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Journey into the Whirlwind | Study Guide

Eugenia Ginzburg

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Journey into the Whirlwind | Part 1, Chapters 28–30 | Summary



Chapter 28: In Accordance with the Law of December 1st

Three weeks after arriving at Butyrki prison, Genia Ginzburg is called out of her cell and told to leave her things. She is immediately alarmed, not because she fears torture—that happens only at night—but because she does not want her cellmates to suspect she will say something against them. The warders often pull prisoners out of cells without their things and persuade them to make statements against their cellmates, thereby creating an environment of distrust and suspicion.

Genia is taken to the reception hall and locked in a kennel. Eventually, an officer unlocks the door and gives her a document, her charge sheet. It informs her she is being indicted under Article 58, sections 8 and 11, of the criminal code and under the law of December 1, 1934. She's aware of sections 8 and 11, but she is unfamiliar with the December law, and its date strikes her as odd. An officer tells her it means "the sentence must be carried out within twenty-four hours of it being pronounced." Her trial will be held within 24 hours, with her sentencing to follow within the next 24 hours. She reviews the list of "members of the counterrevolutionary Trotskyist terrorist organization" at the Red Tartary newspaper office and finds "not the slightest attempt at plausibility." Some people never worked there. Others moved elsewhere long ago.

Thoughts of her life pass through Genia's mind. Back in her cell she sits up all night and talks about her children. Her cellmates memorize her children's names and her relatives' addresses so they can tell them about Genia's last days. She thinks about death and wonders if it will hurt to be shot. And she thinks about more mundane matters such as a new silk dress she "never had a chance to wear." When she randomly opens a geography book and looks at a world map, she reflects on how little of the world she has seen—"and never would."

Chapter 29: "A Fair and Speedy Trial"

On August 1, 1937, Genia Ginzburg is taken to the Lefortovo prison for the military tribunal of the Supreme Court. While waiting for the trial to start, Genia notes the fresh air blowing through an open window, pleased "such places in the world still exist." With heightened senses, she cherishes the sound of rustling leaves and marvels at a large wall clock.

The trial lasts seven minutes and is attended by three officers and a secretary in addition to Genia. The judge asks Genia if she has read the indictment, which includes statements by two witnesses, Nalya Kozlova and Volodya Dyakonov. He reads part of the document but stops before reading the charges to ask if she has questions. Genia wants to know the name of the person she allegedly plotted to kill; Sergei Kirov, the judge informs her. Because her accomplices killed him, she is "morally and criminally responsible" for his murder by association with them. "In less than two minutes," the officials return to the table with a document. It is identical to the indictment, but "wherever that document had said "accused," this one said "convicted."

As if delirious, Genia stands and waits for her sentence. She cannot believe the Communist Party officials would kill her "for no reason at all." She is then sentenced to 10 years of imprisonment in solitary confinement and all personal property confiscated. Overcome with joy, she thinks "ten years! That meant [she] was to live!" She is not concerned about the length of the sentence. She believes things will change before 10 years' time: the Party will come to its senses and she will be freed. Now she must stay alive. When she leaves the room, she surprises the guards by giving them a friendly smile.

Chapter 30: Penal Servitude—What Bliss!

Genia eats a good meal, with meat, at the Lefortovo prison before returning to her cell at Butyrki prison. Before the meal, a wardress says she supposes Genia has no appetite and will pass on the meal, but Genia eats heartily. She sets a new goal: to stay alive until people stop the "tragedy which had befallen our Party," then she can get her life and freedom back. She is determined to eat and sleep well and do daily exercises to be good shape when that time comes.

She recalls a poem by Russian poet Boris Pasternak, "Lieutenant Schmidt," and recites the verses mentally. Two lines include "We greet our sentence with a smile— / It's penal servitude! What bliss!" She is amazed Pasternak expresses exactly what she is feeling and grateful his words have helped her endure and "make sense of prison." When a warder orders her to get her things, she briefly fears she will not return to Butyrki and will be imprisoned in the Lefortovo cellars, where the walls are painted deep red (to hide blood stains) and, according to rumor, "tractor engines ... drown the sound of shooting."

In the Black Maria transport truck headed toward Butyrki, however, her fear dissipates and is replaced with rage. She finds it incomprehensible she has been accused of these crimes and sentenced to prison. No longer feeling the bliss of escaping a death sentence, she cannot accept that anyone, especially Communists, would "do this to human beings." She screams and shouts and bangs against the vehicle's door. A young soldier opens the door and tries to calm her. He leaves the door open so she can have fresh air, and talks with her. Genia learns that about 70 people have recently been sentenced to death; only women are being spared the death penalty. She takes valerian drops and starts to fall asleep as the soldier quietly reassures her she'll never be imprisoned for the full 10 years. He predicts she will do something grand and be allowed to return to her children. She knows he is referring to what used to happen to scientists and is unlikely to happen to her, but his words comfort her, and again she feels the "bliss" of penal servitude.


Until Chapter 28 Genia Ginzburg has been able to hold onto hope she will somehow get out of her situation. At first she hoped the authorities would realize their mistake and dismiss the charges. Later she hoped her husband, Paul Aksyonov, would convince the authorities in Moscow to do something. More recently she knew the impossibility of the charges being dropped, but her actual trial and sentencing seemed remote. She was able to avoid the reality of what could happen and refused to consider the possibility of death. Now that she is indicted, she faces an imminent change in her situation and must confront it, fearing death more than anything else.

One of Genia's first thoughts is about her children. Afraid she will never see them again if she is sentenced to death, she wants them to know what happens to her. These emotions underscore the theme of remembrance. By their knowing what happens to her, she preserves her connection to them and others after her death. In this way she lives on in the memories of those who care for her, and for this reason her cellmates memorize her children's names and relatives' addresses "so that if they themselves survived they could tell them of my last hours."

The new law that puzzles Genia was enacted on December 1, 1934, the day Sergei Kirov was murdered and the day the Great Terror began. Genia combines this new information with her knowledge of Kirov's murder, confirming her belief that Joseph Stalin and his need to dispose of all possible threats to his power is behind what is happening. In addition, the new law that was implemented the same day as Kirov's murder strongly suggests Stalin's connection to the murder as an action on his behalf. This knowledge later guides the author to begin her story in 1934, the lead-up to the great purges of 1937 and her own arrest and imprisonment.

Facing the men who will decide her fate, Genia experiences intense sensations and thoughts. Her normal thought process is out of whack, and everything seems surreal, more vivid than usual. This is a common phenomenon when someone faces a traumatic experience, and indicates the possibility that she is on the verge of shock. She uses vivid images to describe her emotions and observations as she sits in the room where her trial is held. Her intense fear of being sentenced to death is "the great black toad which sprawled across my heart." She compares the physical expressions of the judges at her military tribunal—and of a Black Lake official—to "the empty look of a mummy, or a fish in aspic." As is customary for her, Genia employs logic to understand why these men have such glazed expressions and concludes it is the inevitable consequence of doing what they have to do.

The author often uses the chapter titles to give a succinct summary of the chapter's key point, but for Chapter 29 she provides a title that instead shows verbal irony. The military tribunal was speedy, but definitely not fair. Indeed it was too quick to be fair, for it would have been impossible to type the verdict after the judges convened to determine her innocence or guilt. The verdict was already determined and the document evidently prepared in advance. By holding a trial, the authorities give the pretense of fairness, but the trial is a sham and the prisoners' guilt the given outcome.

Genia Ginzburg also describes what gave her hope, sustaining her for many years after her sentencing. The military tribunal has crushed all possible expectation of wrongs being righted, but she no longer fears being killed. Instead of worrying about her sentence, she now puts her energy into doing whatever she can to stay alive because she believes the purges will somehow end, and innocent prisoners like her will be exonerated and freed. She cannot believe one man can be more powerful than all the Communist Party members.

Indeed, Genia continues to maintain absolute faith in the Communist Party. She accords it the same belief and trust as many people put in religion. To her, the Party's ideology is based on good and evil, on morals and values. Genia has been steeped in this ideology since she was a child, and accepts it without question. Nothing that has happened to her since she was first accused of false crimes has shaken her beliefs. Instead, she thinks the Party has been corrupted by one man, Joseph Stalin, and by individuals complicit with his mandates. She believes they cannot "destroy the [Party] completely" and will be stopped by others. This hope fosters her determination to survive and will sustain her in the years to come.

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