Journey into the Whirlwind | Study Guide

Eugenia Ginzburg

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Journey into the Whirlwind | Part 2, Chapters 7–9 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 7: Elgen Is the Yakut Word for "Dead"

The prisoners travel from Magadan to Elgen in an open truck. Although it is April, it is bitterly cold. The Siberian landscape is dreary, and Genia Ginzburg feels at the end of the world, "cut off from civilization." When they arrive, Genia cannot tell if the prisoners—frostbitten and ill-clothed for the freezing weather—are men or women. The thought of becoming sexless distresses her, but the hut to which she is assigned is headed by Marya Dogadkina, a brusque but motherly prisoner who does her best to make new prisoners feel welcome.

Genia is assigned to Kilometer 7. On her first full day she lines up to march to the work site, but a doctor argues the prisoners are not properly dressed for marching. Regulations require the prisoners be "seasonably dressed and shod" to prevent an excess of deaths, which would reflect poorly on the camp's infirmary. So the women are driven on tractor-drawn trailers. She sees no one, "not a human being, not an animal" cross her path on the way.

Chapter 8: Tree Felling

Housed in primitive shacks, prisoners at Elgen wake at 5 a.m., dress, and walk to the work site, which is virgin forest about two-and-a-half miles away. Their task is to fell trees. If they do not meet their timber quota, their food rations are cut to match the percentage they did meet. Genia is paired with Galya. Neither has any idea how to fell a tree, and their rusty saws aren't much help. They fail to meet their quotas and are put on reduced food rations. Sometimes they are put in the punishment cell for "sabotage," or not meeting the quota.

Genia's body soon shows the signs of her environment. Her skin peels from her weather-beaten face, and she looks like "a walking skeleton." For several days she and Galya use humor to keep up their spirits—"and remind us we were human"—but soon find themselves unable to muster any jokes. Genia feels as if "this time ... death had really caught up with us," and she is unsure she will survive.

Chapter 9: Salvation from Heaven

Another prisoner teaches Genia and her partner the art of "window dressing." Rather than felling a sufficient number of trees to meet a quota, one can gather already felled timber stored in piles and cut off a section of each piece so it looks freshly cut. Genia and Galya successfully use this trick for several days until a tractor arrives to remove the cut timber. The guard flies into a rage when their productivity falls to 20 percent or less, and he threatens to put them back in the punishment cells. Genia feels as if she is facing death once again.

"Salvation from death" comes when Genia finds wild cranberries in the thawing snow. She and Galya eagerly hunt for them every day, and the small fruit provides nourishment to complement their reduced food rations. This nourishment restores Genia's will to live and keeps her from starving.

One day Genia meets a doctor from Leningrad, Vasily Petukhov. He is a good friend of the relative taking care of her elder son, Alyosha Aksyonov, and has, in fact, seen him. Petukhov promises to save Genia and helps her get a job as a nurse. She knows Latin, the only qualification she needs. As a nurse she'll work in the camp, not the taiga. He writes an order for her that results in a three-day exemption from work. She finds a rare book and spends the first two days happily resting and reading in an empty hut. Then she hears the order, "Bring your things." She is leaving Kilometer 7 and returning to the camp to work as "a medical attendant in the children's home."

Analysis

These chapters describe early days in Kolyma. At the women's compound in Elgen, Marya Dogadkina, the prisoner in charge of the hut, makes it into a home, showing her humanity and the will to endure and transcend a terrible situation. Indeed, Genia Ginzburg thinks of her as "a kind of hostess whose task it was to make life easier and more endurable." Marya Dogadkina's maternal presence indicates that Genia will experience moments of humanity interspersed with the harsh treatment of the guards, the taxing physical labor, and the barren land. The appearance of the laborers, men indistinguishable from women, disturbs Genia, and foreshadows the toll the work and camp conditions will have on her body. It will strip her of whatever shreds of individuality she has left, and leaves her a human husk barely able to survive.

Genia is separated from Marya Dogadkina's hut once she is sent to fell trees in the taiga, and lives in a not-at-all homey shack with the criminal women who steal the other prisoners' footwear and saws. She is treated like a machine by the guards—expected to attain a specific productivity level, despite lack of training and proper equipment. Having her food rations measured based on her quota reveals the ineffectiveness of one of the principles of Soviet slave labor. To do hard physical work, a human needs to be nourished, but the Soviet prison camp system ignored this basic principle and expected the prisoners to work at full capacity on a starvation regime.

In Part 2, Chapter 8, Genia's will to live, having sustained her through her years of imprisonment, starts to falter. At a dangerous low point she meets the doctor who makes it possible for her to be reassigned to indoor work and leave the taiga. This stroke of luck probably saves Genia's life, as it is unlikely she could have survived felling trees much longer. She knows death has once again come close to her but is aware she has evaded it for now. These random acts of kindness help Genia sustain her resilience. In writing her memoir decades after her experience in Elgen, she never once asks, "Why me?" or laments about the unfairness of life. Instead, she expresses her gratitude for the humanity other prisoners extended to her, acutely aware of how precious each one is.

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