Journey into the Whirlwind | Study Guide

Eugenia Ginzburg

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Journey into the Whirlwind | Part 1, Chapters 16–18 | Summary



Chapter 16: "Can You Forgive Me?"

During the next month Genia Ginzburg is interrogated only once. From the interrogator, she learns her children are well and she can receive parcels. One day a new cellmate, Ira Yegereva, arrives. A recent graduate in hydrobiology at the university where her father is a professor, Ira is apolitical and does not know what the term right-wing deviation means.

Garey Sagidullin also has a new cellmate, Bari Abdullin, second secretary of the regional committee. He and Genia were friends and even played on the same volleyball team. After other administrative staff refused to take her Communist Party membership dues, Genia had gone to him at the regional offices and asked for his help. Instead, he told her she had given the Party "every reason to distrust [her], especially since she refused to admit [her] mistakes." Could what Sagidullin said be true? Does the Party want to exterminate everyone who could stop Joseph Stalin from becoming a dictator?

For two days, Garey does not tap to his neighbors. Abdullin is being interrogated on the "conveyor belt," a term meaning "continuous questioning by interrogators working in shifts," and conducted in the standing cell, a dark, narrow place where a "prisoner could only stand upright." After Abdullin is returned to his cell unconscious, Sagidullin taps the news to his neighbors and asks if they have any cigarettes. Genia has just received a parcel from her mother, which contains cigarettes. She and her cellmates smuggle a pack of cigarettes, soap, and butter into the washroom. After Abdullin retrieves them, he taps and asks Genia if she can forgive him. Genia replies with a light touch, making a joke about learning prison technology: "Technology is the key to socialist reconstruction."

Chapter 17: The "Conveyor Belt"

Genia is put on the "conveyor belt" for seven days. Its purpose is to wear down a prisoner's resistance during "uninterrupted questioning by a changing team of examiners." She receives no food and is not allowed to sleep or return to her cell at night. The rotating crew of interrogators includes Interrogator Livanov, Captain Vevers, Major Yelshin, and State Security Lieutenant Tsarevsky. They want her to sign a statement that confirms she was a member of a terrorist group, started a local branch, and recruited Tartar writers. Genia repeatedly refuses to sign. One night an enraged Vevers, high on cocaine, throws a heavy paperweight at Genia, barely missing her head. The close call frightens Vevers, for at this time interrogators were not yet authorized to kill prisoners. Genia eventually passes out and awakens "on her bunk" in her cell.

Chapter 18: Confrontations

In April of 1937 Genia is put on the conveyor belt again for five days, returning to her cell for three hours each day. Because she still refuses to sign either of the two statements offered to her, the interrogators implement a new method: confrontation. Two witnesses are brought in, one at time. Both are people Genia knows and has had a good relationship with in the past. Volodya Dyakonov is a writer at the Red Tartary. Genia had taught him the journalism business and he fondly considered her as a sister. The interrogator asks Dyakonov to confirm his statement of the prior day: Genia was a member of a "subversive counterrevolutionary terrorist group" operating at the Red Tartary. Dyakonov denies the statement and says he admitted that the people mentioned only "held important jobs at the paper." The interrogator records Dyakonov's answer as saying Genia was a member of the terrorist group, and asks him to sign it. When Dyakonov balks, the interrogator threatens to arrest him for giving false evidence. Dyakonov reluctantly signs and quietly asks Genia to forgive him, saying he just had a child and needs to stay alive for her. Genia asks, "What about my three children ... and the children of all those people on your list?" She also points out he is guilty of a crime if he knew of such a subversive group at the newspaper and did not report it earlier.

The next witness is Genia's longtime friend, Nalya Kozlova, who also worked on staff at the Red Tartary. She eagerly signs a statement with the same claim as Dyakonov, plus another stating that Genia was responsible for political indoctrination. While her interrogator is distracted with a phone call, Genia speaks in French to her former friend and chides her for her actions. After Nalya threatens to make more claims, Genia threatens to "name [Nalya] as an active member of the group," which shuts her up, but she still signs the statement. Genia says she will soon be shot because of Nalya's "lies about me," and Nalya's "eyes [fill] with terror" as she leaves.


In these chapters readers see how different prisoners make efforts to retain their humanity. In Chapter 16 Genia Ginzburg shares her treasured items with Bari Abdullin, even though he treated her harshly when in a position to help her. Lyama Shepel shows her compassion for Abdullin by offering him butter to improve his health. Even the self-centered Ira Yegereva shows her humanity by helping smuggle goods into the washroom. If discovered, she would have been punished severely.

Abdullin is big enough to ask Genia's forgiveness. This is his true crime, turning against innocent people and playing a willing role in the Communist Party's scheme to eliminate threats to Stalin. Now in the same situation as Genia, he sympathizes with her and does not want her to help him if such action puts her in danger. No longer a dehumanizer, he has restored his humanity.

In Chapter 17 Genia's cellmates tenderly care for her after she passes out during the "conveyor belt." Ira Yegereva shares several treasured items from her parcel, showing her willingness to think beyond herself (something she is not used to doing) to help someone in need. The prisoners extend compassion and empathy to each other. They share their limited possessions, even if they will have to do with less. They keep the fires of their humanity alive and represent a strong counterpart to their interrogators, who have no regard for their prisoners and treat them inhumanely by depriving them of food and sleep.

In Chapter 18 Genia reaffirms her intent to follow her conscience and shows her disdain for those who follow "the moral code of the new age." Both witnesses who confront her do so to save their own necks, but Genia knows their present action is no protection, and that they, too, may end up being accused, just like her. What would have happened if no one ratted out their friends and colleagues? Would silence have stopped the purges or altered the course of history?

Genia describes her interrogator as Robespierre, an allusion to Maximilien Robespierre, a leader during the French Revolution responsible for executing suspected enemies of the people during the Reign of Terror.

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