Journey into the Whirlwind | Study Guide

Eugenia Ginzburg

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Journey into the Whirlwind | Context


Aftermath of the Russian Revolution of 1917

A series of rebellions in 1917 abolished the monarchy in Russia. The goal of these rebellions was to eliminate imperial rule and effect political and social changes that would create a more equal society in the state. Following the October Revolution in November 1917, the Bolshevik Party, led by communist leader Vladimir I. Lenin, assumed power. Party leaders established a supreme party committee (the Central Committee) with absolute authority. The new government confiscated private land and turned privately owned factories over to workers. These events are known as the Russian Revolution of 1917. In 1918 the government moved the capital to Moscow and created a new constitution. In 1922 the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or Soviet Union, was founded. This replaced the former state of Russia. The word Russia, however, continued to be used for political purposes, such as in the name of the Russian Communist Party.

As leader of the Bolshevik Party, renamed the Russian Communist Party in March 1918, Lenin was head of the government and ruled the country as a dictator. He banned all political parties other than the Communist Party, prohibited speech and publications that opposed the Communist Party, and implemented an economic system based on Marxism (the political and economic theories of German philosophers Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels). At the heart of these theories was the philosophical ideology of transforming the world to make it more just. After Lenin's death in 1924, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin became the head of state and ruled as a dictator until his death in 1953.

Having risen quickly through the ranks, by 1919 Stalin was a member of the Politburo, the Communist Party's highest executive body, and named General Secretary of the party in 1922. Although he increased the power of this position, he was not the most powerful party leader at the time of Lenin's death. Leon Trotsky, one of the activists instrumental in the Russian Revolution of 1917, was the most powerful—and he was widely expected to be Lenin's successor. Stalin, however, managed to have a three-person coalition (which included himself) rule the country immediately after Lenin's death. The next year he dropped the other two members and became the sole ruler. He expelled Trotsky from the party in 1927 and exiled him in 1928.

Stalin used brutal methods to modernize and industrialize the Soviet Union. He initiated a system of collective agriculture in which the government took possession of all agricultural land, which workers then farmed for the benefit of the state. He established a series of Five-Year Plans to implement his vision for industrialization. Eventually, he used forced labor (such as prison workers) to execute these plans. He also used propaganda and repression to minimize opposition and threats to his power. He removed anyone from power he suspected was not absolutely loyal to him. Through persistent indoctrination, he fostered the public's belief that he was the only person capable of leading the Soviet Union. He believed he could save it from the dangers of Western capitalism, an economy based on private enterprise rather than state-controlled and regulated industry. Many Soviet citizens, inspired by the Russian Revolution of 1917, fell prey to his propaganda, and a cult of adoration developed.

Genia Ginzburg grew up in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution of 1917, a time of sweeping social and cultural change. Women were allowed new educational opportunities and trained to be active members of the new society. Ginzburg benefited from these changes and trained as a historian and scholar. She became a Communist Party member, fully embracing its ideals. Indeed, she felt so strongly about the party at one point in her memoir, she acknowledges she would have died for it. At that point, she was grateful for the opportunities given to her because of the Party and believed it was creating an ideal state. Her memoir shows her journey from an idealistic, naive party member to a more experienced truth-seeker who values humanity over politics. Her personal journey in ways reflects the evolution of the Soviet Union from the aftermath of the revolution to the death of Stalin and shows the rise and fall of the ideals and visions of the revolution.

Stalin and the Great Terror

After Vladimir I. Lenin's death, Joseph Stalin became increasingly worried about possible threats to his power. His fear led to a systematic plan to eliminate potential enemies and, consequently, to a period of massive repression, resulting in the arrests, imprisonments, and deaths of millions of people in the Soviet Union. Known by various names such as the Great Purge and the Great Terror, this period is one of the darkest in Soviet history.

Although 1936 is the year the purges started, they evolved from a series of events, beginning on December 1, 1934, when Sergei Kirov, the Communist Party leader in Leningrad, was assassinated. His killer was a fellow party member, but many historians suspect Stalin's involvement, which has never been proven. Kirov's assassination resulted in a Politburo-led campaign encouraging party members to expose people who were threats to the party. Stalin's chief threats were Leon Trotsky (one of the activists instrumental in the Russian Revolution of 1917 and one of the most powerful leaders in the Russian Communist Party in the late 1910s and early 1920s) and other Marxists (supporters of Karl Marx and a socialism-based economy). Unlike Trotsky, Stalin was neither a Marxist nor an advocate of universal revolution. Instead, he wanted to industrialize the Soviet state to make it a strong and modern nation.

A period of harsh and widespread repression followed, with massive arrests, trials, imprisonments, and executions. Trials were shams—with the only evidence being witness statements, which were coerced. They lacked judicial procedures, such as questioning of witnesses and verifying the veracity of their statements, and the outcomes were predetermined. Entire social groups were arrested or executed. Among them were criminals and foreigners. All of the Polish Communist Party leaders were arrested or shot. The Communist International officials were likewise liquidated. People living near a border, or those who owned a radio or spoke a foreign language, disappeared or were arrested. Anyone in contact with the world beyond the Soviet Union was eliminated to prevent them communicating with people who could not be controlled by Stalin and his army of supporters—and to eliminate possible enemy agents.

Purges of party members began in 1936, with the height of the Great Terror occurring during the years 1936–38. Common targets of arrest and "disappearance" were Trotsky supporters, members of opposition parties, and people associated with them. By spring of 1937 many high-level party officials, intellectuals, and journalists were arrested and charged with being Trotskyist terrorists and of spreading counterrevolutionary ideas. Members of these groups were targeted because they were in positions of educating others and communicating opposing ideas. As potential political opponents, they were "enemies of the people."

According to William J. Chase, in Enemies within the Gates?: The Comintern and the Stalinist Repression, 1934–1939, local communist organizations had quotas for arrests and executions to fill. Because they were often unable to fill them, they soon began arresting family members and anyone associated with targeted groups. Over time, the leaders of these communist organizations became targets themselves. Purges were carried out against high-ranking officials in local and regional organizations as well as in the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD), or the secret police. Anyone who held any type of power was perceived as a potential threat to Stalin's power, and they were eliminated to prevent them from exercising that power to defy him or reduce his authority.

Those arrested received sham trials. Documents discovered in the Politburo decades later revealed orders with names of individuals and predetermined sentences. Many of these lists were signed by Stalin, proving his involvement in, and responsibility for, the purges. For example, one document, dated July 30, 1937, and approved by Stalin, gave the order for the arrests of about 250,000 people. Of these about 73,000 were shot. More than a thousand such lists exist. The total number of people arrested, imprisoned, and killed is unknown. Some historians have speculated more than six million people were arrested, three million executed, and two million died in camps. Other historians believe the numbers were fewer. Those spared the death sentence were sent to the Gulag, a system of labor camps throughout the Soviet Union, providing much of the labor to industrialize the nation.

Nikita Khrushchev became General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union following Stalin's death in March 1953. He was Chairman of the Council of Ministers (or Premier) from 1958 to 1964. At the 20th Party Congress in February 1956, he delivered the famous speech in which he denounced Stalin, acknowledging the great purges and wrongful arrests and deaths. The first official acknowledgment of Stalin's abuses of power, his speech had far-reaching effects and led to an anti-Stalinization movement that spread throughout the Soviet bloc and inspired popular uprisings to overthrow the communist governments in Hungary and Poland in 1956. Khrushchev crushed those attempts, but in an effort to appease growing discontent, he instituted major reforms to make the government more palatable to the public. In addition to improving relations with other countries, he released millions of political prisoners still held in camps and prisons. Many, such as Genia Ginzburg, were required to be rehabilitated before they were allowed to return to their former hometowns or settle in new ones.

The Gulag

The Gulag was a system of labor camps in the Soviet Union. Established following the 1917 Revolution, the first camps held political prisoners and criminals. In the late 1920s Stalin expanded the network of camps, and by the early 1950s more than 475 camps existed throughout the Soviet Union.

Stalin used the camps for two purposes. He first used them to house people he wanted removed from society as threats to his power: foreigners, aristocrats, merchants, intellectuals, journalists, and political opponents. During the Great Terror of the 1930s, he significantly increased the number of people sent to the camps and added new targets, such as higher-level Communist Party officials and members of the NKVD (the secret police). He also used the camps to provide slave labor for industrializing the nation. Persons sentenced to hard labor were sent to the Gulag and worked long hours for no pay at agricultural and forestry centers, factories, building sites, and mines.

An estimated 18 million people are thought to have been sent to the Gulag, with an additional six million sent to Siberia, although no official records corroborate the numbers. The majority of the camps were in undeveloped areas, especially in the far eastern part of Russia and the north. Millions died before completing their sentences. The environments were harsh, often with long, brutal winters and primitive housing. Prisoners lacked adequate clothing for the weather and work; frostbite and other weather-related afflictions were common. Food was scarce and equally inadequate, and many prisoners suffered from vitamin deficiencies, starvation, and other illnesses. Others were executed by the prison guards.

The camps provided the economic growth of the Soviet Union and were expanded during the 1940s and early 1950s; the booming manufacturing segment fueled by slave labor. Gulag prisoners provided the labor for most factories, including airplane and weapons manufacturing. The economic factor came to dominate the camps, and prisoners were viewed as labor units, expected to achieve productivity quotas to meet the Soviet Union's economic plans. Individuals failing to meet these quotas were denied full food rations and often punished.

The system of mass forced labor camps began declining almost immediately after Stalin died in 1953. Many prisoners were soon released or rehabilitated, and by 1957 the Gulag was dismantled. Several camps, however, remained open and housed political prisoners in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1987 Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev ceased operations at all former Gulag camps.

Gulag Memoirs

Following Stalin's death many individuals wrote firsthand reports of life in Russia during Stalin's rule. Some writers wanted to give testimony of what had happened to them—and of the Soviet state's crimes under Stalin. Others wanted to pay tribute to individuals who had experienced repression and suffered in the prisons and Gulag camps of the 1930s through the 1950s. Others wanted to make sense of the experience and analyze their experiences in terms of the larger social, political, and economic realms.

Eugenia Ginzburg's two-volume memoir aims to address all of these purposes. She initially wrote Journey into the Whirlwind to provide a personal testimony for her son and unborn grandchild. She later sought to publish the first volume of her memoir to inform her immediate family, and others, about her personal experiences and the consequences of the Soviet state's actions against its own people. She interjects her memories with historical events to show a correlation and progression of the state's repression. In her second volume she provides a more thorough analysis of the Soviet state's—and the Communist Party's—failings, and her suggestions of how it could remedy its shortcomings to align with the intent of the Russian revolutionary vision and ambitions. Taken together, both books show her spiritual journey from an idealistic devotee of the Soviet state and Communist Party member to a doubter who questions whether the Soviet state should survive, to a more reflective individual who rejects the ideology of her youth and proposes a new direction for the Soviet state.

Like Holocaust literature, Gulag memoirs seek to bear witness. The theme of remembrance is prevalent in these memoirs because the authors want the world to know and remember what happened so it may never happen again. Many of these memoirs include significant information about those who died during Stalin's purges and their aftermath. The memoirs are sometimes the only publicly available information about what happened to individuals during their incarcerations or the manners of their deaths. Ginzburg bears witness for dozens of people she met during her imprisonment, often just giving their names, where they were from, and when and where they were imprisoned. In fact, her account may be the only written record of what happened to them.

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