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Journey into the Whirlwind | Study Guide

Eugenia Ginzburg

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Journey into the Whirlwind | Plot Summary



Part 1

Genia Ginzburg is a Communist Party member, editor at the Red Tartary newspaper, and teacher at Kazan University. She grew up during the years following the Russian Revolution and is very much in tune with Communist Party ideology. Her husband, Pavel (Paul), also active in the Party, is a leader of the Tartar (modern spelling Tatar) Province Committee.

At four in the morning on December 1, 1934, Genia receives a phone call directing her to come to the regional committee office at six. There she and other Party members are informed of the murder of Sergei Kirov, leader of the Leningrad Communist Party. They are instructed to go to various factories and inform people about the murder.

About two months later Genia learns a fellow professor and editor at the Red Tartary, Nikolay Elvov, has been arrested for editing a chapter in the four-volume History of the All-Union Communist Party about the events of 1905. The chapter has been "found to contain certain errors in its treatment of the theory of permanent revolution," and Elvov is accused of being a Trotskyist, or political opponent of Stalin. Shortly after Elvov's arrest, Genia is accused of taking no action against Elvov—that is, not speaking against what he wrote. She is blamed for being an educated woman who should have known his views were incorrect. Her failure to speak against him is presented as proof of her complicity and support for Trotskyism, and Party authorities give her formal reproof for relaxation of vigilance.

During the spring of 1935, Genia is interrogated for two months about her association with Professor Elvov and refuses to admit any wrongdoing. In August she loses her teaching license and is found guilty of compromising with hostile elements. Her mother-in-law suggests she leave the area and go into hiding until things blow over. An authority in Moscow gives her the same recommendation when she goes to Moscow to plead her case. Genia refuses to leave, as she knows she has done nothing wrong. She has absolute faith in the Communist Party and believes she will not be found guilty of something she did not do. Yet her anxiety increases. Unable to work, she stays inside her home, waiting for things to change.

Summoned to Moscow in December 1936, Genia learns the charge of relaxation of vigilance has been replaced with a more serious one, collaboration with the enemy. She returns to Kazan, knowing any change will not be a favorable one, and it is merely a matter of time before she is arrested. That happens in February 1937. First she is expelled from the Communist Party. Then she is summoned to a meeting where she is ordered to sign a statement agreeing she belonged to a secret terrorist organization. She refuses to sign and is then arrested and imprisoned at Black Lake.

From fellow prisoners Genia learns more about the massive repressions taking place. She is repeatedly interrogated, and her answers to questions are recorded with information she did not provide, admitting to wrongdoing. Genia refuses to sign statements or confessions and demands to face Professor Elvov, who allegedly has provided evidence against her. She then has two rounds in the "conveyor belt," a period of back-to-back questioning for several days without food or sleep. During the first round, one of her interrogators, Captain Vevers, throws a paperweight at her head and almost kills her. Yet she refuses to admit to anything she had not done or sign a false confession.

After weeks of interrogation Genia is moved to another prison, Krasin Street, where she spends two months awaiting her military tribunal in Moscow. Her charges are political crimes and fall under Article 58, sections 8 and 11: committing terrorism and belonging to a terrorist group. The sentence for each crime ranges from 10 years of hard labor to death.

Genia spends three weeks in the Butyrki prison in Moscow before she is called before the military tribunal of the Supreme Court. The tribunal hearing is quick: the indictment is partially read and the judge asks if she has questions. She does. When she asks whom she allegedly plotted to kill, she is informed she plotted to kill Sergei Kirov because she associated with people who killed him. A guilty verdict is reached about two minutes after the trial ends. Genia expects to be sentenced to death but instead receives 10 years of solitary confinement. At first she is pleased because her life has been spared. Later, when transported to another prison, she rails against the injustice.

Genia stays at the Pugachev Tower for two weeks before being transported to the Yaroslavl prison, where she is placed in a cell by herself. After a while, she receives a cellmate, Julia Karepova. They become close friends and spend their time reading and talking. On December 1, 1937, Genia is placed in an underground punishment cell for allegedly writing her name on the washroom wall. She spends several days in the cold, dark, rat-infested space before she is allowed to return to her regular cell. About six months later, Genia is returned to the punishment cell for three days. Thirty minutes before being taken to the cell Genia receives a letter from her mother, informing her of her father's death. She spends her time in the punishment cell thinking of her father and mourning him.

In May 1939 the prison governor informs Genia her sentence has changed. She is to serve the remaining time in a labor camp. Genia and the other prisoners are taken to a bathhouse where they bathe and their clothing is disinfected. After two years of solitary confinement, the prisoners embrace being around other people and enjoy the festive spirit. The next day the prisoners again meet en masse as they are processed for the move. They are taken to the station where they board the train. Genia boards Car Number 7.

Part 2

Genia spends about one month in Car Number 7 on the long trip to the Gulag camp. The passengers are a diverse group and include foreigners, criminals, and other political prisoners. Tensions initially are high in the overcrowded car, where water and space are in short supply. Eventually, to keep the peace the passengers develop a system where each person talks about something they know well. The passengers disembark near Vladivostok and walk to a transit camp. There they will receive new camp assignments after a medical inspection. Genia is assigned to Kolyma and takes a steamer, the Dzhurma, to get there. She grows very sick aboard the ship and spends several weeks in the hospital ward. When the ship arrives at its location, Genia is placed in the Magadan camp infirmary. There she is given extra food, and soon her health is restored. She then is assigned to Hut Number 8.

One day a woman from Kazan, Maria Nimtsevitskaya, arrives at the Magadan camp. She and Genia spend time together talking about who they know and their fates. Maria gives Genia a warm wool jacket, but a team leader, Verka, admires it and takes it for herself. It turns out to be a fortunate "theft," as Verka considers it a bribe and gives Genia a light duty assignment working in the guesthouse. There she becomes friends with the "corridor men," a group of men waiting to be transported from the camp. She also does side work in exchange for pay, the first time she has earned her own money since 1937. After a month Genia is told she will be reassigned to the field. Before that happens, she receives a visit from the guesthouse's team leader, Anka Polozova. Anka informs her the corridor men have pooled their money and want it used to bribe Verka to give Genia lighter assignments. Genia agrees to the gift, and she is assigned to the men's canteen instead of the field.

The men's canteen, however, is a dangerous place. Several men eye Genia with the intent of sexually abusing her. Genia fears the men and befriends Ahmet by speaking to him in his Tartar language. He protects her for some time. Genia also becomes close to Helmut, her coworker in the kitchen where they wash the dishes. Helmut is deaf, but he talks to himself. By listening to what he says, Genia learns about his life and then writes to tell him she understands what he is saying. They start communicating—Genia writing and Helmut talking—and Helmut becomes devoted to her. One day Ahmet makes sexual advances to Genia and locks her in a room. Helmut breaks the door down and saves her. The next day Genia is reassigned to hard labor in the taiga (forest).

At Elgen, the collective "state farm," Genia is assigned the job of cutting down trees in the forest. Her food is rationed by the number of trees she fells. When she falls below the productivity quota (which she usually does), she receives a meager allotment of food. For a while Genia is able to circumvent the quota by stacking already-cut trees ready to be picked up as her own harvest. This ruse lasts only a short while before the cut logs are picked up. Nearly starving, Genia grows weak and sickly. She discovers wild cranberries, however, and they help keep her alive.

A doctor from Leningrad arrives in the camp and gives Genia news of her son Alyosha Aksyonov, who is staying with one of his friends in Leningrad. The doctor arranges for Genia to work as a nurse in a children's home.


Genia Ginzburg spent 18 years imprisoned, not the 10 years of her original sentence. In the Epilogue, she explains how she wrote her memoir initially as a letter to her grandson but also with the hope of "recounting [all that happened] to honest people and true Communists." She is delighted "Leninist truths have again come into their own in the [Soviet Union] and Party." And she reflects her amazement that such things could have happened to help keep her alive.

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