Commentary Magazine

Within the Whirlwind, by Eugenia Ginzburg

Remaining Human

Within the Whirlwind.
by Eugenia Ginzburg.
Translated by Ian Boland. Introduction by Heinrich Böll. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 423 pp. $17.50.

The author, a university lecturer in Kazan, was thirty-one in 1937 when she was arrested on a trumped-up charge of “counter-revolution.” She died in Moscow, after rehabilitation, in 1977. Of those forty years, twenty were spent in prison camp, and exile in Magadan. During that time, her husband was also arrested and disappeared, the eldest of her two sons perished in Leningrad during the siege, her father died, and later her mother.

There were also occasions of joy—reunion after twelve years’ separation with her younger son, Vasia (the distinguished writer Vasily Aksenov who now lives in the U.S.), the adoption of a delightful little girl Tonia (now an actress), and above all the linking of her life and her later marriage to a fellow prisoner, a doctor of German origin, Anton Walter—incidentally a homeopath with remarkable cures to his credit. Dr. Walter is the outstanding personality of this book. It is consoling to reflect that the two of them were able to enjoy a few years of happiness together as relatively free human beings after Stalin’s death. Dr. Walter died in 1959.

Mrs. Ginzburg’s first volume, Out of the Whirlwind, which she started to write in 1959 (shortly before her husband’s death), could not be published in the Soviet Union, but it won great fame first in samizdat, then when it was published in Russian abroad in 1967 and in translation into many languages. There were at least two reasons for this. A natural writer of great talent, Mrs. Ginzburg conveyed in her sparse, elegant prose with striking vividness the mental and physical horrors that hundreds of thousands, millions rather, of completely innocent people were forced to suffer during the years of Stalin’s terrible dictatorship. Even now, when life in the Soviet Union has settled down to the humdrum corruption, boredom, and arbitrary petty tyranny of an aging police state (with, however, a vigorous and efficient army), these seem hard to believe. She also described truthfully the reactions of the Communist party members to this manifestation of Leninism in its full flower. Even more important—since, after all, Gulag life had been described many times before—Mrs. Ginzburg’s account revealed a woman of indomitable spirit, with an exceptional gift for making and keeping friends, a woman with a warm and generous personality, always anxious, in the midst of the suffering she endured, to stress every instance of humanity and kindness.

The present volume takes up the narrative where the first left off. In some extraordinary way, this is a book more about joy than about suffering—for all its grim contents. Mrs. Ginzburg’s spiritual development blossoms and matures in it, and what one suspected after reading the first volume becomes evident—that we are here confronted with one of those remarkable women for whom Russia is famous, from the Decembrist wives to Nadezhda Mandelstam and Anna Akhmatova.



Evgenia Ginzburg (for some inexplicable reason her first name has been Anglicized to “Eugenia”) had her full share of the hell which life in the Kolyma Gulag meant for its denizens, but she was repeatedly snatched from extinction, whether by lucky chance or through some ray of compassion shown by an official, by being assigned to work in camp hospitals, nurseries, kitchens, or farms. The second part of the book deals with life in exile in Magadan after her release from camp in 1947—again she was fortunate not to be given an arbitrary second sentence at the expiration of the first. Magadan life for former camp inmates represented a kind of no-man’s land between freedom and slavery. But it was characterized by a powerful bond among the exiles, expressed in their total alienation from the world of officialdom, “they.” It is recorded in a moving scene when mother and son (aged sixteen) are reunited after twelve years, and the boy whispers to her, “Don’t cry in front of them. . . .” He is already part of the world of “us.”



As in the first volume, there are vivid descriptions of this period of the Soviet experience which has left deep scars both on those who lived through it and on those who now have to come to terms with the knowledge that it happened. But this is no mere work of description—it is not even a “novel,” as Heinrich Boll calls it in his introduction, although it is as absorbing to read as any novel. The book is really a spiritual or religious tract. Probably under the influence of Dr. Walter, who was a devout Roman Catholic, Evgenia Ginzburg came to accept a world in which God’s will prevails, inscrutable in its operation—in fact, the kind of religious faith-without-a-church which so many Soviet Russians apparently accept today. (There is no evidence in this book that the author’s Jewish origins left any trace on her outlook.)

In the case of the many vile savages whom Mrs. Ginzburg depicts, there is much less outright condemnation than an attempt to see the brutality as a manifestation of the sin which is in every human being, but which is capable of being redeemed by the divine spark which can, given the right circumstances, prevail in everyone. (In Stalin, too? She does not attempt this question.) Dr. Walter consoled her one day, “True, man has a beast in him, but the beast cannot triumph over man in the end.” And, as she tells us in speaking of her image of him, the main thing she wanted to show was “that the victim of inhumanity can remain the bearer of all that is good, of forebearance and of brotherly feelings toward his fellow man.”

The point of the book seems to be that for Evgenia Ginzburg, suffering proved that survival in the conditions in which she was forced to spend many years of her youth was not just a matter of luck, but of faith, and that the flashes of humanity which she evoked in others and which saved her from perishing were in some way a response to her faith, to her own charity of outlook. The point is summed up for me in her words: “We must be grateful to life for everything, and life will give generously in return.”

Those who pass this book by as yet another of those accounts of concentration camp life will have missed an ennobling experience. Yet even in terms of narrative alone, this is an outstanding work of literature. No one who reads it can easily forget Evgenia Ginzburg’s account of the effect of the news of the death of Stalin or, in a different vein, her description of a violent orgy staged in the camp by real criminals among the prisoners (who were, of course, both the favorites of the authorities and the scourge of the “politicals”). The book abounds also in skillful pen-portraits of scores of her fellow inmates in which these outcasts, often in their last stages of degradation and decay, are illumined by the author’s charity and warmth, and almost become recognizable as human beings once again.

The English translation by Ian Boland is adequate, though it scarcely does justice to the vigor and beauty of the original Rusian.

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