Monday, November 21, 2016

Book Review - Into the Whirlwind by Eugenia Ginzburg

In her powerful autobiography Into the Whirlwind, Eugenia Ginzburg shares her experiences of being arrested in 1937, imprisoned, and eventually sent to do grueling manual labor in a Siberian gulag.  She was “officially” convicted as a political terrorist and enemy of the people.  Naturally, none of this was true - she was part of Joseph Stalin's "Great Purge" campaign.  While her experiences were unbelievably harrowing and heartbreaking, it is her unrelentingly strong spirit that shines through this work.

Ginzburg was a highly educated woman, receiving university training as a teacher, and later heading up the Culture section of a regional Communist Party newspaper called Red Tartary.  She was proficient in literature, poetry, and political theory; could understand some German, and read other languages.  She was solidly in the Soviet Elite social class, as were most of her acquaintances.  This made her, and her family, a prime target for Stalin’s program of intellectual and political repression.

When one of her coworkers was arrested for supposed terrorist activities, she was brought in for interrogation.  The violence she experienced in her interrogation was purely verbal and emotional, as the questioners were not permitted to use physical torture until a few months after.  During one of her interrogation sessions, she was pressured into writing a statement, one that the secret police could use to discover other “enemies of the state”.  She knows that her fate has essentially been sealed, so she decides she has nothing to lose.  She tells her questioner that, “Well, you yourself mentioned the kind of writing I do – articles, translations.  But I’ve never tried my hand at detective novels, and I doubt if I could do the kind of fiction you want” (pg. 58).  She decides that she should at least write something, as the time spent writing would be time without the interrogator’s abuse.  So, she spends hours writing a letter to the head of the secret police, explaining the illegality of the case against her and the methods used for the investigation.  The questioner verbally abused her for this act, but ultimately could not do anything to harm her.  It is this undercurrent of sass and bravery, appearing throughout the work, which endears Ginzburg to the reader.  She understands that she is powerless to change her overall situation, but jabs at those in power when she has the opportunity.

Because she refused to denounce her colleague, or to implicate others, she was tried (in a show-court lasting only a few minutes) and convicted of being a co-conspirator.  She was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment, with a loss of civil rights for 5 years.  Instead of feeling dissolute about her situation, she was almost euphoric because it meant that there was the possibility of freedom and life.  However, this jubilant spirit is tested throughout the rest of the book, because the conditions she endures are horrific at best.

Ginzburg’s imprisonment is described as being “buried alive for a little over two years” (pg. 146).  Ginzburg, as a political prisoner, is kept in almost complete isolation in her cell.  Deprived of much light, company, and fresh air, she is afraid of losing language and her sanity, so she quietly recites poetry and other works that she can recall, and reads whatever books she is able to acquire from the prison library.  This solace in literature serves her throughout the rest of her time in that prison, with its filthy conditions, meager food rations, brutal guards, and the knowledge that all this was for false charges. 

The cruel treatment of the prisoners leads to near-starvation and suffering from a wide variety of malnutrition and constitution sicknesses.  After being in the isolation of prison, the author and her fellow prisoners had to adapt to life in a camp where there is a hierarchy based on the crime.  As political prisoners, they were treated as the lowest form of inmate, and given the hardest and least desirable tasks.  Ginzburg and many of her fellow political prisoners, many of them unaccustomed to heavy manual labor, were expected to fell large trees on very meager rations and terrible living conditions.  The author, herself, was close to death on many occasions, and was saved through a kind-hearted camp doctor. 

Her experience of the camps, and the treatment of the prisoners, seems eerily similar to the Nazi treatment of prisoners in concentration camps.  Although the USSR camps were meant for labor and not necessarily extermination, the incarcerated often died because of the harsh conditions and poor health.  The most critical aspect of this novel is that most of the individuals she encounters in the prisons and camps are of similar social class to her.  Therefore, the reader gets no perspective of what conditions and treatment were like for people from more impoverished conditions and rural areas.  There is also no information about what life was like for non-incarcerated peoples.  These criticisms are accurate, but also invalid because the book was written as her own memoirs of this time.  Into the Whirlwind is important because it bears witness to the ways that the USSR treated its citizens during this time in history.  In a world where political instability is a real possibility, and human rights are violated regularly, works like this remind us of how dangerous those things can be when unchecked.