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Journey into the Whirlwind | Study Guide

Eugenia Ginzburg

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Journey into the Whirlwind | Part 1, Chapters 40–42 | Summary



Chapter 40: Day after Day, Month after Month

The year 1938 passes monotonously. Genia Ginzburg and her cellmate, Julia Karepova, rise at the warder's command to get up. They dress, and while waiting to be taken to the washroom they sneak in extra sleep or covertly do illegal exercises. Their trip to the washroom is a chance to read the news on scraps of newspaper given to them by the warder. They return to their cells with hot water, and wash themselves. Then they eat a breakfast of bread and hot water. For the next several hours they read and write. Their notebooks have to be turned in to the censors, so they write and erase their words with bread. Genia writes poems and memorizes them before erasing them, and writes a novel about her school days.

Dinner interrupts their "working time" and is followed by a short afternoon walk in the "fifteen-yard space" used for exercise. Genia uses this time to sneak glances at the sky, despite being forbidden to do so. Then it is back to reading, writing, and conversation before supper. After supper, the lights are turned off, which comes as a relief because they can stretch out and sleep in a state of "blessed extinction."

Their monotony is sometimes broken by the sounds of other prisoners being taken to the punishment cells or being beaten and tortured. Other times it is interrupted by warders looking for contraband, such as "forbidden brassieres, fish-bone needles from the evening soup, and medicines" that they didn't swallow in front of the nurse. These searches take place in two parts. Men rush into their cell and toss things around, looking for hidden items. Then women come in to pat Genia and Julia down and do a body search on each. Between these two searches, Genia and Julia hide the forbidden items under the mattresses.

Chapter 41: A Breath of Oxygen

One day Genia and Julia hear "a series of bangs indicating that cell doors were being opened and shut one after another." The sounds alarm them and increase their "already ... uneasy mood." Forbidden from receiving newspapers for more than a month, they are once again allowed to receive the Northern Worker, which informs them about a major trial just starting. Genia and Julia try to understand why none of the "major political figures" speak out against what is happening but realize if they did, their protests would serve no purpose. They would be unable to stop events and would be imprisoned or killed. Unknown to either Genia or Julia, many have already been killed.

Vladimir Lenin's widow has died. Her death saddens them and causes them to cry for "the first time ... since [they] had arrived at Yaroslavl." They view it as the end of something bigger, the loss of all the "decent honorable figures."

One day a block warder enters their cell and locks their window shut, informing them it will be opened for only 10 minutes each day. From that point on the environment of the damp, sunless, and airless cell becomes unbearable. Mold grows on the bread and walls. The damp air makes their joints ache, and their underclothing is always damp.

Chapter 42: A Fire in Prison

One day a fire breaks out in the prison. Genia wonders if suffocating by smoke is part of the Soviet state's plans for its prisoners. Although the flames are not near Genia's cell, the air is heavy with smoke. Convinced they are going to die, they see no point in saving a "whole pound of precious sugar" and "eat it in handfuls." They soon say goodbye to each other and, in defiance of the rules, sit on Julia's bed with their arms around each other. Julia, who has pleurisy, soon has trouble breathing. Her eyes bulge, and her face turns blue, with "the veins ... standing out like whipcord." All the while, Genia prays that Julia "would not die first."

Around them, they hear the sounds of other prisoners banging on their doors and calling for help. Eventually, a warder opens their door. He drags Julia out of the cell, and she and Genia go to the exercise yard. Genia and Julia see no other prisoners, as the prison system has maintained "the rules of solitary confinement," even during a fire. The fire has a silver lining, and they are able to "breathe freely out of doors" for at least 90 minutes.


These chapters shed light on the daily life of Genia Ginzburg and Julia Karepova. Despite the prison system's attempts to control them and govern their lives, they find ways to outwit the warders to gain moments of illicit activity and keep forbidden possessions. Their actions demonstrate the ability to retain what little shreds of humanity and individuality they can. Genia retains a positive spirit by reading, writing, and talking with her cellmate, demonstrating her intent to maintain a healthy mind for when she gets out of prison.

However, the prison system is not content merely to imprison them. It wants to make their lives as miserable as possible by denying them essentials such as fresh air. Locking the window and keeping it shut for most of the day creates unhealthy conditions in the cell. This is of no concern to the warders or prison governor. If such treatment is now considered a violation of human rights, the Soviet system during Joseph Stalin's reign also might have considered denying prisoners fresh air and creating dangerous health conditions a violation of rights, but that is why they did it. Denying basic necessities is a way of further asserting control over prisoners and reinforcing power.

In Chapter 42 the prison system further shows its disregard for the prisoners' lives. It allows smoke to reach dangerous levels before freeing the prisoners from the cells and taking them to places of safety. Although Genia is convinced she is going to die, she does not reveal her emotions at that time. Was she resigned and devoid of emotion? It hardly seems likely because she has, up to this point, maintained a stoic attitude and found ways to keep her spirit nourished. She most likely deliberately omitted revealing this information. In other situations in which she feared death directly by the hands of the Soviet system (such as being sentenced to death at the military tribunals), she described her emotions. This situation, though, is different. Death by smoke suffocation would have been an inadvertent death caused by her confinement rather than an intentional act by the Soviet state.

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