Education and Family
Eugenia Semyonovna Ginzburg, whose name is also spelled Evgenia Ginzburg and Yevgenia Ginzburg, was born on December 20, 1904, in Moscow, Russia, into a middle-class Jewish family. Her father was a pharmacist. When she was very young, her family moved to Kazan, in southwestern Russia, about 450 miles from Moscow.
Ginzburg turned 13 about a month after the 1917 Russian Revolution, in which the Imperial government was overthrown and the Bolsheviks took power. Growing up in postrevolutionary Russia, known then as the Soviet Union, she was deeply affected by the Bolshevik ideology that shaped the Russian (and later, Soviet) states. This ideology led to the formation of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, which sought to institute communism, a political and economic ideology that opposed capitalism, or a profit-based economy, and advocated for publicly owned property rather than private property. As member of the intelligentsia, or educated group of society, she was trained by the state to be a teacher. While still in college she joined the Communist Party and became a party activist. After graduating from the Kazan State University in the early 1920s, she became a lecturer of history at the university and also worked at a local newspaper, the Red Tartary, becoming the head of the cultural department.
When she was in her 20s, Ginzburg married Paul Aksyonov (also spelled Pavel Aksyonov), head of the Kazan city council and a member of the Tatar Regional Communist Party Committee. Their son Vasily (Vaska) was born in 1932. Ginzburg had a son, Alexei (Alyosha), born in 1926, from a previous marriage. Paul also had a daughter, Mayka Aksyonova, from a previous relationship.
The Great Terror and Imprisonment
Ginzburg was interrogated intermittently for more than two years for failing to criticize the work of a fellow journalist who wrote a history book chapter that disagreed with Joseph Stalin's theory of permanent revolution. Stalin was the General Secretary of the Communist Party (from 1922 to 1953), one of the highest positions in the Party. After Vladimir I. Lenin, the founder of the Communist Party in Russia and the first head of the Soviet Union (the former Russia), died in 1924, Stalin ruled the Soviet state as a dictator until his death in 1953. In 1937 Ginzburg was arrested and accused of participating in a counterrevolutionary terrorist organization, crimes under Article 58 of the Soviet Penal Code. She was stripped of her party membership and held in prison in Kazan while awaiting trial. Later that year she was transferred to a prison in Moscow, where her case was heard by a military trial. She was found guilty and sentenced to 10 years of solitary confinement. She spent two years in partial solitary confinement in the prison at Yaroslavl before being transferred to a labor camp in the Kolyma region of Siberia. This camp was part of the Gulag, a network of labor camps across the Soviet Union. While in prison at Yaroslavl she learned her husband had also been arrested.
In 1939, after short stints of light-duty assignments, she was sent to the Elgen state farm, a notorious hard-labor facility, where she was assigned to cut trees. Eventually, she was reassigned to a children's home, where she worked first as a medical assistant and then as a nurse. While working in the children's home, Ginzburg met a fellow prisoner, Anton Walter, a German Catholic doctor, who would later become her third husband.
Release from Prison
Ginzburg was released from the Gulag camp on February 15, 1947, but was sentenced to six years of exile. She served them in Magadan, a town in the Kolyma region of Siberia, living with a friend whom she had met in prison. While there she was reunited with her younger son, Vaska, whom she had not seen since 1937. (In the 1950s Vaska would become a well-known writer.) Her elder son, Alyosha, died in the siege of Leningrad (1941–44) during World War II in which a German blockade prevented food and supplies from reaching the inhabitants, resulting in the deaths of 650,000 people. In 1949 Ginzburg was arrested again and sentenced to permanent exile.
Ginzburg's husband Anton Walter completed his sentence and was released in 1955. He and Ginzburg were allowed to leave Kolyma, and moved to Lvov (now called Lviv, in Ukraine) where he died four years later.
Ginzburg was released from permanent exile after she completed her re-education. She moved to Moscow in 1955. There she became a writer and wrote several works about her childhood, university years, and teaching career that were published in the journal Iunost (Youth). She also wrote several novellas, including This Is the Way It Began (1961) and Students of the Twenties (1966). In her later years she wrote her memoir in two volumes, Krutoi marshrut (Steep Route), originally as a testimony of her experience as a victim of Soviet state repression.
In October 1961, Nikita Khrushchev spoke out against Joseph Stalin at the 22nd Congress of the Communist Party. This event was significant because congresses are used for establishing official state policies and because it was the first official acknowledgment of Stalin's repression against members of his own party and Soviet citizens. In 1962 Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn published One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, a novel set in a labor camp in the Gulag that depicted the brutality and oppression of the camp. While the work was fictional, it was based Solzhenitsyn's personal experiences in the Gulag. After these two events, Ginzburg decided to publish her memoir and share her experiences and reflections with the public. She tried to get the first volume published in Moscow but was unsuccessful. In 1967, however, it was published in Italy and Germany, translated as Journey into the Whirlwind. The second volume, translated as Within the Whirlwind, was published in 1979, again in Italy.
Volume 1 of Ginzburg's memoir covers the period 1934–39, the years before her arrest, her first two years in solitary confinement, and the first few months in the Gulag camp in Kolyma. During these years she developed an increased awareness about herself, the Communist Party, and the Soviet state. Initially a naive woman who firmly believed in the Communist Party, she went through several stages in which she questioned the Party and her faith in it. She developed a strong sense of spirituality and humanity that caused her to view others—especially non-Communists—differently.
Volume 2, covering the years from 1939 onward, explores her awakening awareness in more depth, and is more a journey into her soul than a recounting of experiences. She deepens her questioning of Communist ideals, becoming ashamed of the Communist Party and feeling immense guilt for being a member. She attempts to come up with a more ideal political system that is true to what she perceives as the ideals of the revolution.
Ginzburg died on May 25, 1977. Her memoir is the first written by a woman held in a Gulag labor camp, making it a counterpart to Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. It is written in a compelling narrative style, interspersed with historical information about people and events, allowing readers to gain a greater understanding of the Soviet Union's history under Joseph Stalin, while also learning about one individual's firsthand experience as a victim of the Great Terror (also known as the Great Purge). It also provides a moving account of how many women endured crimes against humanity and managed to remain humane and resilient in the face of brutality.