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Journey into the Whirlwind | Study Guide

Eugenia Ginzburg

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Journey into the Whirlwind | Part 2, Chapters 4–6 | Summary



Chapter 4: The S.S. Dzhurma

Genia Ginzburg and her fellow prisoners take a steamer, the Dzhurma, to Kolyma. They are crammed onto the ship where they must lie "on the dirty floor or on one another." When the female criminals board, they bully and terrorize the other prisoners and take their bread and meager possessions. Finally, Anya Atabayeva, a sturdy woman with "the arms of a stevedore," strikes one of the criminals in the face. Anya lets loose "such a stream of invective," the criminals fall silent. Order is restored, and Anya makes the criminals return the stolen items.

Most of the passengers are sick with diarrhea, Genia among them. One day she faints on the stairs. Another prisoner, Krivitsky, picks her up. One of the ship's doctors, he tells her about the ship's sick ward. Her fever is above 40°C (104°F), so she qualifies for it and spends the remainder of the voyage there, where she has a bed and receives nourishing food. The sick ward is populated with both men and women—as well as stacked corpses—and Genia does not like to use the bucket in front of the men. One day when she leaves the ward in search of a lavatory, she loses her sense of direction and cannot find her way back. Krivitsky finds her and brings her back to the ward where she remains unconscious for two days.

When the steamer arrives at its destination, Genia and the other invalids are "carried ashore on stretchers and left on the beach in tidy rows." Seemingly forgotten, the "goners" stay on the beach for hours, waiting for a truck to transport them to the camp. The surroundings are dismal, the sea is an "implacable leaden hue," and the purplish hills surround the land. Although Genia does not yet know it, during her stay in Kolyma her "eyes never once saw an open horizon."

Chapter 5: No Luck Today, My Lady Death!

Genia spends the first month in Kolyma in the Magadan camp infirmary. There she has a luxurious pine bath per the orders of the doctor, Angelina Klimenko, wife of an NKVD (Soviet secret police) investigator. She gives Genia ample food, and even brings her high-calorie items from home. Genia suspects she is "seeking to expiate the crimes of a husband she loved." A nurse, Sonya the Assyrian, also takes an interest in Genia. In exchange for Genia's doing needlework for her, Sonya brings her extra food.

While several of the patients around her die, Genia recovers gradually. She is then assigned to Hut Number 8. Entering the hut, full of hungry women with frostbitten body parts, Genia feels shame because she is "plump, rested, and well fed." Assigned to land improvement, she leaves the hut before dawn every day, marches for about three miles, and spends hours hacking at frozen soil with picks and spades. It's freezing cold with a wicked wind, and the guards continually shout at the workers. At 1 p.m. they march back to the camp for dinner—bread and soup—and then march back to the bleak field to hack at the frozen soil until late evening.

Genia spends Sundays, the prisoners' day off, visiting other prisoners—all of whom have better accommodations than the former solitary confinement group. Despite the harshness of her life, Genia constantly reminds herself "that however bad things were today, tomorrow they were apt to be worse." She goes to sleep each night grateful she has cheated Lady Death and is still alive.

Chapter 6: Light Work

One of the new arrivals is a woman from Kazan, Maria Nimtsevitskaya. She and Genia share information about the fates of people they know, and Maria gives Genia a wool jacket. The team leader, Verka, takes it. Maria warns Genia not to object, as "that jacket may save your life." Known for giving people light duty, the next day Verka pulls Genia out of the work line and assigns her to the guesthouse.

The guesthouse is indoors and involves little work. Genia even makes some money on the side by doing laundry for one of the women. She befriends a group of men, known as the "corridor lodgers," who have been freed and are awaiting transport when the ice melts. The corridor becomes an "oasis—a place of friendly, human faces ... and absolute trust." One of the corridor lodgers, Rudolf Kruminsh, rescues her from another guesthouse resident who accosts her, offers her money in exchange for sex, and ignores her refusal. Genia and the corridor men form a tight bond, and she does small tasks, such as sewing buttons and washing underclothes, for them. In exchange they give her candy and sugar.

After a month in the guesthouse Genia is told to return to her hut for the day. Afterward, she will return to work in the field. Anka Polozova, the guesthouse team leader, visits her in her hut and brings gifts from the corridor men. Among the gifts is money for bribes. Fearing for her health, they want Genia to use it to bribe Verka for lighter duties. Anka passes the money to Verka, and Genia is assigned to work in the kitchen of the men's canteen. The canteen is a jungle, where a "pack of trusties debate ... with relish which of them would have first go" at Genia, who implores the canteen's manager, Ahmet, to help her. Touched by hearing his own Tartar language after a long time and by the appeal of someone he believes to be "a real Moslem woman," he protects Genia. But he has his own designs on her and is waiting for her to become healthier.

Genia washes dishes alongside Helmut, a German man who is deaf. As he talks to himself, Genia learns about him from his talk. She writes messages to him, and they become close friends. One day the starosta informs them a new group has arrived and needs food. The men are from a mine and are in such poor health they can no longer work. Many are dying. One of the men asks for Genia. He tells her another man is from Kazan and has heard of a woman from Kazan working in the kitchen. The man "is on his last legs" and "won't see the night through." His messenger wants to know if the woman from Kazan will give him a "piece of bread for his last meal." Genia agrees and asks the man's name. It is Major Yelshin, the interrogator who had determined that her "crime fell under the article about terrorism that carried the death sentence." Genia tells the messenger to tell Yelshin the name of the person providing him with the bread, but then feels remorse for being heartless to a dying man.

Later that week Ahmet offers Genia a scarf, which she declines. An hour later he orders her to come into his office. Before going Genia writes to Helmut, asking him to "keep an eye on [her]." Ahmet makes overtures to her and locks her in the room. Before he can sexually assault her, Helmut breaks the door down and saves Genia. The next day, however, Verka pulls her out of the work line, and she is reassigned to work in the taiga (forest) at Elgen, the dreaded state farm.


The trip to Kolyma introduces Genia Ginzburg to a type of prisoner she has not yet encountered: the criminals. They exhibit a cruelty Genia has not found among the prisoners in Yaroslavl solitary confinement, or even in the transit camp. This introduction foreshadows her experience at Kolyma, with abuse not only from warders but from other prisoners as well.

Genia's passage, however, is better than the others'. She is spared the harsh conditions of the overcrowded steamer, yet she does so at grave risk to her health. She is so ill she cannot walk off the boat on her own. Attesting to the depravation aboard the boat are the corpses "stacked neatly so that they could be counted and the number of death certificates would tally." The dead are placed near living patients in the sick ward and on the beach. Reflecting their lack of humanity, those in charge make no attempt to spare the living or respect the dead.

The enclosure created by the hills bothers Genia. The sky represents freedom to her, and now she cannot see the horizon. It is as if the hills are a barrier separating Kolyma from the rest of the world. Although Genia is unable to travel freely, the open horizon is a reminder of a world beyond her current one.

Chapter 5 shows a marked change in Genia's attitude. Before coming to Kolyma, she hoped the next day would bring something better, especially when she learned she would be going to a labor camp. She contemplated the advantages: fresh air and interaction with other people. Now she is in the fresh air, but it is a bitter, frigid air. She is able to interact with other people and appreciates doing so on Sundays, but she does not appear to have opportunities for meaningful connections at other times. The guards, too, are unlike those she knew in the past, encountering them during their routine appearances in the prison. Now they are ever-present, their harsh shouting and cruelty permeating every minute of the workday.

In Chapter 6 Genia's situation improves initially, but only by chance. Maria Nimtsevitskaya's gift, taken as a bribe, opens doors for her. Assigned to light duty, Genia finally has some warm human interactions and extra work for which she is paid. After this brief respite, however, and another bribe, she is assigned to a place with sexual predators, but manages to connect with Helmut. The labor camp is revealing itself as a place where one has to consider risks and rewards against each other. To curry favor, Genia is willing to give bribes of money but not sex. Drawing the line against sexual favors seems to mean she is sent to the worst camp: Elgen, the hard-labor camp located in the taiga (forest). But Genia reflects that she was probably on the list already.

Genia is also learning that those who now wield power are the most inhumane—much like the outside world. Although she encounters one humane woman with power (Anka Polozova), Verka and Ahmed, though not sadists, are motivated by self-interest, not kindness.

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