Sunday, 4 May 2014

'Into The Whirlwind' by Eugenia Ginzburg

Emily Watson played Ginzburg in the 2009 film, Within The Whirlwind

Take a deep breath before you get started on the first of two autobiographies by Eugenia Ginzburg (1904-1977). Originally published in English 1967, it was 1990 before Into The Whirlwind was published in Russian – Ginzburg’s native language, and the country in which the horrific accounts she details are set. The book has recently been republished by Persephone, who are as committed to reprinting books about important women of the past century as they are to reprinting neglected but much-loved old novels.

While working as a history teacher in Russia, Ginzburg – who goes by the name ‘Jenny’ in this book – and her husband Pavel Aksyonov were also active members of the Communist Party. However, in 1937 she was expelled from the party and sent to the Gulag in the Russian Far East. This was part of the awful Great Purge of 1937, in which Joseph Stalin ordered a large-scale purge of the Communist Party and government officials in order to strengthen his own authority over the state. Around 680,000 people were killed as a result of the purge, many after years of being locked up and tortured in barbaric prisons.

Ginzburg herself was sentenced to 10 years in solitary confinement for her alleged part in the Communist Party – and she continued to profess her innocence throughout, which only strengthened her punishment. Into The Whirlwind minutely details the horrors she experienced while being moved from one gruesome prison to another, the hunger and depravation she endured, the airless conditions she was kept in, the torture she was put through, and so much more. Ginzburg also never saw her mother, husband or her eldest son again after her arrest in 1937 (she was finally released in 1949, and ‘rehabilitated’ in 1955).

Having already worked as a journalist and teacher, Ginzburg had an existing love for language and writing, and she trained herself to remember every detail of what she endured during those hideous decades, and she recounts it all painfully carefully in Into The Whirlwind. From the awful conditions in her tiny cell once the window was closed (causing her to become severely ill due to the damp and mould in her cell); to the horrors of the ‘standing cell’ (literally big enough for a person to stand upright, but not big enough for them to crouch or move their arms… and in which they would be kept for days at a time, with their excrement collecting at their feet); to the nightmare of being kept in a blackened cell for five days solid. To much more. The book is an important catalogue of injustices meted out under Stalin’s regime.

Ginzburg’s strength of character is extraordinary, especially when she is faced by so much death and abuse on a daily basis. She remains determined to live and remains resolute that she will ultimately be freed, because she desperately wants to see her children again. Sadly, she was only reunited with one of her two children (her eldest son died in the siege of Leningrad).  

Into The Whirlwind is a book for which you need to brace yourself, but it is a very important book to read. It’s a part of history about which I knew almost nothing, but being less than 100 years past, this is still relatively recent history. That people could have been treated so inhumanely so recently is appalling, and terrifying that this was allowed to happen.

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