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Journey into the Whirlwind | Study Guide

Eugenia Ginzburg

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Journey into the Whirlwind | Symbols



The sky represents freedom. It is above Earth and thus ungoverned by humans. It is unable to be possessed or controlled. It is the direct opposite of Genia Ginzburg's world, where her body is confined and her behavior regulated. Genia appreciates any glimpses of the sky she can get, viewing it as if it offers the promise of a world beyond imprisonment someday. She savors "staring at the open sky" while waiting for a vehicle to transport her from the train to the Yaroslavl prison, and delights in riding there in an ordinary open truck. In Part 1, Chapter 40, she sneaks looks at the sky when out for exercise, even though it is against the rules to look at it openly. In addition, she describes her joy at catching "glimpses of the sky, majestically still above us," while taking the steamer to Kolyma.

When Genia later arrives in Kolyma, she looks "around vainly on the landward side for a clean stretch of horizon," but all she sees is "purplish hills [that] fenced [her] in like prison walls." She mourns the lack of the open horizon and feels cut off from the rest of the world. Although the mountains make no difference in her freedom or connection to the rest of the world, being able to see an open sky reminds her there is a world beyond her present one.


The many references to air literally mean the ability to breathe life-sustaining oxygen. Symbolically these references mean the ability to experience a sense of freedom. In Part 1, Chapter 45, for example, Genia observes how "the fall of the monstrous dwarf had restored to us our breath of oxygen." This is true in the literal sense because it resulted in her cell window being opened longer each day. But it also has symbolic meaning, as she notes that "a liberal breeze was blowing"—the liberal breeze representing changes that would nourish life and allow for greater freedom. In contrast, the lack of oxygen not only threatens Genia's and her cellmate's lives but also dampens their hopes and nearly extinguishes their spirits in that same chapter, as they had both become ill from lack of air.

Air is one of the few commodities the prisoners can cherish, and it is strictly regulated. The warders lock the windows to prevent air from flowing into the cells. Its value is revealed in Part 2, Chapter 1. On Genia's first day in the freight train Car Number 7, she is thrilled for the chance to talk with other people, but she momentarily stops talking just to breathe in the "thin stream of air" coming through the window. Fresh air is often in short supply, and she savors the chance to breathe deeply of it. Oxygen is life sustaining. It also is part of the outside world, and breathing it gives her a connection to life outside her train car and imprisonment.

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