The best book, definitely the best memoir, that I’ve read in years, The Journey into the Whirlwind by Eugenia Semyonovna Ginzburg chronicles her experience of imprisonment in USSR during the Stalin era. Since she saw no evidence against her colleague, Ginzburg refused to wrongly condemn him as a Trotskyite. Thus she was imprisoned for over a decade.
A poet and writer, Ginzburg writes of how she was torn from her husband and two young children and imprisoned in 1937 for over a decade. Ginzburg was a faithful Communist, but that didn’t matter. Stalin’s henchmen would imprison millions, many of whom agreed with him.
I was astonished by Ginzburg’s bravery. She stood her ground when pressured with the threat of torture unless she signed documents that falsely charged her with terrorism and other crimes. Her refusal saved her life since admitting to those crimes would allow the Soviet government to execute her. Even when interrogated in marathon sessions, Ginzburg stuck to her principles.
To communicate, Ginzburg and her fellow prisoners ingeniously devised codes consisting of taps on the walls and songs. This was how they shared news of the outside and changes in the prison. Prisoners were allowed to write home, but their letters were censored. Ginzburg eventually developed a code with her mother so rather than using her own name or her family members’ names, using fictitious names of imaginary children. So rather than asking about her husband, she’d make up a little boy’s name and ask if he’s back from camp to find out if her husband had been released from prison. The codes were quite clever and worked.
Conditions in the prison, train to the work camp and work camp were horrific and Ginzburg described them vividly, but the dignity and bravery she showed throughout the book, elevated her writing so that I could keep reading. She also provided astute observations about the people she was imprisoned with. Some retained their haughty airs, while others banded together and sacrificed to help a sick woman who needed food or who needed information on how the system worked.
This was a period that knew about at a textbook level of generalities and read Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which I now want to reread. Ginzburg’s book made this chapter of history crystal clear. There is a 2009 movie but I doubt I could watch it. If the torture and injustice are accurately depicted, it’s probably too much for me and if they aren’t I’d be upset by the cherry-coating.