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Journey into the Whirlwind | Study Guide

Eugenia Ginzburg

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Journey into the Whirlwind | Part 2, Chapters 1–3 | Summary



Chapter 1: Car Number 7

It's June 1939 when Genia Ginzburg and 75 other women board Car Number 7. Although they have no idea of their destination or the length of the trip, most are happy to have left solitary confinement. Having been denied human contact for so long, the women are grateful "to be out of the stone morgue," and they talk incessantly. For some women it is the first time they have spoken in two years. But the words "special equipment" inscribed on the train car catches Genia's attention, and she "began to have doubts."

Genia gets a lower bunk at the end of a row near a window. She smells "open fields" and breathes fresh air. There are women from the Soviet Union and several foreigners. Fisa Korkodinova, from the Urals, is chosen as the starosta, or leader. She distributes a mug, bowl, and spoon to each woman. Other passengers include Tanya Stankovskaya, who has extremely thin legs and peeling skin; Musya Lyubinskaya, a doctor; Nadya Korolyova, from Leningrad; Tamara Varazashvili, a haughty woman from Leningrad; and Polya Shvyrkova, a cook from a humble background.

The officer in charge, whom the women nickname the Brigand, arrives, asks for the starosta to stand, and announces the rules. They are not allowed to speak when the train stops, or they can be put in irons. They are not allowed to read books. They'll be fed two meals a day and given one cup of water. After he leaves, an argument ensues, with Tamara accusing Fisa of "showing a lack of self-respect" because she allowed the Brigand to ogle her and smiled in response. Polya not only defends Fisa but asks why she should be offended. Was it not "better to be any sort of a woman than a number?"

As Genia prepares to sleep, a neighbor introduces herself and asks her name and what she did. Genia is momentarily struck silent. When she replies, she wonders if she is still the person she used to be. A short while later, another neighbor calls her "comrade." Being addressed as "comrade" fills her with excitement to think "such as word still existed and that someone could use it to me!"

Chapter 2: All Sorts to Make a World

This chapter provides more information about the passengers and what life is like in Car Number 7—the opposite of solitary confinement. The day starts early. Fisa distributes their bread and water. For much of the first day, the women continue to get acquainted. They share life stories, recite poetry, sing, speculate about the camps, argue about Joseph Stalin, and talk emotionally about their children. Some women are optimistic about the camps, thinking they will be reunited with their husbands and allowed to work, possibly at the type of work they did before. Others are doubtful. They also argue over who is to blame for the arrests and sham trials: Stalin or the secret police? At one point an argument about Stalin grows quite heated, with several women hurling personal accusations at others. The day ends with tensions high.

The next morning a prisoner—Pava Samoylova, known as Pavochka—addresses the group and reminds them how much they wanted to talk with their neighbors when they had been in Yaroslavl. She asks why they are now quarreling and taking "their troubles out on each other." Her words move the group, and she proposes they each tell about their special subject. The women agree, and life becomes more harmonious.

When it is Genia's turn to speak, she recites from poetry, which "is a common bond for everyone." One time, she becomes so involved in her recitation she does not notice the train has stopped. Entering the car the Brigand demands to know who has been reading aloud from a book and threatens to put everyone in irons. Tamara informs him that Genia was reciting a poem from memory. He demands she prove it by reciting for half an hour. Genia recites, and goes beyond the time limit. The Brigand and his partner listen, spellbound, and stay in the car for several hours, even after the train has started again and made other stops. He accidentally lets it slip they are going to Vladivostok, so now the travelers know their destination.

Tanya is ill with diarrhea and peeling skin. Musya, the doctor, diagnoses Tanya's condition as pellagra, which will lead to dementia if it worsens. She needs vitamins, but there are none. Genia urges her to ask if there is a hospital ward on the train. Tanya scoffs at the suggestion and tells her she and another traveler are too trusting and, despite their experiences at Yaroslavl, have the "mentality of grown-up children." Tanya shares a secret: she cannot "bear to look at Nadya" because she feels guilty about having a role in Nadya, a foreigner, being imprisoned. Genia understands as she, too, felt ashamed when she met a German woman in the Butyrki prison.

One day the train stops at a station and the door is left unbarred. The townsfolk see the prisoners and give them onions, which they divide evenly among themselves. Later, several women bang on the train doors to demand water. The Brigand comes to the car, but rather than give them water he takes Tanya and another woman to the punishment cell. Everyone fears Tanya will not return alive. Tamara, who came up with the plan to demand water, is wracked with guilt because Tanya, not she, is being punished. For three days she and another traveler tell the guards it was their idea, not Tanya's, but he refuses to release Tanya. When Tanya returns to the car, her hands are very cold—a sign of coming death, although Genia learns that later on. Tanya declares she wants to die but is not going to until she gets to the transit camp because she has a message for someone from her hometown, Ivan Lukich. He and his family signed a petition attesting to her good character when she was arrested. The petition was, evidently, unsuccessful and resulted in their arrests. Tanya wants to tell him he should not have signed that petition.

The train arrives at the disinfection center in Sverdlovsk where the women spend a blissful hour bathing in hot water before resuming their journey. A few days later the train collides with something, and some of the women from the wrecked car join the group in Car Number 7. At first the prisoners in Car Number 7 are unwelcoming, but they learn these women are from Suzdal, another solitary confinement prison, and their hearts go out to them.

One month after they boarded the train, it arrives at a deserted place near Vladivostok. When they get off the train, about one third of the women discover they have night blindness, caused by a sudden change in climate, which affects people in poor physical condition.

Chapter 3: The Transit Camp

The women walk several miles until they arrive at the transit camp, where they will undergo a medical inspection before being transported to their final destinations. Many look forward to being reunited with their husbands, still believing the tales.

The transit camp is fenced in with barbed wire. Conditions are primitive, and because numerous blood-thirsty insects roam the bunks, the women sleep outside. A rigid class system exists within the camp. At the highest level are the "aristocracy," made up of women convicted of nonpolitical crimes such as embezzlement and bribery. Members of this group are entrusted with positions of authority. The next tiers are made up of people convicted of crimes under Article 58. Those convicted of the least innocuous crime—babbling or telling a political joke—comprise the highest tier in this group. Directly below them are the CRAs—people convicted of counterrevolutionary activity—and the SEs—people suspected of espionage. Typically, prisoners in this tier receive light duties, such as administrative work. The second-lowest tier is made up of CRTAs—people convicted of counterrevolutionary Trotskyist activities. Most are Communist Party members and are assigned hard outdoor work. The new arrivals, the political prisoners from the solitary confinement prisons, comprise the lowest social class. Mostly Communist Party officials or intelligentsia, they have been convicted by military tribunals of the worst crime—terrorism—and receive the heaviest work, such as cutting down trees.

Within the first three days Tanya Stankovskaya dies, even though she was deemed "'fit for hard labor' ... four hours before she died." A young CRA, Allochka Tokareva, consoles Genia. Allochka works outside the camp and offers to mail a letter for Genia. Thrilled at the opportunity to "write Mother a letter without the interference of the Yaroslavl censor," Genia takes her up on her offer. Allochka becomes her mentor at the camp, advising her about the workings of the system. She suggests that Genia say she has some medical training so she can be assigned a nurse position when she is sent to Kolyma. When Genia insists she "can't tell lies," Allochka responds, "Then you'd better learn."

In an effort to bond with Tamara Varazashvili, a team leader, Genia calls her "comrade." Instead, she offends Tamara and makes an enemy, for Tamara is "a criminal occupying a 'soft job'" at the camp, and the first of many Genia will get to know. By calling her a name used among Communist Party members, Genia "reminded her of the past," which she did not want to remember in her present role. Tamara has significant power, and the next day Genia is assigned to work in the quarry.

During the month at the transit camp Genia enjoys being outdoors and with other people. One day a convoy of male prisoners arrives. The men notice the women watching them, and both groups eagerly start talking with each other. They call out their hometowns in an effort to find people they know, and the women throw gifts—bread, torn towels, pots—to the men. The encounter is the first contact each group has had with the other sex in years. Several men and women fall in love, and in the coming days several men write love letters to the women.

Although some women have become despondent over the hard work and deplorable conditions, the majority—Genia among them—hold onto the hope that life at Kolyma will be better than solitary confinement. They enjoy seeing sunsets, feeling sea breezes, and sharing poetry.


In Chapter 1 Genia Ginzburg is unaware of her destination and what awaits her. Happy to have human interaction, she does not contemplate what hardships a labor camp will bring. She still holds to her belief in the Communist Party, and her identity is closely associated with it, as demonstrated by her happiness in being called "comrade." However, her hold is weakening. She knows she has lost part of her identity; she is no longer the woman she was. She is moving away from everything that once defined her world—her identity as a teacher and Communist Party member, and her belief in the Party and Soviet state. But the shift is gradual, as if a tight rubber band has been loosened but still remains taut.

Genia's experiences with the women in Car Number 7 make an indelible impression on her. Even though they spend a relatively short time together, she forms bonds with them because they are the first humans she can freely engage within two years. Being with them is a reprieve of sorts from the prison system, and allows them to enjoy each other's company in a way that will soon be denied.

In Chapter 2 the women deepen their relationships and show their humanity. Fisa Korkodinova risks the Brigand's wrath when she tells him that Genia, "our comrade was reciting from memory," to defend her new friend and keep her from the punishment cell. Later, when two women are placed in the punishment cell, others try to convince the guards to let them switch places with Fisa and Genia. The women have a high moral sense and are willing to be punished rather than let punishment be inflicted on innocent people. This attitude contrasts sharply with the Soviet state and those who falsely accused others of wrongdoings to spare themselves or curry favor.

Tanya Stankovskaya and Genia both feel guilt over foreigners being caught up in the Soviet state's mass repression, not because they personally did anything to harm the foreigners but because they are part of the Soviet state and have supported it, believing foreigners to be inferior to Soviet citizens. Tanya's desire to communicate with a man, imprisoned after trying to save her, is not to thank him but to tell him he should not have done it. She realizes the verdict of guilt was predetermined, and nothing could have been done to alter it. She is more aware than Genia of the flaws in the Soviet state.

Genia and the other new arrivals get an inkling of life at the Kolyma labor camp soon after they arrive, though they may not yet be aware of it. For Genia, the experience of solitary confinement brought out the best in people, something purer and deeper than in other situations, creating a sense of unity among the prisoners. The situation in the transit camp is not the same. All prisoners in solitary confinement were convicted of serious political crimes, whereas in the camp the prisoners' crimes vary widely, with those from the solitary confinement group considered the worst. The camp hierarchy affords some prisoners power and escape from some of the harsh conditions of the camp. These opportunities are denied to solitary-confinement prisoners. With prisoners not committing similar crimes, or with one group favored over another, the opportunities for abuse and cruelty multiply, and some prisoners are as abusive and cruel as their captors. They would not work together to alleviate another's suffering, as they did in prison or in Car Number 7 when someone was ill. They would not share water or bread when someone else needed it more. Instead, they would be at the mercy of fellow prisoners who would treat them poorly for their own advantage.

Genia, still hopeful, was yet to know the full meaning of this, as her encounter with Tamara was the first of its kind. While other prisoners wanted to return to the prison where they had decent living conditions and did not have to do hard physical labor (which they were poorly equipped to do), she wanted to believe the future would be better. She describes her optimism as the human need for hope—a universal emotion people cling to in the face of evidence to the contrary. But just as Tanya Stankovskaya believes there is no need for people to fight a battle they cannot win, Genia believes there is no point to give up hope, even when it is not reasonable to hold onto it, for to give up hope is to give up on life.

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