Journey into the Whirlwind | Study Guide

Eugenia Ginzburg

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Journey into the Whirlwind | Themes


Honesty versus Leniency

Should someone admit guilt for a crime they did not commit to avoid imprisonment or death? This is the dilemma Genia Ginzburg faces. In Part 1, Chapter 3, Alexandra Alexandrovna, a typist at the office of the local paper Red Tartary, advises Genia to "admit you're guilty and say you are sorry." Genia refuses to lie, saying she's "not guilty of anything" and asking, "Why should I be a hypocrite?" Later in Part 1, Chapter 5, Genia's mother-in-law, Avdotya Vasilyevna Aksyonova, advises her to flee and go into hiding to avoid prosecution and punishment. Genia refuses, for she has total faith in the system—the Communist Party—and believes the truth will prevail. She cannot envision being found guilty for something she did not do. Highly principled Genia tells her mother-in-law, "I must prove my innocence to the Party" and "even if it kills me, I'll prove it!"

Genia endures the interrogations and an appeal, as she continues to trust facts, logic, and common sense. Honest and earnest in her convictions, she believes others will see she is blameless. After she is arrested, she repeatedly declares her innocence, even when doing otherwise might have resulted in leniency. When, for example, her interrogator tells her she can "make things better for [herself]" by repenting and making "a clean breast of it," Genia refuses to lie and admit to something she neither did nor witnessed, vowing to "sign no lies against myself or anyone else" nor be "taken in by Jesuitical arguments which justified lies and fratricide."

Once Genia realizes she will be found guilty, she still cannot take action to prevent imprisonment. Fleeing would indicate guilt, and she cannot go against her principles. Nonetheless, she is unwilling to accept false accusations without objection. She uses every opportunity to try to prove her innocence and advocate for herself. For example, after being told that Professor Elvov has signed a statement against her, she demands to confront him and reveal the truth. The request is denied, as truth is not part of this system.

On several occasions Genia is offered leniency if she will incriminate others. Although she knows people are doing this to save themselves, Genia finds such action reprehensible and refuses to name anyone. When learning that a scholar she respected signed statements leading to 150 deaths, she wonders if doing so was "a sordid attempt to buy his own life at the cost of hundreds of others." She cannot accept or excuse him and others like him, for they are willing accomplices to a system destroying the Communist Party and the lives of innocent people.

Humanity versus Dehumanization

The Soviet state and Communist Party attempted to dehumanize suspected political enemies through propaganda and actions branding them as enemies of the state, and through cultivating blind obedience to the Communist Party. Encouraging widespread fear and isolating perceived enemies allowed Stalin to promote his agenda for the Party and the Soviet Union. By denying people basic human needs—especially sufficient nutrition and communication—his regime succeeded in dehumanizing perceived enemies and forced others into obedience. Stalin considered prisoners a means of accelerating industrialization through forced labor. Thus, he viewed them as labor units rather than as humans. Stalin branded many prisoners enemies of the people, others as terrorists. This classification encouraged Party interrogators and prison warders to treat the accused and prisoners inhumanely.

Despite the dehumanization of prisoners by interrogators, guards, and other administrators, many prisoners retained their humanity by preserving what shreds of decency and compassion they could. Genia Ginzburg claims they treated each other with the respect and kindness their guards did not extend. For example, an unconscious Genia is returned to her cell after a stint in the "conveyor belt." Her fellow prisoners care for her by "feeding [her] drops of orange juice" and chocolate, treasured items from a parcel, and give her some of their own food at dinner, causing Genia to reflect on "how kind people were." When a beaten prisoner is returned to his cell, Genia and her cellmates smuggle cigarettes to him, despite the risk of being beaten themselves. That same night Genia learns her husband has been arrested and is in the same prison. She is filled with despair for her children. When Genia experiences despair and "cared nothing for the world," Lydia Mentzinger, a cellmate who had remained distant from Genia, looks at her "with simple human kindness," strokes Genia's head, and recites the words of Job. Her kindness "broke the spell," and Genia is finally able to cry.

While the prisoners behave as human beings should, many of the guards do not. One way for Genia to endure their brutality is simply to stop thinking of them as human, for it is too hard to reconcile human beings treating other human beings with such cruelty. She repeatedly tells herself, "Those who did these things were not human beings." She would not "have felt insulted if a monkey or pig had scrabbled in her hair."

Perhaps most significant is that many prisoners refused to submit to the dehumanization of the prisons and camps. Although they lost their freedom and control of their time and bodies, they had control over their minds. The guards could not penetrate their thoughts. Like Genia, they preserved their humanity—and sanity—by reading and reciting poetry and parts of other literary works. Reading and reciting not only allowed them to separate mentally from their physical environment but gave them ideas and values to cling to. It gave expression to sentiments they could not voice within the prison or gulag. In Part 1, Chapter 37, Genia writes that the guards could take away everything—her clothes and other possessions—but they could not take away her ability to recite poetry. It was hers, and by holding onto it she could hold on to her humanity and "survive even this dungeon."


Hope is the sense of possibility, of believing in change for the better. For Genia Ginzburg and others caught up in Stalin's purges, hope is what kept spirits and faith alive. For them it was the belief that they were not doomed to the worst that could happen, that someday the madness would end, and that they would be free to live their lives.

Hope also manifests itself on a daily basis, in little things. For example, Genia hopes to be kept with some of the prisoners she meets in the Black Maria transport truck taking her to the prison in Moscow. That hope did not come to pass, but it kept her spirits up. Other hopes become major disappointments, however. In Part 1, Chapter 23, Genia hopes to see her mother and children before leaving Kazan for Moscow but is "not allowed to see [her] family." Decades afterward she still feels the pain of never again seeing her elder son, Alyosha, or her mother.

By hoping things may change, prisoners keep their spirits up. Genia and her cellmate Julia Karepova are heartened by the possibility the new year will be better after they read a poem with the phrase, "Next year in Jerusalem," which describes the Jewish people's hope to be in the Promised Land in the new year. In Part 2, Chapter 3, the prisoners being transported to a labor camp envision an improvement in their new home: they will get more food, and the cold weather will be better than the scorching heat of their present location. Genia reflects how "such remarks betrayed the secret need of the human heart for hope, even of the flimsiest kind."

The prisoners use a variety of techniques to foster hope, one of which is to find rationales for what is happening and what might happen. For example, Genia repeatedly tells herself she will not be sentenced to more than 10 years because more important prisoners, such as heads of regional committees and NKVD (Soviet secret police organization) members, have received only 10 years.

Because they are in isolation, the prisoners crave information about what is happening beyond their immediate world—both in the prisons and camps and in the outside world. They need this information so they can make reasoned assessments about their own situations and cling to whatever hope they can, all the while knowing the folly to think that what is happening is logical and will follow the rules of common sense. Even when they know the unexpected can happen, they usually choose to hang on to their hope for something different. For example, in Part 2, Chapter 2, the prisoners being transferred to labor camps imagine they will "soon be working." Others think their husbands are also being moved to the labor camps and cling to "hopes of a future meeting" with them.

Genia finds hope in anything that preserves "the flicker of life from extinction." She views unexpected events, such as finding wild cranberries, as being "a manifestation of that Supreme Good which, in spite of everything, rules the world." Her belief in that Supreme Good gives her the hope she will get out of the camp and be a part of the world again.


Journey into the Whirlwind is not only Genia Ginzburg's story. It is a tribute to and a record of everyone with whom she shared her imprisonment and with whom she came into contact with or learned about. She wants to tell their stories, to describe whatever little pieces of their lives she can, so their survivors know what happened to them, where they were held, and what their lives were like.

Genia also writes to remember, to revisit the past, or "tread these minefields of the mind" as she describes it, in Part 1, Chapter 21, no matter how painful it is. In Part 1, Chapter 28, which details the night before her military tribunal, she describes how the other prisoners memorized "her children's names and relatives' addresses," so if she were executed and the others "survived they could tell them of her last hours." She wants her sons to know what happened to her if she dies in prison. The need to be remembered is a universal desire, and this theme runs throughout Genia Ginzburg's memoir.

The need for remembrance and how it is carried out is further detailed in Part 1, Chapter 31. While awaiting transfer to the site where she will carry out her sentence, Genia is placed in a prison with others awaiting deportation. A fellow prisoner, Anna Zhilinskaya, tells her about a woman who agreed to be a witness against others, believing the NKVD when they told her the accused had committed crimes. Eugenia Podolskaya signed statements that sent more than 25 people to their deaths. Later, an officer tells her she is going to be shot next. Realizing she had been a stool pigeon, not someone who helped put away dangerous criminals, she tries to commit suicide. She fails but is determined to succeed in the future. So Eugenia asks Anna (if she survives) to find her daughter and tell her what happened—that she had not born false witness for personal gain but because she believed in the Party's "pure fanaticism." Anna agrees, but fearing she may not survive she tells Genia the story and gives her the daughter's name and address. Genia promises to contact the daughter and pass on the information if she is able, and memorizes the daughter's name and address. Genia, however, fails to pass on the information after she is freed, as she has forgotten the address. She relates Eugenia Podolskaya's story, though, in her memoir. In doing so, she passes on news about her that may eventually reach her daughter.

Many of Genia's accounts about her fellow prisoners and people she met are told for a similar purpose—to let their survivors know a little about what happened to those who passed through the camps and did not survive to tell their own stories. In several chapters, such as In Part 2, Chapter 2, she interjects stories about her traveling companions, along with their obituaries—how and where they died. Genia also wants to give tribute to many, to honor them for their courage and acts of kindness. She honors Garey Sagidullin by describing him as a "strong man, a man in the true sense of the word." Four chapters later, she elaborates by describing how kind he was to her and how he sought to inspire and encourage her when she left the prison in Moscow, despite knowing his own death was imminent.

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