Crime or Punishment: Russian Narratives of Incarceration

Journey into the Whirlwind

Journey into the Whirlwind
Eugenia Solomonovna Ginzburg

Kazan and (primarily) Moscow 


PLOT SUMMARY: In Journey into the Whirlwind Ginzburg describes her eighteen years of unfreedom — time spent in prisons, work camps, and interrogation rooms. The story begins in 1934, three years before her incarceration, when Ginzburg’s party membership was revoked because she had not denounced her friend’s apparently “Trotskyist” article. Ginzburg’s husband, Pavel Vasilyevich Aksyonov, was a leading member of the local Party Committee and Ginzburg herself was a loyalist. She was expelled nonetheless and arrested eight days later, leaving behind her husband and sons. 

     Ginzburg spends the rest of her memoir recounting the trials and tribulations of life at Black Lake, Lefortovo, Butyrka, Elgen, and in transit between the prisons. She describes the many friendships she forges with other prisoners; her relationship with Lyama in the Black Lake cellars is especially notable, because Lyama’s lesson, “just make contact,” inspires her to seek out friendships in each new jail. Ginzburg gives readers a window into the ways in which she held onto hope: “curiosity about life in all its manifestations...sometimes made me forget my troubles” (107). In the Lefortovo prison, Ginzburg and her friend Julia read and memorize Selvinsky’s poems. And in Elgen, on the brink of starvation, Ginzburg and Galya discover berries in the woods. Finally, just when it seems like Ginzburg will be worked to death, a surgeon from Leningrad comes to Elgen to conduct medical inspections on the rapidly dying prisoners. It turns out that the surgeon, Dr. Vaily Petukhov, is a good friend of Ginzburg’s Leningrad relative. He finds a way to save her from work at Elgen and she instead becomes a medical attendant in the children’s home. Eugenia Ginzburg ends the memoir by remarking that “once again, I had given death the slip.” 


ANALYSIS: Ginzburg’s memoir touches on several themes common in the Russian prison narrative: she describes the paranoia her family feels before her arrest, the relationships she forms in prison, and the innovative methods of communication the prisoners develop and use. Unlike many of the authors of Soviet prison memoirs, however, Ginzburg is not a political dissident. She is a party loyalist. On the very first page of her memoir, she writes that “had I been ordered to die for the Party...I would have obeyed without the slightest hesitation. I had not a shadow of a doubt about the rightness of the Party line” (2). Many of the people with whom Ginzburg is imprisoned have a similar kind of undying love and appreciation for the Party, even while recognizing that it is​ the Party that is putting them through hell. 


     It is fascinating to see how her commitment to the Party becomes more complex throughout the narrative, though it never completely disappears. During the trial in which she is falsely charged with terrorism, Ginzburg has a moment of realization: “far from being in need of protection from terrorist plots, regional committee secretaries were themselves the leaders of such conspiracies” (130). Yet by the end of the memoir it is clear that Ginzburg’s relationship to the Party is not entirely destroyed; even after eighteen years of incarceration, she is not a die-hard political dissident. She clearly disagrees with what the Communist Party has become, but even so, it remains a part of Ginzburg, “as natural to us as breathing” (227). She is able to hold several truths at once: she can simultaneously ​hate​ the Party, ​hate​ what it has done to her, and recognize that the very same Party also shaped so much of who she is. 




“As I lay awake on my plank bed, the most unorthodox thoughts passed through my mind — about how thin the line is between high principles and blinkered intolerance, and also how relative are all human systems and ideologies and how absolute the tortures which human beings inflict on one another.” (113) 


“Even now — we asked ourselves — after all that has happened to us, would we vote for any other than the Soviet system, which seemed as much a part of us as our hearts and as natural to us as breathing? Everything I had in the world — thousands of books I had read, memories of my youth and the very endurance which was now keeping me from going under — all this had been given to me by the Soviet system, and the revolution which had transformed my world while I was still a child.” (227) 


“Many a time, my thoughts were taken off my own sufferings by the keen interest which I felt in the unusual aspects of life and of human nature which unfolded around me. I strove to remember all these things in the hope of recounting them to honest people and true Communists, such as I was sure would listen to me one day.” (417)


BIOGRAPHY​: Eugenia Ginzburg was born in Moscow in 1904 but her family moved to Kazan soon after. In adulthood, Ginzburg became a history teacher at Kazan University and married ​Pavel Aksenov, an important Communist Party official. After marrying him, she joined the party herself. They had two sons. In 1937, when her youngest child was just four years old, Ginzb​erg and Aksenov were both arrested for “participation in a Trotskyist terrorist counter-revolutionary group.” Ginzburg didn’t ever see A​ksenov or her oldest son again. She spent years in prison and in several camps. Describing how her conditions deteriorated, Ginzburg wrote, “We no longer had the strength to fulfill our output norms. Our rations were steadily reduced.” In Yaroslavl, she spent two full years in solitary confinement. “I still remember the physical anguish, the despair of my muscles, as I paced the area in which I was henceforth to live,” she recounted. 


     In 1947, ten years after her arrest, Ginzburg was freed (though she had to remain in exile). She moved to Magadan, began work as a school teacher, and was reunited with her youngest son. The rest of her family had died during her stay in prison. Ginzburg’s memoir, ​Journey into the Whirlwind​, was published in English in 1967 and in Russian in 1990. She was eventually allowed to return to Moscow, where she died in 1977 at the age of 72. 



Meyer, Priscilla. "Aksenov and Stalinism: Political, Moral and Literary Power." ​Contemporary Literary Criticism,​ edited by Deborah A. Schmitt, vol.101, Gale,1997.​ Literature Resource Center.




Aksyonov, Vasily. “Looking for Colour: A Soviet Writer Compares Tsarist and Soviet Censorshipa.” ​Index on Censorship​ vol. 11, no. 4, 1982, pp. 3–4.
This article features Ginzburg's son, Vasily Aksyonov, who got into trouble with the government for publishing a collection of censored work by young Soviet authors. It compares Aksyonov's experience to Jiri Grusa's, a well-known dissident writer from Czechoslovakia. 


Lingel, Jessa and Sinnreich. “Aram, Incoded Counter-Conduct: What the Incarcerated Can Teach Us About Resisting Mass Surveillance.” First Monday, March 17, 2015, pp. 1-31. 
This article (written by a Microsoft researcher) explores different forms of resistance to mass surveillance. It focuses on three forms of protest, but the relevant one for our purposes is the tap code (which Lamya taught to Ginzburg in the Black Lake prison). The article traces the development of the tap code and uses Foucault's theory of askesis in order to develop our understanding of incodification. 


Bielecka-Prus, Joanna. "Discursive Analysis of Auto/biographical Narratives: On the Basis of Prison Camp Literature." Autobiography, Biography, Narration: Research Practice for Biographical Perspectives, eds. Marcin Kafar and Monika Modrzejewska-Świgulska. Jagiellonian UP, 2014, pp. 43-60.
This study uses hermetic tools from history, sociology, philosophy, anthropology, ethnography, culture studies, and gender studies to develop an analytical framework through which we can study the biographical narrative. The author uses Ginzburg's work as a case study, producing an incredibly in-depth analysis of ​Journey into the Whirlwind.​ 

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