The one on how to survive the Gulag

Eugenia Ginzburg, Into the Whirlwind (1967)

I picked this Persephone book after a Prokofiev biography that left me with more questions than answers. What was it like to live through Stalin’s huge purges of 1937? What was the cost of surviving? Why did people not realize how totalitarian state was going to eat them up?

This book didn’t answer the questions either, and still raised others. But at least I got a glimpse of what women endured behind bars, and I got it in full details. Eugenia Ginzburg was not a opposant to the Communist regime. Far from it. In fact, she was an enthusiast Party member and had a quite successful career in journalism and university in Kazan. Her lifestyle was by all counts that of a bourgeois family. But in 1937 she was arrested as so many people around her (her husband, colleagues, friends…). Everyone seemed to expect getting arrested, and yet it seems that people thought that their own personal case was only a misunderstanding that would be cleared up within a short time. Lots of people still respected the great leader Stalin and thought that the purge campaign was the result of some minister’s initiative and would soon be corrected. Ginzburg wasn’t into the personality cult, but she still believed in the principles of communism, and she too struggled to make sense of a Party that kept devouring its own children and was building a Kafkaesque system.

After a number of months in prison and a mock trial of 7 minutes, Evguenia was sentenced to 10 years in the Gulag, and not to death as she had come to fear. She spent years in solitary confinement and describes very well how she nearly got crazy from this inhuman treatment. Yet those years were not defined by physical hardships (she finally got in a cell with another woman, managed to communicate with next door inmates and got access to some books). The bitterer years were still to come, as she was transferred to labor camps in the Far East (Vladivostok), where she nearly lost her life from deprivation and exhaustion.

The original Russian book was published in 1967 after being smuggled to the West. It ends abruptly in as it is supposed to be followed by another book detailing the next years of forced labor and exile: “Within the whirlwind”.

Her testimony is so rich in details and names that you can’t read it but with respect. Yet Ginzburg herself comes very much alive through her pages, as a wonderful optimistic, energetic and resourceful person, a fun woman to be around, especially in dire circumstances. She recited poetry for pages and pages on end. That she survived her ordeal of more than 20 years is a miracle, but I can somehow guess that with such an open, easy and strong personality, she would put luck on her side more than once. Some sentences made me tick, like when she says that “prison, and especially solitary confinement, ennobled and purified human beings” and that it was after being transferred to Kolyma that she encountered ugly people who sought to take advantage of the system.

Reading such a harrowing memoir is strangely enough not too depressing, mainly due to Ginzburg’ clear and powerful voice who never seems to despair of the human race in general. I wondered at times if it hadn’t been whitewashed, but I prefered believing in her fortitude. The most heartbreaking moments were when those women allowed themselves to think of their children, abandoned to orphanages or relatives and taught to distrust or forget their parents.

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One thought on “The one on how to survive the Gulag

  1. Pingback: 2015 in Books: the 5 most memorable | Smithereens

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