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Into the Whirlwind

by Eugenia Ginzburg
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105 106 107

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A Well Full of Leaves
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ISBN 9781903155967

It is impossible not to cry when reading this memoir of Stalin’s Terror – which means it is not for the faint-hearted – yet it is not merely a historical document: the dialogue is life-like and everything is portrayed with extraordinary realism.

A teacher and Communist Party activist, Eugenia Ginzburg was married to the mayor of Kazan. In Into the Whirlwhind, and in the 2009 film starring Emily Watson, the perfectly ‘normal’, bourgeois, seemingly stable nature of her life is heartrendingly portrayed. When a university colleague is arrested for alleged Trotskyist activities, the 30 year-old Eugenia is charged with not having denounced him. Soon she is expelled from the Party and interrogated. In 1937 she was imprisoned, then later she was sent to Kolyma, an enormous complex of labour camps in the Russian Far East. She always hoped to write about her experiences one day and seems to have had total recall.

In the most beautiful prose (the translators were Paul Stevenson and the renowned Manya Harari, who translated Dr Zhivago), Eugenia Ginzburg records her shock at being arrested, the unremitting cruelty of the ‘authorities’ and the agony of being in custody, forced labour and exile. She describes friends who helped orphaned children, prison guards who were sometimes kind but mostly cruel, reciting poetry in the freight cars (reminding us of Etty Hillesum, whose last postcard said ‘we left the camp singing’), felling trees at fifty degrees below zero. And yet through all this suffering she gained a deep insight into what it meant to be human. 

Into the Whirlwind should have a place next to other classics such as Akhmatova’s Requiem and Madelstam’s Hope against Hope. And, as Barbara Evans Clements has written in her recent A History of Women in Russia, these three writers ‘did not participate directly in the dissident movement, but their works played an important part in the building criticism of the Soviet system. The quality of their writing also places them among the major authors of twentieth century Russian literature.’ 


'The Five Year Plan in Four Years', a 1930 Russian textile by an unknown designer

Picture Caption

'Young Communists' by Sergei Bogdanov, 1928

Read What Readers Say

Stewart Rayment, ‘Liberator’

So this is what Marxist socialism really is. Within this inevitably grim subject matter we experience extraordinary getures of humanity and the strength of poetry. One wonders hor much the latter enabled the prodigious feat of memory that Ginzburg achieved. A great book, and as usual, beautifully presented

Book Word (via Instagram)

‘Into the Whirlwind’ is a memoir: the author was sentenced to 10 years in solitary, she endures two (although in the company of Julia) before being sent to a labour camp in the East. From the moment she is sentenced she has no knowledge of her husband, or of their children (seeing only one of her sons in later life). It’s a grim story, starting with the Kafka-esque accusations that began the great purge. The women support each other, learn how to deal with their warders and those who control their lives. Remaining human was a constant struggle, to do with clothes, footwear, eating and acts of generosity towards others.

Todd McEwan, ‘Scottish Herald’

Sometimes one could wish that there was a little shelf of books that everybody in the whole world had to read, just to get a licence to be human […] ‘Into The Whirlwind’ belongs on this shelf. One of the hundred imperative reasons to read this book is so you may ask yourself how safe you feel from such a calamity. It is one of the harshest, most touching, most moving books you will ever read. ‘Into The Whirlwind’ depicts the terrifying motive force with which a respectable and earnest life was destroyed by the state, in the twinkling of an eye.

Categories: Biography Overseas Politics Translations

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