Journey into the Whirlwind
The Deserted House
These books are concerned with the Stalinist purges. In Journey into the Whirlwind Eugenia Ginzburg sets down the chronicle of her own imprisonment and exile; in The Deserted House Lydia Chukovskaya writes a short novel about what she saw in 1937. The document seems a nightmare fantasy, the novelette a document.
When Kirov was assassinated in 1934—this was the prelude to 1937—Eugenia Ginzburg was teaching in the Teachers’ Training Institute at Kazan and editing a local paper, Red Tartary. Her husband held a prominent position in the Tartar Province Committee of the Party, and they were both loyal members of the Party. She herself would have given her life for it. When newspapers began to carry reports of arrests and confessions, the first reaction was bewilderment: one had not expected treachery from trusted Communists. Next, when persons one knew well were taken, bewilderment changed to consternation. Some, foreseeing trouble, took flight. Eugenia Ginzburg refused. Mistakes were being made, she reasoned, they would be corrected; this was no time for a Communist to hide from the Party. Then she herself was arrested, thrown into jail, questioned under torture, dragged from prison to prison, kept in solitary confinement or, with masses of other unfortunates, in overcrowded places, deprived of air, of food, of water, transported finally to the freezing Siberian tayga and forced to work beyond her strength. That she survived physically is wonderful, that she came through spiritually, her judgment unimpaired and her mind capable of recreating the years of horror tolerantly, warmly, and with zest, is very grand indeed. Historically her book is important as an authentic record of the times. Humanly, it is a story for all time.
Historically, it throws light on how charges were brought and investigations conducted, on how prisoners were treated and how and why confessions were made. Accusations were couched in nauseating stereotypes: “Trotskyite terrorist counter-revolutionary group, having as its aim the restoration of capitalism and the physical annihilation of the leaders of the Party and the government.” To attempt a reasonable defense, when rationality was abandoned and cases were prejudged, was naïve and useless. Might she be told, Eugenia Ginzburg asked, the name of the person against whom she was supposed to have plotted? Didn’t she know, she was asked in reply, that Kirov was assassinated in Leningrad? “Yes, but it wasn’t I who killed him…. And besides I have never lived in Leningrad.” “He was murdered by those who share your views. That makes you morally and criminally responsible.” From such an official line as this, there was neither appeal nor redress, and “enemies of the people” became “non-persons” delivered into the hands of creatures that were no longer men. Confessions were made for various reasons: from weakness, fear, confusion, and also, amazingly, out of patriotism, on the quixotic assumption that sheer exaggeration would restore common sense. Admit the most preposterous crimes, implicate the most loyal comrades, and the colossal absurdity of what was going on would become manifest, the ridiculous persecutions would cease, and the Party would be saved. Eugenia Ginzburg did not “confess.”
How did she survive? According to her, just because she was young—in her early thirties at the time of her arrest—and healthy. But also certainly for other reasons: because of her remarkable spiritual vigor, love of life, strength of mind, and unquenchable curiosity. These made it possible for her to confront outrage and torture with indignation and even humor. Having trained herself to dismiss from her mind every debilitating thought, recollection of her children for instance, she was free to observe others and identify herself with them. As a result, her narrative is a gallery of varied portraits, sharply etched in miniature—pitiful, tragic, lovable, hateful, revolting, ridiculous. She does not minimize her own suffering, but that of others seems more painful. After all, she herself knows how to endure, unlike, for example, the delicate Italian girl, whose prolonged scream under torture presages madness and epitomizes the helplessness of the innocently condemned. “Communista Italiana!” she screams, as if her tormentors could understand the pitiful appeal to justice implicit in her cry. It is only Eugenia Ginzburg who understands and cares, but she too is helpless.
She draws strength from solitude, an ennobling experience, she finds, that cleanses one morally and sharpens the memory, which, freed of external impressions, bursts forth like a butterfly from its chrysalis. Pages of poetry come back to her, and she herself writes poetry, very good poetry too, strong, witty, realistic, like herself. (The translators, on their own admission, do not even pretend to render it. And altogether it may be said of them that they are too easily satisfied with trite approximations, with giving the general sense of the original without bothering about, without sensing, perhaps, the lively freshness of the writing.) Her memory is prodigious. On the way to Siberia, packed with seventy-five other women in a freight car marked “Special Equipment,” she entertains her fellows with recitations of Nekrasov, Griboyedov’s Woe from Wit, and the whole of Eugene Onegin. In some of her most difficult moments, she is sustained by the poetry of Pasternal. She must, on many occasions, have given strength to others, the cellmates to whom she becomes deeply attached—“there is no warmer friendship,” she says, “than that formed in jail.” Even in pain she can be humorous and witty, making fun of a pompous young “turkey-cock” of a jailer, who is too stupid to perceive her ridicule; noting the comicality of the jail procedure when she, that “dangerous criminal,” is cautiously passed from guard to guard on her way to her daily, solitary, walk in a tiny asphalt court; devising verbal games with her companion, when both of them, after hours at hard labor, half starved, hardly able to move, describe themselves in the language of society journals: “In a joyous cavalcade the ladies were returning from their charming picnic in the woods….” There were others like her. A young Georgian woman, having had one of her scintillating green eyes gouged out by a machine she was forced to operate, says to those who come to console her: “Never mind, to look on a world like ours, one eye is quite enough.”
“To live,” cries Eugenia Ginzburg, “to live, no matter what!”—no matter what, but not at the price of one’s conscience. From the first, she makes a resolution: “I will struggle to preserve my life. Let them kill me if they can, but I will not help them in this.”Of those responsible for the terror she writes with scornful pity. “I have often thought about the tragedy of those through whom the acts of 1937 were perpetrated. What a life! All of them, of course, were sadists. But only a few found sufficient strength to kill themselves.” Without congratulating herself on exceptional fortitude—she was simply lucky, she says, for the most harrowing tortures were not yet in force when she was questioned—she is happy that her conscience has remained clear, that no one, thanks to her, was caught “in Lucifer’s web.”
IF EUGENIA GINZBURG’s is a tale of heroic survival, Lydia Chukovskaya’s is one of heart-rending loss. It is about those left outside prisons, watching helplessly as husbands, sons, and friends are swallowed by them. Her central character, Olga Petrovna Lipatova, belongs in a long line of pathetic, humble souls that people Russian literature. The widow of a doctor in Leningrad, she takes up typing, finds employment in a state publishing house, where she works faithfully and is rewarded by promotion to the post of supervisor. Hers is a modest, lonely, but not unhappy life. Physical discomforts do not matter much: living in cramped quarters, getting up when it’s still dark, waiting in the cold for the streetcar. She has her work, she has a friend who takes tea with her and goes with her, now and then, to the movies, and, above all, she has Kolya her son, of whom she is ardently proud, on whom her life is centered, a handsome, happy boy, a devoted member of the Komsomol, and a promising young engineer. Suddenly, news comes of arrests. Olga Petrovna, who has no concern for politics and is blindly loyal to the regime, is horrified at the thought of treachery in her dear country. Then a former colleague of her husband is arrested. Then the head of the department, whom she greatly respects, and, finally, her own Kolya. Olga Petrovna sets out to right this obvious wrong. The rest is a tale of waiting and loss: weeks of waiting, day and night, in interminable queues, only to be told, at last, that Kolya has been condemned to hard labor in some unspecified corner of earth for terrorist activities to which he has confessed; then months of waiting for word from him; loss of work, loss of her friend, who commits suicide; and finally loss of hope, when after more than a year, the longed-for news from Kolya arrives—a smuggled note, in which he tells her that he has been beaten and has become partially deaf as a result, and begs her to intercede for him. She runs to the only being who can help her, the wife of her husband’s colleague, and is advised to do nothing, for if she does, it will go badly with her son and be dangerous for her. The story ends as Olga Petrovna sets a match to Kolya’s letter.
Lydia Chukovskaya wrote her book, she tells us, in 1939. She could not help writing it and although to keep it in her desk was risky, she did not have the heart to burn it: “I regarded it not so much as a story, as a piece of evidence which it would be dishonorable to destroy.” Her manuscript survived the siege of Leningrad, and now that Stalin was dead and “the darker aspects of the past were denounced,” she wanted it published “in the name of the future, to help reveal the causes and consequences of the great tragedy the people had suffered.” Eugenia Ginzburg, after eighteen years of exile and imprisonment, wrote her memoir as a letter to her grandson, thinking it could not be published until about 1980, when he would be twenty years old. “How wonderful,” she exclaims, “that I was mistaken, and that…today the people can already be told of the things that have been and shall be no more.” Whether these sanguine hopes are justified remains to be seen. Both authors are now in Russia, but neither book has been published there. Journey into the Whirlwind came out in Milan, The Deserted House in Paris, “without the author’s knowledge.” Presumably, Eugenia Ginzburg is now writing a sequel to her story, which takes up only the first three years of her eighteen-year term. Lydia Chukovskaya, who is a critic and historian and like her renowned father, Kornei Chukovsky, a writer of books for children, is continuing, it seems, her study of nineteenth-century Russian liberals. A book of hers on the Decembrists appeared in 1951, and now one on Herzen has been announced.
It was Lydia Chukovskaya who, about two years ago, addressed, in defense of Sinyavsky and Daniel, an open letter to Sholokhov, which for boldness and eloquence deserves to rank with the noblest declarations of freedom. Sholokhov had denounced the sentence against the accused as too lenient. In the Twenties, he said, they would have been condemned summarily by “right thinking” citizens without recourse to a legalistic Criminal Code. He was ashamed of those who had defended them! Chukovskaya proclaimed herself bewildered by this opinion. “Our people paid with millions of innocent lives for Stalin’s disregard of law,” she wrote, and the nation’s finest achievement in the past decade had been its return to legality. It was not of the defenders she was ashamed, “nor of myself, but of you,” a writer who had broken with the great tradition of Russian letters that from Pushkin to Gorky was distinguished for its humaneness. Her own novel, a work of infinite pathos, is a dramatic treatment of what she says in her letter. It continues the tradition with which she accuses Sholokhov of having broken, the tradition of independence, directness, and championship of the oppressed, as does also Eugenia Ginzburg’s story in its simple, tragic grandeur.