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Journey into the Whirlwind | Study Guide

Eugenia Ginzburg

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Journey into the Whirlwind | Part 1, Chapters 1–3 | Summary



Chapter 1: A Telephone Call at Dawn

On December 1, 1934, a member of the Communist Party phones Genia Ginzburg, a teacher, and instructs her to be at the regional committee office at 6 a.m. A loyal and obedient Party member, Genia rushes to the office, where she learns Sergei Kirov has been murdered. The teachers are to go to the factories to inform the workers of this news. Genia goes to a textile mill in the Kazan district where she lives, and then returns to town. While having tea at the canteen, she encounters Yestafyev, a longtime friend. In a "voice so strange" it fills Genia with "a terrible foreboding of misfortune," he tells her the murderer was a Party member.

Chapter 2: The Red-Haired Professor

In February 1935, Genia Ginzburg and Nikolay Elvov, a history professor at the Teachers Training Institute and journalist at the local newspaper, the Red Tartary, talk in her office at Kazan University. Usually vibrant and articulate, Elvov has "the weariness of a hunted animal." He tells Genia anything she may hear about him is "a pack of lies." He is referring to his role in contributing a chapter to the four-volume textbook History of the All-Union Communist Party. Joseph Stalin has accused him of making errors in his treatment of the events of 1905 (specifically about the theory of permanent revolution), which bear more resemblance to Leon Trotsky's ideas than to Stalin's.

Genia tries to comfort him, thinking he will receive a reprimand at most. She is shocked and fails to understand his meaning when he apologizes for any future suffering she may endure for her association with him. The next day an old porter at Kazan University informs her that Elvov has been arrested.

Chapter 3: Prelude

A few days after Elvov's arrest, Genia attends a meeting at the Red Tartary editorial office. She is accused of not having denounced Elvov "as a purveyor of Trotskyist contraband" or of writing "a crushing review" of a book he edited, or "even once, attacked him in a public meeting." Further, she contributed to History of the All-Union Communist Party, writing an article about the 19th century. Genia defends her inaction, saying she acted no differently from anyone on the regional committee. She also queries her interrogator, asking if Elvov had been proven a Trotskyist. The interrogator replies no one would be arrested without grounds: "There's something definite against him." The meeting is life-changing for Genia, as it is the first time she encounters the peculiar form of logic and common sense that would dominate the Communist Party for the next 20 years.

The office typist, Alexandra Alexandrovna, tries to persuade Genia to admit guilt regarding her inaction and apologize to avoid a worse punishment. She warns Genia she does not "understand what's going on" and is "heading for a lot of trouble," but Genia refuses to act hypocritically and admit guilt. Genia acknowledges that in retrospect, had she known what would happen to her she would have recanted and admitted her guilt. At the time, however, she was a "proud, incorruptible, inflexible being."

Genia receives a reprimand for "slackening of political vigilance." The board members of the regional committee later cancel the reprimand and replace it with a "mild reproof for 'insufficient vigilance.'"


The opening words of Chapter 1 portend the gravity of the book. An event on December 1, 1934, foreshadows the year 1937, which will forever change Genia Ginzburg's life as well as the lives of millions of Soviet citizens. This event is the murder of Sergei Kirov. A Communist Party member and member of the Politburo in Leningrad, he was assassinated by Leonid Nikolaev, a fellow Communist. His death was the impetus for Joseph Stalin, General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (i.e., political leader), to carry out widespread purges to eliminate real or imagined threats to his power. Stalin implemented a system of laws that punished all opposition—from negative criticism of the Communist Party to terrorist actions against the state. Individuals were accused and convicted of these crimes and imprisoned and/or killed without real judicial review and/or evidence. Genia—and many people she knew—would be among them.

Genia's devotion to the Communist Party is evident, as she claims, "Had I been ordered to die for the Party ... [I] would have obeyed without hesitation." Yet her distrust of Stalin is evident as well. She does not idolize him as many Party members have begun to do, but she keeps these thoughts to herself.

Her lack of political savvy is revealed in Chapter 2. When Nikolay Elvov apologizes for anything that may happen to her, she cannot comprehend what he is talking about. She has absolute faith in the Communist Party and cannot envision it inflicting punishment or harm to its members. But she has no awareness of the depths of Stalin's paranoia or how his ideology will cause him to strike out at his supporters.

Genia struggles with the concept of honesty versus leniency in Chapter 3. After she is accused of failure to denounce Elvov, a Red Tartary office typist tries to persuade Genia to admit guilt to avoid harsher punishment. Proud and upright, Genia is nonetheless naive and cannot perceive of the Communist Party turning against its own members. Holding herself to a high standard of honesty, she believes she would degrade herself by admitting to something she did not do. She knows nothing but honesty and expects it to be its own reward. An older Genia, however, adds commentary and acknowledges that "if the same thing happened to me today, I would 'recant' ... for I too have changed." No longer young or idealistic, she implies she would easily sacrifice her own honesty for leniency.

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