Within the Whirlwind

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

Thumb through the pages of Eugenia Ginzburg’s memoir and discover, instead of the expected clutch of photographs that usually record episodes from a writer’s life—snapshots of relatives, lovers, friends—a single gray-and-white illustration. It is a map of northeastern Siberia, a landscape of permafrost and rock outcroppings that resembles a chart of the moon’s surface, or perhaps a map of hell. In this region of Kolyma, the permanent site of prison camps and settlements with names such as Mylga, Elgen, Shturmovoi, and Belichye, the author spent eighteen years of her life, from February, 1937 to March, 1955.

In the first volume of her memoirs, Journey into the Whirlwind (1967)—published in England under the title Into the Whirlwind—Ginzburg chronicled the years 1934 to 1939, from the time of S. M. Kirov’s assassination in Leningrad, through the Stalinist purge of suspected or imagined anti-Party traitors that followed, and culminating in 1937 with her own arrest and expulsion from the Party on the grounds of “participation in a Trotskyist terrorist counter-revolutionary group.” Far from threatening the Stalinist regime as a terrorist, Ginzburg—at that time the wife of Pavel Aksyonov, an important Party functionary in Kazan—had been a loyal Communist. As a journalist and teacher, she had dutifully followed the Party line concerning Kirov’s murder; but she had not joined the chorus of denunciation of Professor Elvov, a former colleague who had come under fire as a Trotskyite. Nor had she extenuated her presumed guilt by denouncing friends or associates in the Party for similar counterrevolutionary activity. Instead of following the jackals in their purge of innocents, she demanded justice and forced the bureaucrats to make a conspicuous example of her intransigence.

In 1935, she lost her license to teach; in the summer of 1937, after a brutal interrogation, she was sentenced to ten years of imprisonment; then she languished for the first year of her punishment in the harshest of Soviet prisons: Yaroslavl. Placed in solitary confinement in a damp cell, she suffered indignities almost too terrible to describe, but managed somehow to survive in prison until July, 1938, when her sentence was “commuted” to ten years of forced labor in Siberia. From Vladivostok, she and other “counter-revolutionary terrorists” were shuttled from camp to camp, until they took up their miserable residence in the Kolyma region of permafrost and desolation. By 1939, when Journey into the Whirlwind concludes, Ginzburg, nearly dead from exhaustion, malnutrition, and exposure from working as a tree-cutter, had through good fortune been saved by a Leningrad surgeon to work at a less exhausting task. Employed in the Elgen camp as a nurse for children born of prison inmates, she had little cause for optimism.

The second volume of Ginzburg’s reminiscences begins at this point. At first she is content working under the kindly supervision of Dr. Petukhov, but her position in the camp worsens some time after German armies invade the Soviet Union. Because of her German-sounding name, Ginzburg is interrogated by authorities of the Registration and Distribution Section, who release her for the ironical reason that her name indicates Jewish origin as well. “This must have been the first time in the history of the world,” she comments wryly, “that being Jewish was an advantage.” In time, however, her security is endangered by the Elgen commandant, Valentina Mikhailovna Zimmerman, a ruthless and fanatical puritan who persecutes with zeal any miserable inmate who violates the slightest deviation from camp regulations. Ginzburg runs afoul of Zimmerman for committing the petty “crime” of destroying a piece of paper from her pocket and is punished, losing her post for a sentence at Izvestkovaya, the “isle of the damned.”

Even at this camp, the “punishment center to end all punishment centers,” Ginzburg manages, almost miraculously, to survive; and after working at a lime quarry to the limit of exhaustion, she meets at the Taskan food processing plant another savior, Anton Yakovlevich Walter. This “jolly saint,” a doctor of homeopathic medicine, eventually is to become Ginzburg’s second husband, the man who will share her life through many of the grim years of her Siberian captivity. Dr. Walter, a German-born Catholic—and therefore twice suspect—is as guiltless of crime as she, but is also broken in health as a result of his imprisonment at the Dzhelgala gold mines. Nevertheless, his cheerful nature, his faith in God, and his inviolate human decency always strengthen Ginzburg, even when her will to survive seems to ebb, for always her position as a condemned political criminal threatens her very...

(The entire section is 1955 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

The Economist. CCLXXX, August 29, 1981, p. 79.

Library Journal. CVI, November 1, 1981, p. 2133.

The New Republic. CXXXV, August 1, 1981.

New Statesman. CII, October 9, 1981, p. 24.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVI, July 12, 1981, p. 10.

The New Yorker. LVII, August 31, 1981, p. 104.

Saturday Review. VIII, June, 1981, p. 58.

Time. CXVII, June 22, 1981, p. 77.

Times Literary Supplement. September 4, 1981, p. 1009.

The Wall Street Journal. CXCVIII, August 27, 1981, p. 18.