Journey into the Whirlwind (2002) by Eugenia Ginzburg. Mariner Books.
Review by Felipe Jarrín.
Journey Into the Whirlwind is a memoir written by Russian author Eugenia Ginzburg in 1967 which narrates her arrest during the Great Purges and her exile to a labor camp in the Kolyma Valley. It follows her journey as she moves from prison to prison, meets various convicts, and reflects on the nature of her situation and the Soviet Union’s political state.
Ginzburg’s life prior to the Great Purges was largely dominated by her desire to study and her devotion to socialism. She attended Kazan University, where she studied social sciences and pedagogy, later specializing in the history of the All-Union Communist Party. She was always affiliated with the Party’s ideological line, even being named Head of the Department of History of Leninism. However, following the murder of Sergey Kirov in 1934 and the start of Stalin’s Great Terror, Eugenia was accused of ideological deviation due to her proximity to another accused professor. This is where the book starts, as Eugenia finds that she has been branded as an anti-socialist threat. The novel is divided into two parts, the first detailing Ginzburg’s arrest and interrogation process, and the second focusing on her exile. She is separated from her family, whom she will never see again, and taken to a prison in Kazan where she is brutally interrogated by Soviet officers. Following this, she is moved to Moscow where she is finally convicted, and she is then taken to a solitary confinement prison in Yaroslavl. Through these stages, Eugenia meets various different convicts from different backgrounds, including Stalinists, Social Revolutionaries, Mensheviks, and politically uneducated individuals. This allows her to explore the extent of the Purges as well as the different perspectives that existed about them. The second part begins with Eugenia being taken to Kolyma and narrates her travel through Siberia in a cargo train and a ship. It then focuses on the various jobs that she performs at the labor camp as well as on her physical and mental deterioration. The book ends with Eugenia meeting a doctor who assigns her as a medical attendant in a children’s home, saving her life.
The book is captivating from its first sentence. It begins with the following phrase: “The year 1937 began, to all intents and purposes, at the end of 1934—to be exact, on the first of December” (Ginzburg 4). With this instance of foreshadowing (which is brought back in Part 1, Chapter 8: The year 1937 begins), the reader is immediately hooked into the narrative of Ginzburg’s life. This element is a constant through the book, repeatedly managing to grab the reader’s attention as they wonder how these future events will affect Eugenia. This accompanied by Ginzburg’s writing style make the book an extremely compelling piece of reading, even despite its length and often heavy subject matter. The emotional bets of the story are what form its core, providing weight to the characters and events. Ginzburg masterfully describes her inner state through the years, telling the reader her desires, hopes, and worries as well as those of other people she meets. This contextualizes this historical period in the lives of the characters, focusing on the ways that it affects individuals rather than a larger political environment. Despite its very sentimental elements, the book doesn’t refrain from describing the horrors of the Soviet prison system. It details events such as sleepless interrogations which last days, the lack of access to water or oxygen in some cells, and the hardships of forced labor in the Siberian winter. At some points, it can become a hard reading due to the subject it tackles, but Ginzburg’s writing allows the reader to find relief in particular moments of calm and tranquility for the characters.
My main worry when I picked up this book was its potential similarity to other works which tackle this particular part of history such as Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life on Ivan Denisovich. I wondered if it would be able to distance itself from the tropes and traditional narratives of Gulag literature. However, it manages to do so with great effectiveness. Instead of solely paying attention to the life within the labor camps, it spreads out its focus through the different stages of arrest and imprisonment, showing a different side of a well-known story. It allows itself to explore the inner machinery of the Great Purges through Eugenia’s awareness of the country’s political climate. As well as this, it takes a different approach to the characterization of convicts and prisoners. These characters aren’t blank slates without lives outside of prison, but instead each of them has its own past and its own personality. In this aspect, it is much closer to Dostoevsky’s Notes From the House of the Dead, choosing to spend at least some time with the people that Eugenia meets through her journey.
There is no better example of all the points expressed above than Part 2, Chapter 2: All Sorts to Make a World, which is probably the best chapter of the book. In this chapter, Eugenia is taken with other exiles through train to Kolyma. It mainly focuses on the hardships of the travel, narrating the state of the convicts and the abuses of the guards. It’s very effective in its portrayal of the squalor that Eugenia faces, highlighting it through brief moments of relief such as an afternoon at a bathhouse or a session of poetry reading which serve as a foil that makes the negative elements stand out. It also uses foreshadowing masterfully to paint a contrasting picture between the past and present of the individuals on the train. Characters are introduced with their initial attitudes to exile (often positive ones to some extent), which are immediately followed by their often-horrendous deaths in the labor camp. For example, the character of Nadya Korolyova is introduced in the following way:
‘The main thing is, we’re going to work, and not staying in that great stone morgue of a place….’ (Four years later Nadya Korolyova, returning from the day’s work in the violet evening light of Kolyma, collapsed on the icy ground.)” (Ginzburg 364)
This kind of introduction is shocking and serves to show the change and deterioration that will happen in the camp. It is repeated for various of the convicts in the train, enhancing its effectiveness and generalizing it to all of the passengers.
Despite its achievements, Journey Into the Whirlwind is not without faults. Oftentimes, especially during the first half, the story ;feels somewhat disjointed, more like a collection of independent events rather than a single narrative. While it is true that it follows the order of Eugenia’s experiences, the book’s pacing would benefit maybe from longer chapters which contain more interconnected events. Its overabundance of characters is also a problem to an extent. I was often confused by the names, surnames, and backgrounds of all the convicts in Eugenia’s journey and was equally surprised when they suddenly disappeared from the story a few pages after their introduction. However, this does allow for reflections about the fleeting nature of prison relationships. As well as this (and this is a very personal critique), I would’ve preferred the book to spend more time at Kolyma than it did. I don’t mean for it to take over the rest of the story, but at least being a more present section of the narrative.
Overall, Journey Into the Whirlwind is a fantastic book, which shows an aspect of the Great Purges and the Gulag system that is often omitted from other works in the genre. Its writing style, pacing, and subject matter make it an extremely compelling reading for anyone interested in this part of history. It is an emotionally harrowing story that will leave you wanting for more.
Ginzburg, Eugenia. Journey into the Whirlwind. Harcourt, 1975.