Journey into the Whirlwind | Study Guide

Eugenia Ginzburg

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Journey into the Whirlwind | Part 1, Chapters 46–48 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 46: Great Expectations

In May of 1939 Genia Ginzburg and Julia Karepova are encouraged by the news of Nikolay Yezhov's downfall and try to predict what might happen as a result. They know some kind of change is coming. The warders are behaving differently, as if they know the prisoners will soon be leaving. "Maintaining [their] respective roles of optimist and pessimist," Julia thinks all prisoners will be freed, reinstated in the Party, and get jobs in the fields they were trained in, whereas Genia comments such results are possible only if "they haven't been shot." If not released, Julia expects they will be sent someplace where they can live with their husbands. Olga Orlovskaya, their neighbor, is less optimistic. She assumes prisoners will be moved to hard-labor camps. She bases this assumption on cost; the state gets nothing in return for the money it costs to keep people in prison. With much of the prison population of working age, it is more economical to use their labor for the state's economic goals.

In either case, prisoners are excited by the possibility of change. Genia thinks moving to a hard-labor camp would be "almost happiness," a chance to be somewhere else, meet new people, and get fresh air and occasional sunshine. Being out of the grave of solitary confinement represents a chance to be a part of life again. The storekeeper confirms suspicions of imminent change. When Genia requests two notebooks, he tells her she won't need them because she will be moving soon. Two days later she is sent for a medical examination. A few days after that, she is taken from her cell to meet with the prison governor, who tells her she will serve the remainder of her sentence in a "corrective labor camp."

Chapter 47: A Bathhouse! Just an Ordinary Bathhouse!

Genia and the other prisoners are ordered to go to the bathhouse and bring their quilted coats in preparation for their move. For the first time since Genia's solitary confinement, prisoners are no longer isolated from each other. They leave their cells and enter the corridor to the bathhouse at the same time. Having been denied such human contact throughout their imprisonment, the prisoners stare in wonderment at each other. Genia stealthily "presse[s] the hand" of the person closest to her "with a feeling of devotion and love." Genia and Olga see each other for the first time ever. Genia is overcome with joy to "come face to face with ... dear friends whom [she] had thought [she] should never see."

The bathhouse is ordinary, but waiting to use it is not. Genia and the other prisoners are swept away by "the exultation of our shared humanity." Genia describes the extraordinariness of the event as one in which she and others felt an immense love for each other, in which people who had never known each other felt like lifelong friends. The prisoners enthusiastically help each other and share their meager possessions, such as soap and stockings. They talk about their experiences in the prison and whatever news of outside events they know.

When Genia returns to her cell, she is exhausted from the unaccustomed contact with others, though she savors it. She wishes their move could be delayed and they could keep what they have shared that day for a little longer.

Chapter 48: The Ruins of Schlüsselburg

On Genia's last day at the Yaroslavl prison, she and the other prisoners leave their cells and assemble in the exercise yard. They are fingerprinted and searched while they wait to leave for transport to labor camps. No longer isolated, they move in groups of five to board the Black Marias (transport trucks) that will take them to the train station. Genia is relatively unworried about her final destination, although rumors suggest it is Kolyma. In retrospect she reiterates, "ignorance is bliss."

At the station they board a freight train. Written on the side of one car are the words "Special equipment." Genia boards the crowded Car Number 7, with standing room only. They are bolted in, and then the train takes off.

Analysis

These chapters show prison life during Genia Ginzburg's last days in solitary confinement. Although constantly fearful of change, Genia and the other prisoners actually welcome it now because they will be leaving an imprisonment that has been for them like being buried alive. Although Genia has no idea of what the new place will be like, she has "great expectations" that fill her with hope, believing a labor camp will offer "fresh air, wind, and sometimes even sunshine." Indeed, her expectations seem once again too idealistic, given what she knows about the system. But in her mind, at this point any place will have to be better than her current place, even though rationally, she knows this is not necessarily true. In earlier chapters she describes dreading the changes in the posted "commandments," fearing they would be worse than the existing ones. Yet she does not apply this same logic to her current situation. It is as if her desire to get out of her current place is so great, she willfully lets herself overlook the ways it could be worse. It is also possible her expectations are influenced by news of Nikolay Yezhov's downfall, leading her to assume the state system is starting to collapse. It makes her think any change will be an improvement rather than a continuation or worsening of what's been. In many ways this is a misguided hope. If Genia had known what was in store for her, she might have been less eager to leave.

Genia's comment that hers and Julia Karepova's "Schlüsselburg period was drawing to a close" is a reference to a fortress near Saint Petersburg that held political prisoners during Russia's imperial period. Schlüsselburg Prison was notorious for retaining—and executing—individuals who challenged Tsarist rule.

Emotions reach a pitch in Chapter 47 especially when the prisoners are removed from isolation and allowed to interact with each other. Indeed, the chapter's title—"A Bathhouse! Just an Ordinary Bathhouse!" highlights how such extraordinary experiences can occur in the most ordinary places. Contact with others creates a spiritual experience that leaves an indelible impression on Genia. It also creates inner conflict: Genia wanting to stop time and preserve the moment versus her former desire to leave solitary confinement and go to the labor camp. At the heart of her conflict is the inability to know what the future will bring. In writing her memoir, Genia adds the perspective and knowledge gained from the passage of time. She notes that had she stayed in solitary confinement for a year or two more, she might have spent the rest of her life in isolation from others, like a character in a Jack London story "who on coming out of prison, built himself a lonely mountain cabin to end his days in." This allusion reveals her belief that prolonged isolation would have caused her to fear human contact and been too exhausting. She would have shied away from it rather than embraced it, as she did that day. It also reveals the range of her reading material—from Giordano Bruno to Jack London, an American author (1876–1916).

By the time the prisoners meet in the exercise yard, the excitement of being with other people has worn off. Chapter 48 describes the day's events as rather ordinary, with the exception of a warder cruelly stomping through a pile of photographs and crushing them. His action expresses the sadism of some of the warders and touches on the theme of remembrance. While prisoners struggle to remember and be remembered, traces of themselves and their lives can be extinguished in seconds. Yet Genia's emotions (as well as those of her fellow prisoners) are rather bland; neither overly excited nor anxious. It is as if their desire to get out of solitary confinement has blunted their anxieties, and that they are (as Genia later notes) blissfully ignorant of what is to come. Oddly, there is no mention whether Julia Karepova, with whom Genia has shared so much during her imprisonment, rode in the same Black Maria truck or boarded Car Number 7 with Genia. The implication is she did not. Her illness—pleurisy—might have made her too weak for hard labor.

The author provides a brief commentary at the beginning of Chapter 48 to explain why the prisoners were being moved to labor camps. It was not because of the nature of their offenses or length of their sentences. It was strictly an economic move. The Soviet Union needed to industrialize to advance its economy, industrialization being one of the goals following the 1917 Revolution. With so much of the working-age population either dead or in prison, productivity declined. Using prisoners for free labor enabled the state to expand manufacturing, agriculture, and infrastructure projects (such as road building).

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