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Journey into the Whirlwind by Evgenia…
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426None24,773 (4.12)27
  1. 20
    The Betrayal by Helen Dunmore (wandering_star)
    wandering_star: One autobiographical and one fictional tale of what it was like to fall victim to Stalin's purges. Dunmore lists "Into The Whirlwind" as one of the books she referred to when writing "The Betrayal".
  2. 20
    Diner America by Xianliang Zhang (wandering_star)
    wandering_star: Two descriptions of life in a labour camp, decades apart - one in 1930s Russia and one in 1950s China. Both very moving.
  3. 10
    The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia by Orlando Figes (meggyweg)
  4. 00
    Jag vill leva! : en skolflickas dagbok under Stalintiden by Nina Lugovskaya (meggyweg)
    meggyweg: Eugenia Ginzburg mentions Nina Lugovskaya in passing; they briefly shared a prison cell. In its two English editions, the book is titled "I Want To Live: The Diary of a Young Girl in Stalin's Russia" or "The Diary of a Soviet Schoolgirl, 1932 - 1937."
  5. 00
    Life and Death in Shanghai by Nien Cheng (meggyweg)
    meggyweg: Being a victim of the Chinese Cultural Revolution isn't that much different from being a victim of Stalin's purges of the 1930s.

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This is an insightful and disturbing account of the mindless persecution that swept Soviet Russia in the 1930s. Ginzburg is at her best when describing her Kafka-esque encounters with assorted interrogators and secret police, many of whom were at least as "guilty" as her. She's very good at illustrating the absurdity of some of her fellow prisoners who remained loyal Stalinists to the death. Also, she is able to convey to a large extent the overwhelming grief that could come from long-term isolation.

Overall, however, the book suffers from a problem of pacing: her two years of solitary confinement take up 270 of the 416 pages, leaving a much shorter portion devoted to her 16 years in the labor camps. I understand she wrote a sequel that dealt with this period of her life, but I was disappointed not to find more of it in this volume. The book itself feels long and gets sort of boring in Part II, just when I thought it would get more interesting. I attribute this to a more superficial treatment and a clumsy narrative structure (e.g. "flashing forward" to start recounting the fates of various women she is traveling with).

In addition, this book pales in comparison to memoirs like [b:Survival in Auschwitz|6174|Survival in Auschwitz|Primo Levi|http://photo.goodreads.com/books/1165555421s/6174.jpg|851110] and [b:Homage to Catalonia|9646|Homage to Catalonia|George Orwell|http://photo.goodreads.com/books/1286552776s/9646.jpg|2566499]. I realize that neither of those deals with Stalinist Russia, but there is no reason Ginzburg's memoir of devastating tribulation should not be just as captivating as those two. It's neither as well-written, informative, nor as vivid. ( )
  blake.rosser | Jul 28, 2013 |
Evgenia Ginzburg’s harrowing memoir of her experience in Soviet prisons and camps during the 1930’s is a powerful and compelling read. She relates the story of her arrest, trial, life in a series of prisons culminating in two years of (supposedly) solitary confinement in Yaroslavl, then her transport to some of the most notorious camps of the Gulag – Magaden, Kolyma. The prose is clear and vivid and the book is, for such an unpleasant subject, highly readable and engrossing. Ginzburg’s quick portraits of the interrogators and jailers as well as her fellow prisoners are sharply drawn. She highlights the absurdity and brutality of the system, but there are occasional flashes of happiness and laughter as well as small and large generosities that often prove life-saving. Ginzburg repeatedly finds strength and comfort in literature and poetry as well. Highly recommended and a must-read for anyone interested in the topic.

Ginzburg was an academic living in the provincial town of Kazan with a highly-placed husband, two sons and a happy family. After the assassination of Kirov, another professor was accused of forming a counterrevolutionary unit and Ginzburg was swept up in the circle of arrests. She was sentenced to ten years of solitary imprisonment but ended up serving 18 in prisons and camps of the Gulag. She covers the years leading up to her arrest and the first few years in the system in Journey Into the Whirlwind, the first part of her memoir.

She often had good luck as she notes throughout the book – one would have to in order to survive – but initially, she was fortunate in several ways. Suspicion fell on her before 1937 – the notorious year of the Great Terror – so she never solely blamed Yezhov, the head of the NKVD, and was disillusioned early on with Stalin. She would see some who still believed in him while eking out a life of misery in the camps. Still, she had some hope for the system –

“Even now – we asked ourselves – after all that has happened to us, would we vote for any other than the Soviet system, which seemed as much a part of us as our hearts and as natural to us as breathing? Everything I had in the world – the thousands of books I had read, memories of my youth, the very endurance which was now keeping me from going under – all this had been give me by the Soviet system, and the revolution which had transformed my world when I was a child. How exciting life had been and how gloriously everything had begun! What in God’s name had happened to us all?”

Her case was closed before new regulations allowed for torture so she was spared that experience during her interrogation. In her first prison in Kazan, Ginzburg had a caring and kind cellmate so she would later try to act in a similar manner. The atmosphere in several holding prisons was congenial and Ginzburg describes a wide variety of imprisoned women. There are the German and Italian Communists who fled Hitler and Mussolini and make her feel ashamed of the way they were treated by the Soviets; the experienced prisoners/Bolshevik boogeymen, the Social Revolutionaries and Mensheviks, who are kind but concerned about associating with the enemy; the cheerful “babblers” – women who told a joke about Stalin, know what they did and are lucky to “only” be serving 5 years; and the Communists who still believe they were only mistakenly arrested and are disgusted by the other women. Ginzburg describes many examples of people who receive their comeuppance – people who betrayed her, her interrogators, members of the NKVD. Though she describes a couple instances where she spitefully lashes out, in the end these are just murky and unhappy examples of a system cannibalizing its people.

Ginzburg clearly analyzes the people and policies during her trip through the meatgrinder and eventually lands in a solitary cell for two years. She was lucky to get a cellmate due to overcrowding and together they learn all sorts of strategies to communicate in the prison, flout regulations and try to make each grey day bearable. Her prison experience is a marked contrast to life in the camps and several women that she meets wonder which is worse. One lengthy chapter describes the hellish transport to the northern camps. Many of the women are happy to have company after years of solitary but the horrific conditions are vividly portrayed. Ginzburg also describes the fate of the women in parenthetical asides – a mixed lot, with most dying, a couple surviving and some becoming hardened oppressors. She notes names, families and backstories of her cellmates and fellow prisoners and it is clear that part of her intent is to share their lives as well.

Ginzburg and other politicals were looked down on by the common criminals and those with lighter sentences. In the camps, they were put on some of the worst jobs – felling trees. Ginzburg and her partner struggled to fulfill their norms and she compares them unfavorably to the efficient peasant Christian women, to whom such work seemed easy. However, her academic skills did come in use. Her knowledge of several languages enabled her to comfort some who didn’t speak Russian but also allowed her to bond with other inmates, which proved important in several instances. Books and poetry give her a distraction (they were allowed to read in solitary), some choice phrases to describe her situations, and occasionally a shield against despair.

“Poetry, at least, they could not take away from me! They had taken my dress, my shoes and stockings, and my comb, they had left me half naked and freezing, but this was not in their power to take away, it was and remained mine.”

“Then there was a shrill cry of despair; it continued for a long while on the same note, and stopped abruptly…I prayed, as Pushkin once did, ‘Please God, may I not go mad! Rather grant me prison, poverty, or death.’ The first sign of approaching madness must surely be the urge to scream like that on a single continuous note. I must conquer it and preserve the balance of my mind by giving it something to do. So I began again to recite verses to myself. I composed more of my own and said them over and over so as not to forget them, and above all not to hear that awful cry.”

One great story has Ginzburg entertaining the transport train with her recitals from memory. Unfortunately, one of the guards heard her and believed they had a contraband book hidden. The guard furiously demands they hand it over and the women can’t convince him – until Ginzburg ends up reciting the whole Eugene Onegin from memory for him. “As I went on reciting, I kept my eyes fixed on the two guards. The Brigand at first wore a threatening expression: she’d get stuck in a minute, and then he’d show her! This gave place by degrees to astonishment, almost friendly curiosity, and finally ill-concealed delight.”

Well-written, powerful and very readable – next need to get the second half of her memoir. ( )
6 vote DieFledermaus | Jul 13, 2013 |
Ginzburg, a teacher and loyal and active member of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, wife of a prominent official, mother of two, was arrested in 1937 and charged with being a member of a “Trotskyist terrorist counter-revolutionary group” (which she was not) . She expected to be shot but was sentenced to 10 years in solitary confinement with loss of civil rights for 5 years and confiscation of all personal property. She was so relieved that, “Every nerve in my body was quivering with the joy of being alive.” When she left the military court that had pronounced sentence, she gave the guards such a friendly smile that, “They looked at me in astonishment.”

In the end, Ginzburg spent 18 years in the gulag system. These memoirs cover the first years; two years spent in solitary confinement, though with a companion thrown into her cell late in the period, followed by an agonizing train transport across Siberia to a transit camp in Vladivostok from where she was taken by ship further north to Magadan and Elgen on the Kolyma River where she dug in the permafrost and felled trees, but also worked for awhile in a kitchen and a barracks for officials.

Ginzburg describes well the madness of what she calls The Great Lunacy characterized by “the reversal of logic and common sense”. Arguing the fallacy and ludicrous nature of charges was a waste of time and could lead to greater punishment. For Ginzburg, the critical point was not to give in to the temptation to denounce others in hope of better treatment, and she had the heart-rending experience of being confronted by old friends who had done just that and denounced her with complete fabrications. The experience of arrest, denunciation, prison, gross mistreatment, camps, betrayal, torture, extremes of endurance—all of this was a crucible, a world, “in which either the spirit was broken and degraded or true courage was born.”

A few things struck me reading this memoir. For Ginzburg and many others, poetry had the power to calm the soul and to capture the moment, the feelings, the hopes and fears; to express the indescribable. Ginzburg herself had studied poetry all her life and had a phenomenal memory: she could recite lengthy poems for an hour or more; this not only consoled her in solitary confinement, but solaced many others too, especially on the very long, very slow train transport to Siberia.

It is astonishing to read about prisoners who kept their faith in the Communist Party and the communist system. Arrests, mistreatment, prison terms were attributed to corrupt agents, to careerists; these believers would staunchly defend the system, castigate and even report those who spoke negatively about it, and believed that if Stalin only knew what was being done, it wouldn’t be happening. Interesting that the same phenomenon was to be seen in Germany where many believed that if the Furhrer only knew, things would be different. I suppose for some this sort of denial is psychologically necessary, otherwise one would have to admit that one’s lifelong beliefs were lies.

Ginzburg herself, although she saw more clearly than many, was not completely immune to this. In 1980, when she was finishing her memoirs, she noted, at the end of the book, “…the great Leninist truths have again come into their own in our country and Party!” Ginzburg ends by describing her book as, “…the story of an ordinary Communist woman during the period of the ‘personality cult’” . No insights into the fact that while the Leninist system did not preordain Stalinism and the terror, it certainly provided fertile ground for its development, including the cult of personality.
  John | Jun 8, 2013 |
Eugenia Ginzburg was an academic who was caught up in Stalin's purges. This book is her memoir of the time of her accusation, trial and first few years in prison, at first near to Moscow (and in solitary confinement) and then by prison train to a labour camp in the Russian Far East. What happens to her is horrific - even more so because as I was reading this book, I somehow simultaneously felt incomprehension and recognition. Incomprehension that people could treat other people in this way - it wasn't just a brutal system, it was made up of a long chain of personal encounters, with an accuser, an interrogator, a prison guard. And recognition because the stories were so familiar: this is the first book I have read about Stalin's purges but I have read a lot about the Cultural Revolution, and many elements of the story are the same; and other elements are recognisable from films, or books about other periods of history. The description of her accusation and trial really made me think that Kafka was prescient - or perhaps not, perhaps even in Henry VIII's time the same exchanges were taking place between purging apparatchiks and their randomly chosen victims.

It is remarkable that Eugenia Ginzburg stayed sane through her experiences, never mind finding enough detachment to write this book, which is never self-pitying and manages to find the irony in the most desperate situations. For example, one thread is the difficult relationships in prison between the committed Communists such as Ginzburg and her contemporaries, and the earlier rounds of political prisoners, the Mensheviks and so on. At one point, one of the women in the cell - a Social Revolutionary - runs out of cigarettes and Ginzburg offers her one. She taps out a message to the regional committee secretary, incarcerated in the next cell:

"There's a woman Communist here who has offered me cigarettes. Should I accept?" Mukhina inquired whether the Communist belonged to the opposition. Derkovskaya asked me, passed on my reply - and Mukhina tapped categorically: "No". The cigarettes lay on the table between us. During the night I heard Derkovskaya sighing deeply. Though thin as a rake, she would much sooner have done without bread.

As you can see from this story, Ginzburg is good at highlighting the details which throw light on the bigger picture. In the prison train, for instance, the women are given one small cup of dirty water per day, and friendships could be broken if someone jogged another's cup, spilling a few drops. When one woman's cup got broken because the train stopped abruptly, the guard refused to give her a new one. Another example is that the Communist women turn to the earlier generations of political prisoners to explain the system and what is coming next - but sometimes their experiences are out-of-date. The same Derkovskaya from the cigarette story tells Ginzburg that she will be allowed to see her children before she is deported - but that does not happen. Derkovskaya had spoken out of her experience of Tsarist prisons. There was no room nowadays for 'rotten liberalism' or 'pseudo-humanitarianism'. ( )
2 vote wandering_star | Oct 16, 2011 |
This is a very detailed and well-paced memoir of an ordinary Russian woman who got swept up in the Stalinist purges of the late 1930s and was sent, first to prison and solitary confinement, then to a gulag in Siberia, for no reason at all. I liked it a lot, but I wish it hadn't ended so abruptly. It just cuts off, as if the author had suddenly run out of ink or something. There isn't even a proper epilogue to explain what happened after she got out. At some point in the story she says she never saw her son Alyosha again after her arrest -- why? What happened to him? I would have liked to have known. But for the frustrating ending, I think this book is excellent.

A curiosity: Ginzburg mentions, in passing, a teenage prisoner named Nina Lugovskaya with whom she shared a cell at one point in the first third of the book. I wonder if this is the same Nina Lugovskaya whose diary was published in the early nineties? It seems likely -- the age and the timing match.

[Update: Aha, Wikipedia says Alyosha died of starvation during the Siege of Leningrad in 1941. His brother Vasily became a famous writer.] ( )
  meggyweg | Jan 21, 2010 |
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The year 1937 began, to all intents and purposes, at the end of 1934--to be exact, on the first of December.
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"Journey/Into the Whirlwind" is a different work from "Within the Whirlwind" - they are the first and second parts of a memoir, respectively. Do not combine.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0156027518, Paperback)

Eugenia Ginzburg's critically acclaimed memoir of the harrowing eighteen years she spent in prisons and labor camps under Stalin's rule


By the late 1930s, Eugenia Semyonovna Ginzburg had been a loyal and very active member of the Communist Party for many years. Yet like millions of others who suffered during Stalin's reign of terror, she was arrested—on trumped-up charges of being a Trotskyist terrorist and counter-revolutionary—and sentenced to prison. With an amazing eye for detail, profound strength, and an indefatigable spirit, Ginzburg recounts the years, days, and minutes she endured in prisons and labor camps, including two years of solitary confinement. A classic account of survival, Journey into the Whirlwind is considered one of the most important documents of Stalin's regime.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:21:31 -0400)

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