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Ginzburg, Evgeniia Semenovna

(1904–1977), activist, teacher, journalist, and memoir writer. An ardent member of the Communist Party who was arrested during the purges of the 1930s and sentenced to 18 years in the gulag, Evgeniia Ginzburg is renowned for her compelling articulation of that ordeal in her two-volume memoir Krutoi marshrut. Translated as Journey into the Whirlwind and Within the Whirlwind, her account ranks with and complements Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s fiction in its suspenseful, introspective description of one woman’s “journey” through the Stalinist gulag.

Ginzburg’s life reflected the pilgrim-to-prisoner experience of many members of the Soviet intelligentsia. Born into a middle-class, assimilated Jewish family in Kazan, where her pharmacist father provided his daughters with music and French lessons, Ginzburg early on renounced her bourgeois roots to join the Communist Party. She completed a degree in history at the University of Kazan in the 1920s and devoted herself to party work as a teacher and a journalist. In keeping with the more socially conservative ideals of Stalinism, she combined her service with family life, marrying Pavel Aksenov, a high-ranking party official, with whom she had two sons—Aleksandr, who died in the Leningrad blockade during World War II, and Vasilii Aksyonov, who survived to become a renowned dissident writer.

A committed member of the local Communist elite, Ginzburg enjoyed attendant material privileges, but her firm worldview and comfortable life were shattered by the Stalinist purges and her own arrest in 1937; she was sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment on the false charge of “participation in a Trotskyist terrorist counterrevolutionary group.” She served the first two years of her sentence in a Iaroslavl’ prison, and was then shipped off to the Soviet Far East, where she worked in various labor camps. Her husband was also arrested and was executed or died in the camps. In subsequent exile in Magadan she married Anton Walter, a fellow political exile, and was reunited with her son Vasilii.

Soon after her return to Moscow in 1955, Ginzburg felt prompted by Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization speech (1956) to tell her “story of an ordinary Communist woman during the period of the personality cult.” The resulting memoir, which focused on her arrest and first years in prison and camp, was intended for publication, but appeared only in samizdat and in the West (1967), where it attracted worldwide admiration for its revelations and narrative art. Ginzburg’s second volume, written without hope of Soviet publication and with little self-censorship, frankly retells her journey from various Siberian prison camps to her return to Moscow and political rehabilitation, thus completing her nonfictional bildungsroman of a “naive young Communist idealist” transformed into a human sufferer and seeker of truth.

Suggested Reading

Beth Holmgren, “For the Good of the Cause: Russian Women’s Autobiography in the Twentieth Century,” in Women Writers in Russian Literature, ed. Toby W. Clyman and Diana Greene, pp. 131–134 (Westport, Conn., 1994); Natasha Kolchevska, “The Art of Memory: Cultural Reverence as Political Critique in Evgeniia Ginzburg’s Writing of the Gulag,” in The Russian Memoir: History and Literature, ed. Beth Holmgren, pp. 145–166 (Evanston, Ill., 2003); Nadya L. Peterson, “Dirty Women: Cultural Connotations of Cleanliness in Soviet Russia,” in Russia—Women—Culture, ed. Helena Goscilo and Beth Holmgren, pp. 177–205 (Bloomington, Ind., 1996); Leona Toker, Return from the Archipelago: Narratives of Gulag Survivors (Bloomington, Ind., 2000).