse” of the sky; it is against regulations for prisoners to look directly at it. The rest of the afternoon passes as they do more reading, writing, and talking. Supper is brought at the same time every evening, and both the smell and the food make Ginzburg sick. She weighs what she did at age fifteen; she lives primarily on boiling water and bread. When it is “lights out,” the women are relived to finally be able to lie down.

Every day is the same, though there is always the variety added by prisoners screaming as they are taken to punishment cells, by surprise searches, and by the opportunity to shower. The prisoners all have things to hide during the searches: brassieres, fishbone needles, medicines. The women have learned the trick to avoid being caught.

Only one joyful event happens that year. Ginzburg and Karepova are able to get a large edition of Mayakovsky’s poems from the library. 

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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 “profoundly shaken” by the death of Krupskaya, Lenin’s widow. They cry bitterly when they see the small photograph of her in the newspaper; it is the first time they cry since their arrival at Yaroslavl. Her obituary is “cold and matter-of-fact” because everyone knows Stalin did not like her.

She looks like a dear old woman whose appearance feels familiar and comfortable:

Her death [is] like the final act of a tragedy: the last decent, honorable figures [are] disappearing from the stage, dying or being destroyed.

Ginzburg wonders again if anyone is still free and, if so, why no one is speaking out against these atrocities. She could not know that those who are strong enough to speak out, without any thought for their own lives, know their actions would be “useless,” so they are doing what they can to preserve their lives, hoping to survive until things get better.

With these things on their minds, the women hear the banging sounds and are fearful. Soon one of the guards comes to Ginzburg and Karepova’s cell, places a stool under the fanlight (a half-circle window), and locks it closed with an iron key. Questions are never answered here, but it is clear that prisoners are being made to suffer, and will preferably die, from lack of air. These are the kinds of things prison governors do in response to any kind of opposition, in this case the trial. As the guard leaves, he mutters that the window will be opened for ten minutes each day.

The ten minutes are supposed to coincide with the prisoners’ exercise time, but they occasionally have an extra five minutes because the guards cannot work that quickly. Compared to now, the time when the window was always open seems like time spent in a sanatorium. Soon the dampness in Ginzburg and Karepova’s cell grows unbearable and everything, including their clothes and food, is green and damp with mold.

Ginzburg dreams that she is “sitting on the terrace of a country villa” breathing deeply of the fresh country air; however, she feels no better. She wakes up and sees the locked window with crows perched on the outside screen, waiting. 

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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 while, a surly guard puts his head through the flap-window and refuses Karepova’s request to open the window.

The noise on the roof grows louder; the prisoners are breaking the rule of silence and banging on their doors. Ginzburg and Karepova, though they can no longer see one another, eat the pound of sugar they just bought, determined not to let the guards have it. They sit side-by-side on the bed and say their good-byes. Ginzburg is horrified to see that her friend’s face is turning blue and her veins are distended.

Just as Ginzburg is about to lose consciousness, she hears cell doors being opened, one by one down the hallway. Karepova is choking and about to faint when a guard unlocks the door and drags her out. Ginzburg leaves without help. Even in this crisis, the prisoners are kept isolated from each other. Ginzburg and Karepova are taken to the exercise yard for an hour and a half. The next day, Orlovskaya taps the message that she was also outside yesterday but saw no one. 

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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. She does not try to argue that no one in prison here ever sings, as she knows the truth does not matter.

She lies in the dark cell and thinks about her father’s death. She refuses food and considers it a good sign that she is still unwilling to eat what is not edible. (She does not know that there will be times in the coming years when she and other prisoners will “eat any filth” in order to stay alive.)

Because she is devastated and mourning her father, nothing about the punishment cell seems as awful to her now. She understands how, in Germany, people must have come to accept the gallows or the gas chambers; “people can get used to anything.” She is thankful that her sentence is only three days and that she is only in the second level of punishment cells. Though there is one level which is better than this, there is also one level which is much worse. The level prisoners are sent to is not determined by their alleged crimes but by the strip found on their files. Ginzburg and Karepova are both “second class.”

Ginzburg spends most of her three days standing on the bed, far from the slimy stone walls. She spends hours standing and grieving for her father, feeling as if “part of [her] had died.” It is good that Ginzburg does not yet know the details of his death, something she will learn in a letter three years from now. Her parents were arrested and imprisoned for just two months; however, upon their release they discovered strangers living in their apartment and all their possessions had been confiscated. The respected couple, whose daughter and son-in-law were Party members, wandered through town looking for a place to stay, but everyone was afraid of them and refused to help.

For many years, Ginzburg’s relationship with her father was antagonistic, but in his last letter he said he would try to stay alive for the sake of her sons. It is hard for her to believe that the “outside world” exists or if they know about tortures like this. She writes another poem about her second time in the punishment cell. 

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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 Ginzburg feels as if neither of them will last much longer. To compound her misery, Ginzburg suffers recurring bouts of malaria, undoubtedly because the cell is so damp. Eventually Ginzburg is unconscious, and a guard finally summons a doctor.

Ginzburg wakes to find a real doctor with a kind face looking down at her. He administers an injection of camphor and tells her a nurse will bring her medicine twice a day. She should feel better soon. Karepova, terrified at the thought of losing her friend, boldly asks if the doctor will give orders for their window to be unlocked and opened. This would surely provide more oxygen for Ginzburg, but the doctor turns red and mutters that he is not able to order such a thing. The nearby guard adds that their conversation must be confined to the illness.

The only thing which keeps Ginzburg alive for the next few days is her innate curiosity. She is determined to “see things through to the end,” even if it is her own end. In spite of this optimism, Ginzburg refuses to take her walk several times, even though Karepova begs her not to give up her right to the little fresh air she is entitled to have. Ginzburg is also unable to make jokes as she used to, like the jokes she used to make about Giordano Bruno, the “incorrigible optimist.”

Both women agree that the doctor is a kind man but should be ashamed to be working in this prison. Two days later, Karepova excitedly tells Ginzburg that she can walk outside now because the doctor has ordered that Ginzburg be given a stool so she can sit outside for fifteen minutes every day. He has also ordered that her cell window remain open for twenty minutes a day rather than ten, and both women are overjoyed.

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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 again writes a poem at Karepova’s request. She writes about her fear that prisoners might be getting so used to their lives in prison that they would find anything in the outside world meaningless upon their release. As they become more exhausted, their hope withers.

Both women look like corpses; though they have not looked in a mirror for more than two years, they know how they must look by looking at the other. They have no appetites and usually only eat the sugar cubes they are given each day; amazingly, that seems to sustain them. 

In March the two women are again falsely accused and punished; the guards know the women are in no condition to endure the punishment cells but obviously have quotas to fill, so the women lose access to newspapers for a month. Their neighbor taps to them that the Party Congress has begun and there is talk of rehabilitations. Ginzburg pessimistically refuses to believe anything will help them, as she has gotten to know “Stalin’s style too well during the past two and a half years.”

Suddenly the women hear cell doors being open and shut, and they know something new is happening. The guard who enters their cell seems inexplicably embarrassed as he tears Major Weinstock’s twenty-two commandments off the wall before moving on to the next cell. Both women are certain that even more severe regulations are about to be imposed on the prisoners; perhaps they will not be allowed any books and or be given any sugar, or perhaps there will be something entirely new to punish them.

During the women’s walk, the guards again act rather strangely, and later there is a commotion in the hallway. A guard enters and posts new regulations. The rules do not seem to have changed, but the reference to Yezhov, Commissar-General for State Security, is gone. The women are delighted that the man who was as powerful as Stalin has fallen. In her glee, Ginzburg writes a poem about him called “The Monstrous Dwarf.”

Now the clock of prison life again begins to run, and prisoners have hope again. The commandments are replaced several more times, and the prisoners take joy in knowing their tormentors are now being tormented. Yezhov’s fall results in the prison windows again being opened. 

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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 country has missed their productivity and suffered the hefty expenses of the prison system. Even being moved to a work camp will be a blessing for Ginzburg, as she will be with new people and feel fresh air and sunshine. This life might be a nightmare, but it will be better than this “living grave” in which she and the others have been trapped for nearly three years.

The guards clearly know things will be changing soon; some become crueler, stomping out a spindly flower miraculously growing amid the asphalt, but some are more kind, like the “friendly storekeeper” who takes the prisoners’ orders every two weeks. When Ginzburg was sick, she secretly asked him for candy instead of sugar and he smuggled it to her. Now she asks for her usual two notebooks and he quietly tells her she will not need them because the prisoners will all be leaving soon.

His whispered words confirm the women’s greatest desire, and it soon becomes obvious that things at the prison are changing. Ginzburg and Karepova do not even care where they are sent; they are just happy to be going somewhere. Each prisoner is given a physical examination. When the doctor notes that Ginzburg is “very emaciated,” Ginzburg, terrified at being left behind, assures him she can do any outdoor work she is given.

Prisoners are then taken, one by one, to the prison governor’s office. Ginzburg is shocked that he asks her to sit down and knows a “new era” must surely have begun. He wants her to sign documents which say she is aware that her sentence has been revised and she is ordered to serve the rest of her time in a “corrective labor camp.” She does not sign but boldly asks where she is being sent; however, she earns no punishment for her audacity. The prison governor tells her she will be allowed to take her personal possessions and any money which is left in her account with her when she goes.

The once-silent prison is now bustling with noise, and it is obvious that the end is near. Once again Ginzburg recalls this line from one of Pasternak’s poems: “Penal servitude—what bliss!”

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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 looking in a mirror for Ginzburg.

Their isolation is over, and the women are ordered to line up in pairs. A small woman approaches Ginzburg and introduces herself as their news-bearing neighbor, Olga. It is a joy for Ginzburg to see these other women; though they are strangers to her, they share a bond of suffering.  Seeing anyone other than the guards is a joyful occasion. Ginzburg, Karepova, and the other dozen or so women are taken to a part of the yard they have never before seen. Though the women are commanded to stop talking, they communicate effectively with one another through smiles and squeezing one another’s hands.

They are taken to a simple, ordinary bathhouse, exulting in their “shared humanity” for this time. Later, many of them will be degraded by the “jungle law of the camps,” but for now they are “sisters in the highest sense of the word.” They sacrifice for one another, sharing one woman’s large bar of soap and giving each other items they need. Ginzburg is given a pair of stockings by the actress Nina Gviniashvili. The women all share stories of their time in the punishment cells, almost always on “special political anniversaries.”

The women are so excited that they are barely able to get dressed. They cannot sleep that night; though they are thankful for the human contact they shared that day, the effort of being around others has exhausted them. Secretly, each prisoner wishes the move might be delayed for another day or two so they can enjoy some solitary time in the cells which have been their homes for so long. They need time to wean themselves from the old life into the new.

If Ginzburg and Karepova were to stay in this prison—and live—they consider, at the end of their sentences, building a cabin in the mountains and living there the rest of their lives. The women giggle at the thought and one of the guards hollers at them to be quiet. Undoubtedly, the guards are afraid they will be jobless soon; however, it is “fairly certain” they will be in demand somewhere else, if not here. 

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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 even dream about having time alone for even a moment. Secretive commands whispered by guards have become shouted commands for prisoners to work together.

Each prisoner is fingerprinted and searched; they are forced to give up the photographs of their families which they have been able to keep until now. Every scrap of cardboard or paper is confiscated so the prisoners cannot write messages on them and drop them out the window while they are being transported.

If a director were filming the scene and shot a close-up of the pile of discarded family photos lying on the floor of the yard and being trampled on by soldiers’ boots, he would be accused of “striving for a forced effect” and appealing too much to the emotions of the audience. Nevertheless, this is what happens. When the women ask when they will get their photographs back, no one answers them.

When the women are in formation, each desperately clutches her partner, afraid she will lose her. Although they are dizzy and lightheaded from so much exposure to open air, they only have to carry their coats; the bundles containing their meager possessions would be too much for them to bear.

They are ushered into the waiting Black Marias, though this time they are not caged. As they drive through the prison gates for the last time at sunset, Ginzburg remembers that this is similar to her arrival here two years ago. Through a chink in the vehicle door, she can see her former home, her Schlüsselburg, a “three-story sepulcher of dark-red brick with high wooden shutters instead of windows.” At that time, Ginzburg thinks two years sounds like a long time; soon she and the others will think differently. The word “Kolyma” is whispered among them, but they do not know enough to be terrified by it.

The women are herded into a freight car. Ginzburg notes that it is number seven. They are packed in so tightly they hardly have room to stand, but this is encouraging since the rule is that the worse the conditions are, the more likely one is to stay alive. So far, in Ginzburg’s experience, this has been true.

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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. Ginzburg is at the end of a row, so she can only be jostled on one side, and she is also near a window and enjoys the fresh air it affords. She is shocked at how old some of the women look; Yaroslavl dramatically aged them.

Suddenly someone shouts that the train is stopping and the women grow silent, as if they have all been gagged. When the train moves again thirty minutes later, the women discover they have all lost their voices to laryngitis. Only one woman, Fisa Korkodinova, still has her voice, and that is one of the reasons the women appoint her as their “starosta” (elder or spokesman).

Korkodinova distributes tin cups and chipped wooden spoons to everyone in the car. The women are not allowed to smoke because they might use the papers to transmit messages at the station. Ginzburg got in the habit of smoking while in prison but is glad no one can smoke in the car, as none of them would be able to breathe. The officer in charge, nicknamed “Brigand,” asks to talk to the car’s starosta. He tells her the women will be served only one hot meal a day; there is plenty of bread, but water must be rationed to one mug a day to drink or wash with.

One of the women, Tamara Varazashvili (dubbed “Queen Tamara” by her fellow prisoners), considers herself to be a “genuine political” and despises the newer prisoners for being so compliant. She is disgusted that Korkodinova allowed the guard to ogle her and scolds Korkodinova for smiling back at the man. One woman defends the starosta, claiming there is nothing wrong with a woman being treated like a woman instead of a mere number.

That night, a woman asks Ginzburg about herself, and Ginzburg is shocked at how long it takes her to remember she is anything more that “Call 3, north side.” When a woman’s hair accidentally brushes against Ginzburg’s face, the woman apologizes and quite naturally uses the word “comrade.” The idea that this word still exists, and that someone would use it when talking to her, moves Ginzburg to tears. She is not just “Cell 3, north side.” The train moves east to the camps. 

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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 hierarchy of prisoners in camp is strictly adhered to, and the lowest group already at the camp is thankful for the arrival of prisoners who are even lower in the hierarchy. The women joke that Soviet women’s lives can be summarized in four words: “Trotskyism, terrorism, toil, and torment.”

The camp doctors find everyone “fit for hard labor” because it benefits them to do so. The insects at camp are a “special breed of bugs” which moves “swiftly in large, impudent, purposeful groups, already engorged with the blood of previous arrivals.” Ginzburg sleeps outside on that first night and almost feels happy for a time. The food is awful and causes diarrhea. All the women share their stories and any news they have. One woman befriends Ginzburg during her month here; she mails a long, uncensored letter for Ginzburg and advises her to claim some medical training at the next camp so her hard labor will not be so strenuous. (Ginzburg is shocked and does not plan to lie.)

Ginzburg inadvertently makes an enemy of a very powerful prisoner named Tamara and is sent to work in the stone quarry three days later, though she is still suffering from scurvy, diarrhea, and weight loss. Others tell Ginzburg that Tamara had once been an “excellent girl.” Ginzburg will meet many such “spiritually dead people” in the next years.

Despite the strenuous work, most women still embrace life. Some even miss their solitary confinement cells where they had books and no work. A convoy of male political prisoners arrives, and the women feel a motherly concern as they watch them march silently into the camp. An electrifying moment occurs when the men finally see the women. In a moment they are all hugging and sobbing comfort to one another. This human contact over the next few days helps the prisoners remember their humanity. Men and women unselfishly exchange pitiful gifts and share poetry.

Fewer people work in the quarries every day, as they succumb to diarrhea and are nearly dying. Everyone has the false hope that the next camp, Kolyma, will be a better place. One man regularly talks about the glorious things the prisoners will find there, offering hope which they all drink in “like a delicious poison.”

Part 2, Chapter 3, Pages 279-296 Summary

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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 “hellhounds of the secret police” who are responsible for them. Several women try to give a “scientific” explanation for what is happening in the country, but the others override them. Soon the conversation turns to their husbands and their “cherished hopes of a future meeting.”

Some are certain they will all be reunited with their husbands, though they are not sure where they are going. The socialists are the most optimistic. The women begin to talk about the “forbidden subject” of their children. Even in Butyrki, the women had decided that no one should talk about them, but there have always been some who cannot help themselves. A few women begin to share precious memories, which free everyone to share. “The twilight gloom of Car Number 7 [is] filled with children’s smiles and tears and their voices” asking where their mothers are.

A few women had received letters from their children, but most have heard nothing. Ginzburg is one of the lucky ones, as her mother sent news of them in her letters. Soon the women are sobbing; it would have been better for them to smile rather than cry. Some try to commiserate by sharing their grief over losing their pets, but this outrages the mothers.

The women argue over whether they would get more water by demanding and threatening than by being docile and passive. So many of these women will meet cruel and painful deaths in the years to come. The next morning, the women are embarrassed about yesterday’s arguments and regret getting angry at each other over things that are not their fault. Instead they each share something about their area of expertise.

Ginzburg is reciting poetry when she notices the train has stopped and her voice is the only sound anyone can hear. She is afraid they will all be punished now. The Brigand assumes someone was reading (he was listening for the past hour) and insists the women relinquish the book. He does not believe that the poetry was memorized, so they invite him to sit for a recitation.

The Brigand is amazed and enjoys the recitation; when Ginzburg finishes, he promises them they will soon have a bath and all the water they want for washing and drinking. 

Part 2, Chapter 3, Pages 297-313 Summary

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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 commander. He denies the request. The July heat is unbearable and the freight car does not cool even at night. The freight car doors are left ajar after the train leaves a station, and the women take turns sitting near the breeze. Everyone who does not drink their water ration in the morning lives in fear that their pitiful ration of water will spill. Arguments occur when anyone inadvertently spills another’s water.

At one station the guards forget to bar the freight car’s door; the women are able to “hear the sounds of ordinary life” outside. They huddle around the opening, but it is almost unbearable for them to hear the trickle of water from a tap. One prisoner thrusts her earthenware mug through the crack and begs for water. The peasant women outside are moved at the sight of the convict train and, with tears of pity, hand the women in the freight car some pickles, surds, eggs, onions, and bread. The sympathetic women pour milk into the outstretched mugs.

This goes on for several minutes, and the guards miraculously notice nothing. The women do not argue over the strict and equal distribution of the food, but they battle over the water. Finally someone suggests they demand more water at the next stop, so instead of their usual silence they begin stomping and shouting for water. The Brigand takes two women to the punishment car and puts everyone on half rations, but the women continue their protest.

So many of the women are suffering guilt either for falsely accusing others or for causing those who spoke on their behalf to also be arrested. They assume there are many men and women who are remaining silent for now, knowing “no good will come of” a stand against Stalin now. Their sacrifice will help no one. Many of these women will die in the camps, some will find favor, and others will turn against their own to gain a more luxurious life.

The worst is when the train stops for days, but finally they arrive at Sverdlovsk where they can bathe. Instead of turning over all their garments to be disinfected, the women decide to relinquish their jackets but keep everything else to wash when they bathe. 

Part 2, Chapter 3, Pages 314-331 Summary

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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 Vladivostok, though he will eventually be shot as an informer. The naked women are mortified at having to walk past male guards. Most of the guards refuse to look, but the Brigand summons the starosta from Car Number Seven to stand in front of him.

The girl, who normally kept her hair coiled in a bun, stands naked except for her red hair which covers her down to her knees. The Brigand is disappointed that he is unable to see her naked body. The women are here for an hour and thoroughly enjoy themselves as they bathe and wash their undergarments.

They feel more cheerful for the next few days of travel, but soon their lack of water seems even worse. “Quarrels and listless bickering” fill their days. Suddenly they hear a great crash and the train stops. Soon the Brigand shoves fifteen more women into the already overcrowded Car Number Seven. The newcomers had been held at another solitary confinement prison and had their hair shaved as a form of humiliation; the others immediately pity rather than resent them.

One of the women is a former postgraduate student whom Ginzburg had known; many of the other newcomers are famous for their loyalty to the Party. Some of the women blame Stalin for their woes while others continue to defend him. The most outspoken critic of Stalin is the bravest; she will die a horrible death once the train arrives at Vladivostok.

The train arrives at night near Vladivostok a month after leaving Yaroslavl. The women have to walk several miles to the transit camp, but they are ill-prepared to make the journey in their ill-fitting, unworkable shoes. As they form ranks of five, Ginzburg can “smell the sea air” and wants to lie on the ground and savor the freshness. Nearly a third of the women have suddenly been struck with night blindness, and their panic soon spreads to the others. A woman who was a doctor assures them it is a curable condition caused by a lack of vitamins.

The transfer of prisoners from one set of guards to another takes all night. The prisoners leave at dawn, and Ginzburg takes a last look at a warped, dirty, dark-red freight car with the words “special equipment” written in bold chalk letters. 

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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 mockery and provocation” by their captors. Finally the prisoners board en masse, and the human crush is all that keeps Ginzburg from falling. She suffers from diarrhea and a fever but refused to tell anyone because she was afraid of being left behind.

Hundreds of prisoners are jammed into the hold, and Ginzburg wishes for the relative comfort of Car Number Seven which at least had bunks. Just when Ginzburg believes there is no room at all left in the hold, another several hundred “real, hardened, female criminals” are sent down. They are the “dregs of the criminal world: murderers, sadists, and experts at every kind of sexual perversion.” Ginzburg believes criminals such as these should be treated in psychiatric clinics rather than prisons, but they are here and they act like madwomen, shrieking and shouting obscenities.

Immediately these women begin to terrorize the political prisoners, stealing their food and clothing and taking their spots on the floor. One sailor routinely drops rations by the cartload into the hold, but not one authority ever appears during the journey. One woman is bold enough to smack one of the criminals across the face and demand the return of the food and goods. The aggression against the “politicals” stops.

They sail for three days and, for the first time, have to battle lice (obviously carried in with the hardened criminals). This voyage is one of the “more uneventful ones.” On another journey, a fire breaks out and those below deck are boiled to death. On the journey, Ginzburg meets a kind male doctor named Krivitsky; they had met once, before the Great Lunacy began. Because she has a fever, Ginzburg is squeezed into a bunk between two delirious prisoners: a burly, half-naked man and the wife of a Party deputy. Again her surroundings seem like an over-dramatized film.

Refusing to use the public bucket to relieve herself, the delirious Ginzburg crawls up on deck to use the lavatory and loses her way. She is rescued by Krivitsky and is unconscious for the next two days.

On shore, dead bodies are piled next to invalids on stretchers. Ginzburg silently accepts her fate; though no one will know where she is buried, at least she is safely on land.  

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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 can and leaves a pile of food on the table next to her. Ginzburg eats greedily.

She wonders what prompts Klimenko to keep her here for more than a month to recover and to bring her food from Klimenko’s own table. Later she will tell Ginzburg that she looked closer to death than any of the others who were taken off the ship in stretchers; she was surprised when others, who seemed healthier, later died. Ginzburg often sees sympathy and sadness in the doctor’s eyes. One woman refused to eat, afraid it would worsen her diarrhea, and she died of starvation.

Though the deaths continue, Ginzburg feels strong and grateful; she is determined to live. As Ginzburg recovers, a nurse mysteriously asks if she knows how to embroider. It takes her some time to remember, but she says yes and earns some extra rations for embroidering something for the nurse.

Another patient tells Ginzburg she is only being prepared as “a lamb for the slaughter,” as she will be sent to do forced labor as soon as she has recovered and will be in the same poor condition in a matter of weeks. Some say this treatment is nothing more than raising false hope, though others do not agree and know that any of them can die at any time.

When she returns from the infirmary to Hut Number 8, Ginzburg is ashamed to look at her comrades’ worn, hungry, frostbitten faces; she feels as if she has betrayed them with her own good health after two months of rest, food, and healing. Compared to the infirmary, the hut seems like a “wild animal’s den.”

Ginzburg’s work is “land improvement,” which consists of daily purposeless digging in a frozen, snow-covered field. After ten days, Ginzburg is in virtually the same condition as she was before her time in the infirmary. On Sundays the women do not work, and Ginzburg visits the much nicer and homier Hut 7, which houses prisoners charged with lesser offenses.

No matter how bad it gets, the prisoners all know things are likely to be worse tomorrow, so each night Ginzburg tells Lady Death she is out of luck today. 

Part 2, Chapter 6 Summary

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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 rubber boots. A sixty-something prisoner acting as custodian warns Ginzburg that this is not a place for her and tells her never to go into any of the rooms here.

The kind old man also tells her what she can safely do here to earn some extra food. It is not hard work and it is inside and warm, but it is still a draining job for the exhausted Ginzburg. Later she does a woman’s laundry and feels tremendous satisfaction at earning her own food.

After a week of working at the guesthouse, Ginzburg looks healthy again. She makes some new friends and is able mail letters freely. Her time of being “fed and warmed, body and soul,” lasts for a month before she is ordered back to field work tomorrow. One of her friends from the barrack surreptitiously visits her, bringing her food and a bribe for Verka.

Verka orders Ginzburg to kitchen duty in the men’s zone. She is in danger of being abused by some male prisoners, but the canteen manager, Ahmet, is a Crimean Tartar who protects her and feeds her well. Her dishwashing partner is a strong, surly, deaf German man named Helmut who treats her like a lady. When she is assigned to work in the mess hall, Ginzburg is appalled at how sickly the men are and how they joke about death. She and Helmut become friends.

One day new prisoners arrive and a man asks Ginzburg if she can find some bread for a man from Kazan who is nearly dead. She is stunned to learn that the “goner” is Major Yelshin, the interrogator who sentenced her to ten years of hard labor. She gives the man the bread but insists she tell Yelshin who gave it to him. Though Ginzburg is tormented by her pettiness, Helmut is confident she will be saved because she gave bread to her enemy.

Soon Ahmet wants sexual repayment for his kindnesses to Ginzburg, but Helmut rescues her, to the detriment of his own safe, comfortable job. The next day Ginzburg is assigned to work at Elgen, the most dreaded farm on which the prisoners work. Ginzburg manages to send a note to Helmut but does not know if her “chivalrous dishwasher” ever received it.

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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 they are “acutely miserable.” Elgen is a state farm, and the prisoner workers are at their midday break when the convoy arrives.

The workers are sexless in their padded pants, cloth shoes, and caps which cover their eyes. The women in the truck are appalled that they, who have lost everything else, will soon become part of the “ghostly parade of strange beings” tramping through the snow. One of the women has been here before and tells her companions that Elgen is the Yakut word for dead before pointing out the stables, the storehouses, and the dairy.

The women’s quarters are well protected against escape, but the frozen travelers are glad to be somewhere where there is life. They huddle around a huge cauldron of boiling water, eat their rations of bread and begin to thaw. The prisoner in charge of their hut is Marya Dogadkina, a dark-skinned woman, about fifty years old, who is straightforward and quick-thinking. She is constantly scolding the women for the way they do things, but it is given more like the advice of a fussy mother who only wants the best for her children. The women feel as if they are her guests, and, as their hostess, she gives them the best of whatever she has and make their lives more endurable.

Dogadkina has been at Elgen for three years, and she encourages the newcomers not to get discouraged. The next morning, the women are stunned to learn that there is a place worse than this, a place where prisoners from Elgen are sent for punishment; and there are many places even worse than that. Dogadkina assures the women that, in all of these places, people do live through their sentences.

Elgen consists of political prisoners, like Ginzburg, multiple offenders, and mothers; the authorities seem to think that any children who survive in this place will be “so tough that even a bullet wouldn’t kill them.”All prisoners at Elgen either do land development or tree felling, but the political prisoners do not have clothing suitable for working in the frigid cold. One doctor protests and the women are transported (rather than having to walk) to their new work zone, Kilometer Seven, a frozen, deserted tundra. 

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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 shoes are immediately soaked through), make an initial cut on the near side, and begin cutting.

As the guards sit around the campfire, the women begin to work. Ginzburg and her partner Galya struggle to saw through their first tree, wanting to blame one another for their clumsiness but knowing they do not have the time or energy for an argument. The saw slips, jerks, and gets stuck. The worst moment is when a falling tree hits Galya in the head and she is refused any treatment because it is a common trick among workers to avoid hard labor.

The religious women prisoners, much more accustomed to manual labor, work quite “smoothly and rhythmically,” and the trees land just where the women plan. Perhaps if they had adequate food and time to learn this job, the political prisoners might have been able to meet their high quotas; when the head of their guard is replaced with a “monster,” a “reign of terror” begins. The obvious goal of his torment is the women’s destruction.

Ginzburg’s day begins at five o’clock in the morning, her sides aching after sleeping on her log bed. She must find her footwear and mittens from near the stove; however, some of the women in her hut are criminals who routinely steal footwear or saws which are better than their own. Complaining is futile.

Once they are at the work site, the head of their guard ensures that the women have no access to the campfire and is merciless in his demands for more production. The women are given food based on their output; on the first day, Ginzburg and Galya only receive eighteen percent of their bread ration. The women are able to joke about their starvation for a few days, but soon they cannot even do that. Nearly all of the politicals are too weak to fulfill their quotas and are forced to spend time in the punishment cell. It is an unheated lavatory shack where the women must spend their long days. 

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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 again and the women are returned to the punishment cell. Every time her mind is ready to die, Ginzburg’s body finds “some miraculous way of preserving the flicker of life from extinction.”

One sign of Divine intervention for Ginzburg is finding the sour, bitter cranberries which had failed to ripen last summer. She finds them in May as she is crawling on the ground while working; she tenderly eats the first two clusters she finds but calls to Galya when she finds a third. Now the women search every day for these delicious, delicate, life-saving berries.

The religious women are the most productive workers, but they refuse to work on Easter. They are “driven out [of their hut] with rifle butts” and forced to stand barefoot on the ice-covered ground. The religious women chant in unison while the others plead for them, begging and sobbing for their comrades’ release from punishment.

The punishment cell is overfull that night, and the women argue about whether the religious protest is “unenlightened fanaticism or… a fortitude in defense of freedom of conscience” and whether any of them would have had the courage to do what those women did. Not one of them gets sick, and they are even more productive the next day.

The medical staff is unsympathetic to workers, but one of them eventually saves Ginzburg. A surgeon from Leningrad happens to know her son, Alyosha, and the surgeon saves her by giving her a few days’ rest and making her a medical attendant in a children’s home. Again she eludes death.


Ginzburg was in her thirties during these events. She spent eighteen years “there.” Her dominant feeling during her ordeal was amazement that such atrocities could happen without retribution. She wrote this book as a letter to her grandson, hoping to recount her experience honestly. By the time her grandson would turn twenty (in 1980), she hoped her ordeal could be “safely divulged” to her fellow Communists. 

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