Into the Whirlwind by Eugenia Ginzburg

stalin_poster

This has to be one of the best Persephones I’ve read in a very long time. In the 1930s, Eugenia Ginzburg was a prominent young member of the Communist intelligentsia, entirely committed to the party and its vision for Russia. She lived in the small city of Kazan, had risen to the position of head of the department of Leninist history at the city’s university, edited a communist newspaper and was married to the city’s mayor. She had an idyllic life, surrounded by friends and colleagues who shared her beliefs and utterly satisfied in her work and in her young family. However, in 1934, everything began to change. The assassination of Kirov, a prominent member of the party, led to Stalin instigating what would become known as the Great Purge, ridding the Party of any member who could potentially pose a threat, though the vast majority of those imprisoned or murdered were entirely innocent of any crime. Elvov, a colleague of Ginzburg’s at the university, was accused of leading a counter-revolutionary group and arrested. For three years life became difficult for Ginzburg as she came under suspicion and found herself regularly questioned and accused of being a part of Elvov’s fictitious counter-revolutionary group. The nonsensical nature of her crime, which was in failing to notice that Elvov was a counter-revolutionary, had Ginzburg convinced that the trouble was all a misunderstanding and would soon blow over. Her naive belief in the Communist Party and its leaders made it impossible for her to realise what was really going on behind the scenes, but when she was eventually expelled from the party, Ginzburg began to understand that her life was in danger. In 1937, she was arrested and sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment. She had not had a chance to say goodbye to her family before being arrested; she would never see her husband, parents or son again.

Ginzburg spent the first two years of her imprisonment in solitary confinement, though she was enormously lucky to have a cellmate through necessity, as Stalin’s obsessive purging of anyone who could potentially be a threat had led to major overcrowding in prisons. Conditions were primitive and Ginzburg and her cellmate were kept strictly separate from their fellow inmates, though this did not prevent them from communicating with one another. Through a tapping alphabet, the prisoners managed to pass news and gradually understand how serious the situation had become. Senior and well known officials were amongst those in the cells, and at night, the screaming of prisoners being tortured could clearly be heard. Practically starved, forced to live in airless, damp conditions, with only the occasional treat of a book and a daily solitary walk around the yard to look forward to, Ginzburg and her fellow inmates lived in hope that soon the madness would end and they would be released. They were treated with kindness by some wardens, but mostly with cruelty, and were regularly interrogated by officials who tried to make them incriminate themselves in all manner of absurd, trumped up crimes. Despite the horror of her situation, Ginzburg tried to remain positive and even began to appreciate the benefit of the smallness of cell life; the chance to think, to study novels closely, to appreciate the small moments of unexpected pleasures, made life somehow more immediate and treasured. Even so, the fear of further punishment and even death was always on the horizon, and when the two years of solitary confinement were up, Ginzburg had no idea what would be waiting for her as she embarked on the next stage of her imprisonment.

This is such a powerful and gripping account of the sheer horror and pain of losing your freedom and all control over your life, and of how strong people can be under the most awful of circumstances. Ginzburg and her fellow prisoners showed such bravery and tenacity in the face of their long sentences and uncertain futures, and took enormous risks to help one another survive their ordeal. Rather than falling apart, their imprisonment made them more resilient and determined, refusing to allow themselves to become broken by the treatment they received. Despite this, however, I was surprised that so many of the prisoners remained loyal to their party and to Stalin, unable or perhaps unwilling to acknowledge that he was directly responsible for their imprisonment, and naively believing that ‘if Stalin knew’ what was happening, he would put a stop to it. Ginzburg herself admits that at the time, she did not associate Stalin with her situation, and did not blame him for it. It was a challenge for me to understand this mindset, and also for me to understand how Stalin was allowed to get away with treating so many hundreds of thousands – even millions – of his own people like this. I was absolutely infuriated by the end, perplexed as to how, as with Nazi Germany, this horror was not stopped by other countries. How could thousands of people disappear and the world not have noticed? Why do so few people still not know about the atrocities that were committed by these 20th century dictators, and why do we still allow dictators who are decimating their citizens in nations all over the world today to get away with their crimes? Eugenia Ginzburg’s incredibly moving and unflinchingly honest memoir should be required reading by every schoolchild. Its revelation of the evil humans are capable of inflicting upon one another, as well as how lucky we are to have our freedom, are two lessons all of us should fully learn before we become adults. Ginzburg’s retelling of her experiences deeply affected me, and left me determined to find out more about this period of history. Don’t let this one pass you by; it’s truly compelling reading.

 

20 comments

  1. I recieved a copy of this from Persephone too – and I agree it is an excellent book. I finished this afternoon, and now need to gather my thoughts together for my own review. There appears to have been a sequel written to this book and I am hoping Persephone publish that as well.

    1. I’m glad you found it a wonderful book too. Yes I also hope they republish the sequel as I am desperate to find out what happened next. It’s such a pain it’s so hard to get hold of!

  2. I have a battered old Penguin of this which has been sitting on my shelves for years – but I might not be able to resist the temptation to get the Persephone! Certainly, it’s hard to understand from our perspective how people could excuse Stalin for his behaviour, but when you’re in the thick of things it’s hard to see clearly. He obviously had some kind of charisma as I believe many modern-day Russians miss the days of Stalinism…..

  3. I regularly fume with rage in that Stalin – by default – gets a better press than Hitler – remember that that monster killed more Russians than Hitler did; and to see Ukrainians today holding aloft the hammer-and-sickle flag under which perhaps 10 million of their ancestors were starved to death in the 1930s under Stalin’s “progressive policies,” beggars belief.

    1. Yes…I remember being shocked at school when we learnt about Stalin and we all did the maths and realised that he was far worse than Hitler, though had somehow been brushed under the carpet. History is far too kind to some.

  4. You have me hooked. This sounds fascinating. The politics are so amazing. I guess it was hard for them to lose faith in Stalin. If you have believed in someone or an ideology for so long, it is hard to stop. I suppose it was just so hard for them to believe that Stalin would let horrible things happen if he knew about them. Faith in a lie is sometimes easier for someone to hang on to than admit that all of their thinking had been wrong for so long.

    1. It is fascinating! Yes, you’re right. One of the hardest things to face must be losing your faith in something you have dedicated your life to…sometimes it’s just easier to stick your head in the sane.

  5. My father who died at 94 three years ago, was a committed Communist here in Australia – not an activist but completely convinced of its potential to save mankind. I grew up reading the ‘Soviet Woman’ magazine. He was intelligent and well read, and in all other ways kind and considerate. But he was totally blinkered in regards to the atrocities of Stalin and Trotsky. When I was old enough to discuss these things with him I asked him how he could excuse them and he told me that sometimes the end result is worth the sacrifice and he simply refused to believe that things were as dreadful as they were. I didn’t understand it and never will but even my mother supported his beliefs – because she loved him I suppose.

    1. It’s interesting how faith can be blind to facts, isn’t it. I suppose if you believe in someone that strongly then you can’t – or don’t want to – see their faults. What a fascinating upbringing you must have had!

  6. A compelling review, Rachel. I think that people often hang on to ideologies, even when the truth is staring them in the face, and the truly frightening thing is that such things as this continue to go on and thrive. I’ve put this on my list – for when I have the courage to read this (and I eventually will). Thank you, Rachel.

    1. Thank you, Penny. I think you’re right – and yes, absolutely – there are so many such ideologies still alive and well today which is terrifying. I hope you’ll get around to reading it soon – it’s a fantastic book.

  7. This seems to support my long-standing guess that bookish types might have stood a better chance of making a half-way tolerable life for themselves in the FSU.

    Veering wildly O/T, I wanted to thank you for your recent review of The Good Luck of Right Now, which I would not have heard of otherwise. I will soon be facing challenges similar to Bartholomew’s and am finding solace in the book.

    1. I’m not sure about that – I think she just got very lucky – fortunately for her but not so much for others. You are very welcome – I’m so glad to hear it is giving you comfort at a difficult time. I’m sorry to hear that you are experiencing similar circumstances – I wish you well at coping with them.

  8. Hope against Hope, By Nadezhda Mandelstam – This is what you must read now-a wonderful story of survival in Stalinist Russia. It is beautifully told too..

  9. i forgot do read the wonderfully moving poems of Anna Ahmatova for a feel of that period ‘Wild honey smells of freedom
    The dust—of sunlight
    The mouth of a young girl, like a violet
    But gold—smells of nothing.”

    Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966), Russian poet. “Wild Honey Smells of Freedom,” lines 1-4, as translated by Lenore Mayhew and William McNaughton (1943).

  10. I’m reading this at the moment, completely engrossed in it. You might also be interested in Grey is the Colour of the Hope by Irina Ratushinskya – it’s a good few years since I read but she was imprisoned in the 80s and is only a couple of years older than I am. It’s not distant history.

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