Russian poetry occupies a special place in Journey into the Whirlwind. Lines from a single poem recur throughout the text (“penal servitude—what bliss!”), and authors are cited or quoted from at length. Both Ginzburg and her fellow prisoners, from Garey in the cellars at Black Lake to the women on the train car, engage in the recitations. Russian culture is known for its brilliant literature, particularly when the subject is bleakness or gloominess, and it is fitting that Ginzburg should find at her mental disposal such a wealth of appropriate poems and texts. The countless poetic allusions show art to be an effective antidote to the depressing monotony of prison life. These allusions appeal to the private inner core, shielded from all else and unreachable even by the government’s long arm.

Motion and Stasis

Prison itself implies a literal stillness, an inability to move freely, and for much of the narrative, the concept of stasis is at the forefront. Even when Ginzburg is under suspicion of arrest but has not yet been arrested, she is confined to her house in Kazan or takes brief walks in circles around her neighborhood. This inability to move freely—or, more accurately, the mundane repetition of daily activities—contrasts the eastward, almost linear movement of the train carrying its special cargo. The competing concepts of movement and immobility characterize the life of a prisoner in Stalin’s Gulag. Prisoners must wait and wait in the prison cell until it is time to move, and they then move either to another cell, to trial, or to await an even worse fate.


Throughout Journey into the Whirlwind, Ginzburg uses food to emphasize narrative points and highlight moral themes. Ginzburg refuses the food her interrogators offer her under duress and refuses bread when she is locked in the punishment cell, demonstrating to her captors that the loss of her freedom does not mean she is without self-control. Elsewhere, Ginzburg uses gifts of food to depict generosity, such as when the merchants outside the train car thrust water, spring onions, and other foods into the prisoners’ hands. Perhaps the most notable appearance of food is near the book’s conclusion, when Ginzburg, having been subjected to bouts of forced as well as self-imposed starvation, finds herself working in the kitchen of the men’s camp at Kolyma. Now that she has a hand in food distribution, she is able to demonstrate her considerable compassion by sending a piece of bread out to the prisoner Yelshin, who, as her interrogator much earlier in the narrative, had taunted Ginzburg by offering a plate of ham and cheese sandwiches in exchange for her signed confession.