Ten years imprisonment and five years in exile. The penalty for being innocent.
Eugenia Ginzburg, a 30 year old Communist idealist and card-carrying Party member, received this sentence in 1937 for failing to denounce a purportedly “Trotskyist” colleague. One ofÂ the victims of Stalin’s blood-crazed purges, she joined millions of her peers on a journey through the Soviet Gulag, a system of prisons and labor camps that far exceeded the Nazi Holocaust in size and number of victims.
In Journey into the Whirlwind, Mrs. Ginzburg recounts the story of her arrest, initial imprisonment, and transport to Siberia in a train car labeled “Special Equipment”. Her ability to remember events and conversations and turn them into a page-turning narrative reveals her exceptional skill as a writer, a skill that the Gulag did not take away from her. In this first book, however, she is somewhat restrained in expressing her thoughts and feelings. SheÂ paid lip service to Communism in hopes that the book would be published in her own country, which did not happen in her lifetime.
Within the Whirlwind continues the story of her life in the Gulag in the Kolyma region of Siberia, an extremely remote area in the far east. In this book, published only after her death, she is far more open about her disillusionment with Communism, the horrors of the Gulag, and her emotions about the evils she saw daily. She shares detailed accounts of the horrors she saw and experienced, yet without being crass. Throughout her story she maintains a sense of dignity that sharply contrasts with her circumstances.
Her chance of surviving to be released was greatly increased by becoming a nurse at a camp hospital. ThisÂ protected her from the deadly combination of exposure to the elements and back-breaking work that most camp inmates had to endure.
“Sometimes mad thoughts occurred to me: What about crossing out the words “History of Illness,” instead writing at the top “History of Murder”? But I, of course, did not have spirit enough to do that. Besides, whom would it have helped?
Mrs. Ginzburg goes far beyond simply narrating events. She digs deep into the emotions of things, describing how she experienced the Gulag as a woman, a wife, and a mother. This is perhaps the most human book about the labor camps I have ever read. In spite of years of continuous exposure to brutality, she never lost her ability to see and feel the humanity and personhood ofÂ those around her. She puts a face to this decades-long Holocaust, and an expression to the sorrow that those of us who know the Man of Sorrows must be willing to feel ourselves.
When she heard that Stalin had died . . .
“I collapsed on the table, sobbing loudly. My body shook. It was my unwinding, not only for these last months spent awaiting my third arrest; I was also weeping for two lost decades. In the space of a minute the whole procession of events swept by before my eyes. All the tortures and all the prison cells. All the long files of those who had suffered the final penalty, and the countless legions of those who had been made to suffer. And my own life destroyed by his diabolical will. And my boy, my dead son . . .
“Somewhere over the hill and far away in a Moscow that had become unreal to us, the blood-stained graven idol of our century had breathed his last. That was an event of overwhelming importance for millions whose suffering had not yet reached its term, for those nearest and dearest to them, and for each small, individual life.
“I must confess that I was sobbing not for the monumental historical tragedy alone, but most of all for myself. What this man had done to me, to my spirit, to my children, to my mother . . .”