Journey into the Whirlwind | Study Guide

Eugenia Ginzburg

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Journey into the Whirlwind | Part 1, Chapters 19–21 | Summary



Chapter 19: Parting

Her interrogation over, Genia Ginzburg is moved to the prison in Krasin Street. Before leaving, she and Garey Sagidullin tap out farewell messages. Garey promises to remember her until his death, believing "the ties of prison kinship are indestructible." After she is taken from her cell, she is given back her watch, which stopped at two o'clock, not having been wound since February 15, 1937, "the day on which [her] life ended." In reflection, she ponders Garey's prediction that the prisons would crumble someday and how this "tenacious hope," however illusory, sustained her.

Chapter 20: New Encounters

As she did in the Black Lake cellars, Genia uses her time in the Black Maria (the truck used for transporting prisoners) to learn what has been going on since her arrest. She learns from another passenger—Yefrem Medvedyev, a former postgraduate student at the Marxist Institute and someone she knew in Kazan—that her children are well and her husband went to Moscow in an attempt to free her. Dozens of people have been arrested, including Communist Party activists, teachers, and engineers. Yefrem thinks the person responsible for the arrests and trouble is Nikolay Yezhov.

Genia is processed at the prison in Krasin Street. A nurse searches her and asks why she rebelled against the government. She asks if it was for the luxuries of "cars, villas, foreign clothes." When Genia explains her arrest is a misunderstanding, the nurse says she heard Genia tried to help poor people. Genia is placed in Cell 6 with six cellmates:

  • Nadezhda Derkovskaya, a Social Revolutionary member, who greets Genia when she first arrives in the cell by telling her she is glad Communists are finally being jailed.
  • Ira Yegereva, who is one of Genia's former cellmates at Black Lake—she brought dresses received in parcels and regales her new cellmates with stories about them.
  • Big Anna, a 28-year-old friendly and kind non-Communist railway clerk whose crimes were telling two political jokes. She is considered a "babbler," an apolitical person who makes the mistake of criticizing the Communist Party.
  • Little Anna, a nervous 28-year-old Party activist for women's welfare; her crimes are allegedly "sabotaging Party work" and "association with the people." Fearful of others reporting what she says, she secretly confides in Genia.
  • Lydia Georgievna Mentzinger, a 57-year-old German and Seventh-day Adventist who has been imprisoned three times.
  • Nina Yeremenko, a former leather-goods factory worker and non-Communist who went to a party hoping to see a man she was interested in. Instead, someone at the party told a joke about Joseph Stalin, and Nina was arrested for failing to report and denounce the joke teller.

One day Genia offers Derkovskaya—a chain smoker who has run out of cigarettes—some cigarettes from a parcel her mother sent. Derkovskaya taps a message to a Social Revolutionary member in the next cell, unaware that Genia knows the prison alphabet. She wants to know if she should accept the cigarettes. The answer is no. Genia reflects how Derkovskaya would rather do without something than take it from someone with a different political ideology.

Chapter 21: Orphans Twice Over

Prisoners are able to communicate more easily at Krasin Street prison than at the prison in Black Lake. Broken window screens also enable nearby prisoners to hear each other. Sasha, a rural committee secretary in the cell below Cell 6, devises a new way to communicate: by singing. Soon the prisoners are singing verses that identify their names, what they are in for, and news of the outside world.

One day Sasha is beaten during an interrogation (beating prisoners now being an approved method). After he returns to his cell, Genia and her cellmates pass cigarettes to him by tying them to threads pulled from Genia's bathrobe. That evening Sasha tells Genia her husband was arrested a week ago and is also in the Krasin Street prison. The news hits Genia exceptionally hard. She thought her children were safe and being cared for by their father. Now she learns they are "orphans twice over." She spends that evening and night filled with despair and memories of life with her children. She recalls a painful memory that "tortured [her] like fire," and was overcome with the hopelessness of knowing "there was nothing in the world I could do now to put it right." That night Lydia Mentzinger comes to her bunk and comforts her. When she tells her that "God protects the fatherless" and "God is on their side," Genia finally expresses her sorrow with tears.


Chapter 19 develops the theme of hope—described as illusory and tenacious but something that made it possible for Genia Ginzburg and other prisoners to endure their situations. It also introduces the theme of remembrance. Garey Sagidullin's parting words describe the close bonds forged in prison, and help explain why Genia wants to pay tribute to those she met there (and later in the Gulag). It is evident she has strong feelings for her cellmate, Lyama Shepel, so unlike anyone she has ever known but whose kindness transcends those differences and make an indelible impression on her. She similarly feels a strong connection with Garey and decades after their short time together remembers him as if she had known him all her life.

Chapter 20 continues to develop both of these themes. Genia names and describes each cellmate in her new prison, both to tell her story and to tell their stories—at least the bits of their stories she knows. Gaining information and communicating it to others were essential to Genia and other prisoners in keeping the connection with the world outside the prison, maintaining the hope they would return to that world, and providing information that helped them understand what was happening in the Soviet Union. Genia wryly notes it was human nature for people to try to figure out explanations for what was happening, but she makes no such attempts to understand. Instead, she focuses on gathering information, communing with others, and interacting with others in a humane way.

The chapter also develops the theme of humanity. Genia is placed in a cell with people quite different from her and unlike people she has known. She is open to them, though, and willing to be kind to them despite their differences. For example, she is willing to offer cigarettes to Nadezhda Derkovskaya, who has been rude to her. Unlike Derkovskaya, unwilling to accept the gift because Genia belongs to a different party, Genia is able to see beyond their differences. She realizes the shared commonalities of human beings despite their ideologies, and understands their setting up barriers because of them—a form of "torture which human beings inflict on one another." She is unwilling to participate in this; she sees others as humans no matter what their political party membership or social class.

Genia's blissful ignorance of what has happened to her family ends in Chapter 21 when she learns her husband, Paul Aksyonov, has been arrested. Up to this point she has been able to endure as long as she thinks she herself is the only one to suffer greatly, but knowing her children no longer have a parent to protect them makes her feel a pain deeper than anything she has experienced in prison. Able to bear what happens to her, she is unable to bear what has happened to her children and is crushed at her inability to protect and care for them. These emotions reveal her deep maternal love and selflessness. It is not so much because she wants to be with them—though she surely does—but because she does not want them to lack a parent's caring, even if it is not hers.

Lydia Mentzinger, "a strange woman from a world unknown" to Genia, reaches out to her in her pain and offers comfort. She shares words of her religious faith and, in doing so, establishes a commonality with Genia that spans their differences. She offers Genia hope, telling her that her children will be protected. Whether or not this reassurance is based on truth, Genia needs that hope and is grateful to Lydia.

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