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Journey into the Whirlwind | Study Guide

Eugenia Ginzburg

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Journey into the Whirlwind | Part 1, Chapters 25–27 | Summary



Chapter 25: Introduction to Butyrki

After the train arrives in Moscow, Genia Ginzburg and her fellow prisoners "sense the tremendous scale of the operation in which [they] were involved as victims." They are "loaded into a Black Maria," a transport truck where each is placed in an individual locked cage. While waiting to leave the station they talk freely, as there are no guards. Genia learns her former prison neighbor, Bari Abdullin, is on the truck. Later she learns he is executed. Other prisoners on the truck include almost the entire former Tartar Republic government and several regional committee board members.

Conditions in the Black Maria are horrendous, and Genia passes out in the stifling vehicle. When they arrive at Butyrki prison, a nurse opens Genia's cage door and revives her with ammonia. The nurse then goes on to do the same for the other passenger-prisoners. Genia then walks into an enormous reception hall where she waits to be processed. Next she is placed in a kennel, barely "larger than a telephone booth." To prevent them from communicating, prisoners are placed in these kennels any time they have to wait for something. After Genia is removed from the kennel, she is taken to a large room where she is strip-searched and her possessions are confiscated. In this room, an 18-year-old Communist Party member, Katya Shirokova, asks Genia for advice. She has observed another prisoner hiding something in her hair and wants to know if she should report it because the other woman could be a "real class enemy." To discourage her Genia asks, "What about you and me, Katya? Are we?" Katya misses the point, and Genia tells her to be "guided by the instinct which is generally known as conscience." Next Genia is fingerprinted, photographed, and allowed to shower.

Genia is then led to a special block and locked in a huge cell with large windows made of frosted glass. Genia sleeps on the floor, as all the beds are taken, but a wardress comes in and orders her to sit, not lie, on the floor. Another prisoner, Nushik, exchanges places with a grateful Genia. As they talk, they discover they know each other and had once shared a dormitory during postgraduate school. Nushik confides that Joseph Stalin is behind all the trouble.

There are 39 women in the cell, aged 16 to 74. Genia reflects she had it better than some others at that time; her youth being on her side. But she also thinks she suffered from humiliation more than others. "The sense of outrage and degradation" causes her more pain than physical suffering.

Chapter 26: The Whole of the Comintern

Genia is placed in a new cell. Her cellmates are mostly from Germany, Latvia, and China, with just a few fellow Soviets. They and Genia are eager to share what they know about current events—who has been arrested, and who is on trial—but Genia knows less than they do. Then Genia talks with two Germans, Greta and Klara. Klara was tortured by both the Gestapo and the NKVD and is disfigured as a result. They inform Genia that torture, with a "special apparatus," is being used to produce so-called sincere confessions.

A Soviet cellmate, Julia Annenkova, pulls Genia aside and tells her not to answer foreigners' questions, as it is impossible to know "which of them really is an enemy." Julia explains that Communist Party members are committing treason. Genia questions how so many people have committed treason against one man (Stalin) and asks, "Isn't it easier to suppose that he has betrayed them?" Julia is horrified by the question and says she was wrong about Genia. Later another Russian, Natasha Stolyarova, scolds Genia for offending Julia and warns her Julia could be a stool pigeon. Natasha tells Genia more about the torture going on in the prison—that it happens every night from 11 p.m. until 3 a.m. While Genia lies in bed that night, she waits, knowing "it would begin, inexorable as death."

Chapter 27: Butyrki nights

Genia gets firsthand experience of torture on a July night in 1937. She herself is not tortured, but she hears the sounds of several prisoners who are. A cellmate offers her wool to plug up her ears, but Genia declines as she does not want to "play the ostrich"; she wants to know what is going on. She stays awake and listens to the "screams and groans," the sounds of blows, and interrogators yelling, pounding on tables, and hurling furniture, sounds that "froze one's blood." The author reflects from the perspective of time how later, after she was freed, she is able to tell who had been tortured by a certain look in their eyes. At one point one of her cellmates jumps up and starts shrieking and beating her head and fists against a window—she is certain she heard her husband being tortured. A warder intervenes and gives her a liquid that makes her fall into a "strange, deathlike sleep."

Around 3 a.m. the sounds stop, and Genia then asks her cellmate for wool for her ears. She knows she does not need it, but she wants to stop hearing and seeing anything; she wishes she "could stop thinking as well." Since she cannot, she recites poetry, hoping to fall asleep.


In these chapters readers learn more about the prison system and how it affects Genia Ginzburg. She is holding fast to her moral convictions but experiencing great emotional turmoil. She cannot accept what is happening to her—that her Communist Party has betrayed her and is imprisoning innocent people. To be accused of betraying the party in which she believes so strongly and which has shaped her life enrages her, but she cannot express that rage. She feels degraded and, ultimately, dehumanized.

Yet simple acts of kindness reinforce Genia's belief in others and in her own humanity. An example is Nushik offering her bed to Genia. Genia, in turn, tries to be kind and encourage others to act morally. For example, she discourages Katya Shirokova from ratting out another prisoner, and tries to make her understand that the other prisoners are no different from her. However, that Katya misses the point is not Genia's fault.

The trip in the Black Maria transport truck reveals the authorities' attitudes about the prisoners' safety and health. The nurse meeting the vehicle with vials of ammonia and going from cage to cage, unlocking them and reviving unconscious prisoners, shows this as being a routine experience. The authorities evidently do not want the prisoners to die in the vehicle, but they are unconcerned about the stifling physical conditions and how they could harm the occupants.

A turning point comes after Genia is placed in a regular cell at Butyrki prison. Her cellmates are not new arrivals and inform her of the torture that happens every night. Knowing what is happening to other prisoners—and what may happen to her—fills Genia with dread, leading her to realize that her own death may be imminent. Before now, she knew this intellectually but not emotionally. Yet despite this new knowledge and her increased anxiety, Genia still attempts to understand her situation and that of the world outside the prison. She expresses her doubt of Joseph Stalin, believing that "if all these people have betrayed one man, isn't it easier to suppose that he has betrayed them?" This is a fair assessment, which is surprising because of her isolation and lack of news. She bases it on common sense and logic—accurately deducing that the Communist Party she loves so dearly is not evil but is being sabotaged by its leader.

In Chapter 27 readers learn how hearing people being tortured affects Genia. At first she wants to hear everything to satisfy her need to know things. Once she knows, however, she wants to shield herself from what she has learned. It is too inhumane and pains her deeply. Unable to remove herself from the horrific environment, she tries to protect herself by reciting poetry. It fills her mind with more positive and life-affirming thoughts than those that crowd it after the sound of torture she heard. The poetry gives her hope when nothing else does.

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