Nonfiction – print. Translated from the Russian by Paul Stevenson and Manya Harari. Persephone Books, 2014. Originally published 1967. 344 pgs. Purchased.
In February 1937, a professor, journalist, and proud member of the Communist Party in Kazan named Eugenia Ginzburg was arrested for failing to denounce her fellow professor, Nikolay Naumovich Elvov. Ginzburg, whose non-Latinized name is often spelled as Yevgenia or Evgenia, was accused of participating in Elvov’s counter-revolutionary Trotskyist group through her position on the editorial board of the newspaper Krasnaya Tatariia (Red Tataria).
Ginzburg believed the arrest was a mistake, that she would be reunited with her husband and children and returned to her former status within the party. Throughout the “investigation” in her activities, she forcefully denied the NKVD’s accusations and refused either to sign documents stating she was guilty or to denounce others in the party.
Her trail lasted seven minutes, and she was sentenced to ten years imprisonment and five years of deprivation of political rights. She spent two years in solitary confinement at the Lefortova, Butyrka and Korovniki prisons, although overcrowding at the prison meant she shared her cell, before being deported to a gulag in Siberia.
Transport was perilous on the overcrowded train to Vladivstok and in the cargo hold of a steamer ship, with guards refusing to provide water to the prisoners. Once she arrived at Koluma, Ginzburg – who is called Jenny by her fellow prisoners – was subjected to starvation and intense manual labor, including chopping down trees.
Written with thirty years of hindsight, Ginzburg’s memoir recognizes that her arrest was one of many conducted during Stalin’s Great Purge of 1936 to 1938. She also interjects additional information about the political atmosphere or the experiences for her fellow prisoners that she would not have known at the time but does provide necessary context for the reader.
I started this book unaware that it would be a memoir of a bleak and brutal time during Soviet rule, and I debated setting it aside when its classification as nonfiction became apparent. Frankly, I wasn’t prepared to read something so disturbing and heart-wrenching; not on the heels of two books that featured by violence against others for economic or political gain and ended up being disappointing reads.
Yet, after reaching fifty pages in, I could no longer contemplate setting aside Ginzburg’s memoir for another day. Despite the content, Ginzburg writes in a beautifully lyrical style; for once, I didn’t wonder if the style was underserved by the translation.
Certain aspects of Ginzburg’s memoir reminded me of another memoir of a woman’s time in a Siberian gulag that I’d recently read, Dalia Grinkevičiūtė’s Shadows on the Tundra. Both women document how civility remained among the prisoners, how their desire to prove they were right and good provided them with hope and strength despite the horrific conditions.
(Although, the two women differ on their view of right and good with Grinkevičiūtė insisting her Lithuanian nationality made her better than her captors and Ginzburg insisting she was true Communist whose status would be returned once the Party returned to its Leninian roots and realized its mistake.)
But the level of detail in Ginzburg’s memoir is unmatched by Grinkevičiūtė. She spends a great deal of time explaining how the prisoners utilized a set of knocks to communicate with one another, which became a lifeline during their periods of solitary confinement. Other lifelines were poems the prisoners wrote in order to inject an element of beauty into their existences, and Ginzburg reprints a number of them in her memoir.
The memoir does end in a disappointingly abrupt manner, but there is a note at the end by the original English language publisher saying that Ginzburg was working on a second memoir. That memoir titled Within the Whirlwindwas published in English in 1981, although Persephone Books has not reprinted it as part of their collection.
I doubt I would have encountered this incredible memoir had it not been published by Persephone, but I will caution that the text arrangement in this edition was difficult to follow. Ginzburg provides numerous footnotes to her text that provide necessary background information for readers unfamiliar with this time period.
However, the footnotes are compiled between the end of the memoir and the afterward by Rodric Braithwaite. This, unfortunately, meant that I spoiled the conclusion of the memoir for myself as I flipped back and forth.
The endpaper (above) is ‘The Five Year Plan in Four Years’, a 1930 Russian textile by an unknown designer. This is my sixth book for #20BooksofSummer. I purchased my copy directly from the publisher on June 28, 2016. Please note that Ginzburg’s memoir is also published in English under the title ‘Journey into the Whirlwind’.