Virginia Barton

Strong meat — the truth about hard labour

Catholic Herald, 10 February 1989

 

Review: Into the Whirlwind and Within the Whirlwind, by Eugenia Ginzburg (Collins Harvill, £7.95 each)

 

41yGjAW6xRLTo my shame, it has taken me 22 years to “discover” Eugentia Ginzburg. These books were first published in English in 1967. One can only express a simple thank you to Collins Harvill for re-printing them.

They are a revelation: as a study of history, psychology, of purest good, of basest evil, and of the author herself. Only very rarely does an author stand stripped to the bone in print. But this is no ordinary author.

 

Eugenia Ginzburg was 32 years old when the NKVD arrested her in 1937. Married to a high-ranking Party official (also later arrested) and mother of two small sons, she taught history in the University in Kazan. She was arrested for failing to denounce a prominent theoretician of permanent revolution. Such a failure, in those days, warranted lengthy prison and hard labour sentences.

Ginzburg, the dedicated Party worker and member of the privileged elite, was sentenced to ten years’ maximum isolation in prison. The shock she felt was tempered by relief that she’d got away with her life, even if labelled “for all time” a “known terrorist”.

One must remember that these were the years of Stalin’s reign of terror. Stalin – a name we recognize today as shorthand for an entire system that was rotten to the core. For Stalin alone (like Hitler), though instigator and mastermind, would have been powerless without the co-operation of thousands upon thousands of others prepared to connive at, and carry out the whole monstrous business.

These “‘others”, criminal minions who punctuate every chapter of these books, perform their grisly work under the shadow of Stalin – whom the author could “never bring herself to idolise.”

 

Into the Whirlwind describes the events leading up to Ginzburg’s arrest (“the year 1937 began . . .  at the end of 1934”, with the murder of Kirov) and the following two years spent in one horrific prison after another. The second book covers the years 1939 to 1955 when the author (after being re-arrested in 1949) is eventually released after 18 years. She was one of literally millions of victims. How did she bear it, one keeps asking oneself.

The books are a testimony to the human spirit’s capacity not only to survive but to survive with honour intact, for she rises heroically above every degradation that man can devise. The nightmare that unfolds within these pages would be unbearable reading were it not for the author’s deep humanity. One recoils at the prospect of sharing the suffering, even across the distance of 50 years and geographical separation. But one travels willingly, hand in hand with this remarkable woman, from cover to cover, looking and learning.

“I have written nothing but the truth” she writes in the epilogue. It is this naked truth that makes the books so important. The reader, even one still harbouring some lingering illusions about the Marxist road to human happiness, cannot deceive himself that this is fiction – incredible though much of what he reads may seem.

 

The excellent translation, with copious explanatory notes and a useful introduction, is easy to read. Interrogators, gaolers and fellow-prisoners spring into life that is terrible or poignant. Patches of sky, bird-song, or remembered lines of poetry lighten the horror, the sadism, the brutality. The author loses neither her zest for living, her sense of humour nor her unbounded curiosity. Rehabilitated, she died in 1977.

Comparisons with Solzhenitsyn are inevitable but there is no conflict between these two giants. They tell us how it was. Eugenia Ginzburg speaks directly to the common man with warmth and a feminine touch for details. Strong meat certainly, but squeamishness should not prevent us from facing up to such recent history. I urge you to read this unforgettable document of human courage confronting overwhelming odds.

 

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