Journey Into the Whirlwind, by Eugenia Semyonovna Ginzburg

Journey Into the Whirlwind

Journey Into the Whirlwind is an autobiographical account of the Eugenia Ginzburg’s experiences during the Stalinist terror in the Soviet Union. Ultimately she was incarcerated for about twenty years in various prisons and then in labor camps in Siberia, but the book covers only the first three years or so of that. (She later wrote a sequel covering the remaining years.)

The value of the book is that of a memoir. It is one person’s subjective experience of the insanity and cruelty of that period, the physical and psychological suffering that was imposed on her. It isn’t history. It isn’t an overview of that period of Soviet history, explaining who did what and when that brought about and sustained the terror and analyzing it all. The author was a very low level member of the Party—a teacher—and writes only of what she experienced; she was not privy to all the causes of what she and others experienced.

It’s a harrowing account, even though she herself would admit that others suffered more in the terror. She avoided a lot of the hard-core physical torture that others underwent, largely due to the luck of the timing of when she was interrogated and convicted.

I’ll note just a few of the many thoughts the book provoked in me.

Much more of her early incarceration was intended to be in a form of solitary confinement than turned out to be. So many people were being incarcerated at the time that cells intended for one had to be double and tripled up.

She experiences this as almost all positive. She finds isolation to be far worse. With someone in the cell to talk to, the time passes much more quickly and more enjoyably. (Relatively speaking of course. None of this horrible treatment is enjoyable.) Probably not surprisingly, being stuck in a cell with someone in these conditions for months at a time or more is a strong bonding experience.

She does mention in passing later that the crowded conditions of the barracks in the Siberian labor camps makes one long for some isolation and privacy, but at least in the context of the more conventional prisons she strongly preferred not being alone in a cell.

We mostly think of any kind of written law or constitution in a totalitarian state as a cruel joke, as something to be taken no more seriously or literally than the “Democratic” or “People’s” in the official name of such a country. Such countries seem the epitome of “might makes right,” where there are no safeguards to protect the freedom and civil liberties of individuals against the fiat of the dictator or whoever is calling the shots.

But this book is a reminder of just how idealistic many people are in the early years of establishing a revolutionary state. To them, the principles supposedly grounding a new regime are not cynical propaganda, but literal commitments to build a new and better society.

It’s striking how often the author and others in the book react to unjust treatment by invoking their rights, proudly declaring that the person representing the state must cease treating them as he is doing because his actions are contrary to the constitution of the Soviet Union or simply to the humanitarianism implicit in being a communist.

It’s the kind of appeal to principle we take for granted in this country—free speech, the rule of law, innocent until proven guilty, etc. I don’t mean that we take for granted that such principles are never violated, but that we regard our protestations that they’re being violated to be relevant, and we expect someone to take notice and rectify the situation.

It’s the kind of idealism a right wing regime does not give rise to, at least to the same degree. There the “might makes right” is more blatant. These are the regimes that truly can be symbolized by “a boot stamping on a human face.”

A regime like that of the Soviet Union, by contrast, involves high principles, principles that surpass those of the existing regimes it is intended to supplant, principles that must be betrayed if a Stalin is to gain and hold onto power.

In the early stages of the terror, many people weren’t aware such a betrayal had occurred. They thought they were still participating in a grand experiment to abolish injustice and the exploitation of the many for the benefit of the few. They thought they still had rights that would be taken seriously.

At least as it was experienced by someone in Ginzburg’s position, the terror was bizarrely random. A few loyalists thought that their being persecuted was an unfortunate fluke in an otherwise just and necessary system to find and neutralize internal enemies who genuinely wanted to harm the nation, but most picked up pretty quickly on the fact that something else entirely was going on, that the terror was not a “necessary evil” to safeguard an idealistic state that stood against injustice.

Not that the notion of folks within the Soviet Union actively seeking its destruction was all that far-fetched. It was less ridiculous, for instance, than the McCarthyism and various red scares that occurred in the United States. The Soviets were fresh off a revolution, followed by a prolonged civil war in which other countries actively intervened against them. They were a threat to the established capitalist world order, which is to say to literally the most powerful people on the planet—people who had no scruples about how they were willing to counter and destroy such a threat. It hardly required paranoia for the Soviets to feel vulnerable to attack from without and treason from within.

But just from the small number of people that the author encountered during her persecution, it was clear that the terror was not directed solely or primarily against real enemies like that. It was too seemingly random, too bizarre.

There was some correlation between the people rounded up and the groups the regime might have felt were most likely to oppose communism and secretly work against the Soviet state—Mensheviks, Social Democrats, and members of other political parties that had opposed the Bolsheviks; Jews and other minorities that might be suspected of having loyalties to some religious or ethnic group that could supersede their loyalty to their country; people who had belonged to economic classes most disadvantaged by the establishment of communism, etc.—but there were many people swept up in the arrests who had no plausible reason to oppose the state like that.

It was like a certain amount of randomness was purposely incorporated into the oppression so that no one could feel safe, regardless of their having not done anything anti-Soviet, and regardless of their not even being in some group that could be regarded as more likely than chance to be anti-Soviet. Everyone was to be at risk, everyone was to be scared, and therefore everyone would have an incentive to frantically seek to prove their loyalty in order to avoid this net that was being cast wider and wider.

Ginzburg eventually inferred that it had reached the point that there were formal or informal quotas for each locality, that Party officials were expected to prove their loyalty by turning in a large number of enemies of the state from their jurisdiction (obviously regardless of how many, if any, such enemies there actually were).

In some ways the terror was instituted with an odd faux adherence to certain procedural principles. The pretense had to be maintained that people were being executed or incarcerated because they’d actually done something worthy of punishment, thus the obsession with getting informants to make allegations of wrongdoing.

It would be like if the Nazis only sent Jews to the gas chamber after they had found witnesses to claim that these particular Jews had engaged in some kind of treason, or sedition, or sabotage against their country, and where possible had even gotten them to confess to such. Soviet officials were required to pretend there was some sort of justification for convicting the people they persecuted of a crime.

On the other hand, the pretense could be utterly implausible. People were denounced for having held certain opinions—or for not having informed on those they were aware held certain opinions—before those opinions were even deemed anti-Soviet. In some cases it was taken to the even more bizarre extreme that they were punished for having once expressed agreement with certain writings of Stalin that Stalin had since changed his mind about.

The author briefly encounters an old illiterate peasant woman who had been convicted of being a Trotskyist. The pitiful, befuddled woman frantically insists to anyone who will listen that it all is some terrible mistake, that she couldn’t possibly be a tractorist, that she wouldn’t have the foggiest idea how to even operate one of those scary-looking contraptions. (Emily Litella’s grandmother perhaps?)

The idea was to meet your quota, regardless of what you had to do to get there, otherwise you could be the next to be arrested.

Not that meeting your quota guaranteed you wouldn’t be. Not that anything guaranteed you wouldn’t be. More than once Ginzburg encounters in prison or in Siberia one of the officials who had earlier interrogated or brutalized her during her trip through the system, who now is enduring what he once imposed on others.

Journey Into the Whirlwind is very effective at conveying what it is like to live through an experience of almost unimaginable persecution and injustice. I wish it were a rare experience, but in my cynicism I’ve long since ceased to be surprised by the myriad ways human beings come up with to mistreat each other, and to feel wholly righteous in doing so.


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